Some Communication scholars believe that we cannot, and should not, try to study communication with an approach that does not work as accurately as it does in the physical sciences (Winch). These scholars believed empirical laws theories could not explain communication effectively so they began developing theories around the idea of rules rather than laws. By now you are aware that we all follow rules that guide our communication. If we didn’t, human communication would be total chaos and confusion. The Human Rules Paradigm approaches communication from the perspective that we follow shared rules of communication, not strict laws (Shimanoff). While Human Rules theories share similar assumptions with empirical laws, they promote a more flexible approach to communication by suggesting that we follow general rules of communication rather than absolute laws that apply 100% of the time to our interactions.
The Difference Between Rules and Laws
There is an old saying, “rules are meant to be broken.” This simple statement highlights the fundamental difference between empirical laws and human rules approaches to communication. If you break a law in the physical world there is always a consequence. For example, no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. A car accident is often a disastrous example of an attempt to break this law. However, if you break a rule, it may not have the same consequences as breaking a law. For example, your parents may have set a curfew for you when you were younger. Imagine you were on your way home at night but stopped to help a friend change a flat tire. Your parents may choose to not punish you after you explain to them the reason you violated the rule.
Those who approach communication using human rules theories believe that communication rules are created by people, and are therefore always open to change. Put another way, empirical laws theories seek absolute “Truth” that we can discover through careful observation and testing. Human rules theories see “truth” as subjective and created by humans, not set by the universe in which we live.
Rules are dynamic, whereas laws are not. Rules are contextually and culturally dependent and change as we change. Take for example Social Exchange Theory, which theorizes that people participate in relationships when there is a fair exchange of costs and rewards (Roloff; Walster, Walster & Berscheid). When the rules of exchange are violated, participants may choose to terminate the relationship. For example, you’ve likely had a friend who began dating a new boyfriend or girlfriend. You probably realized quite quickly that your friend suddenly, “did not have time for you anymore.” If you were upset over this, you were most likely upset that your friend violated the rules of social exchange; in this case the exchange was time spent together. In this example, you may feel like the change in relationship means you not having your needs met by your friend, while they are likely getting their needs met by the new relationship. Thus, a violation of social exchange has occurred.
Using human rules theories we are still able to predict how people might communicate, much like empirical laws theories. However, unlike empirical laws theories, rules are bound by context and not universal to all situations. For example, we predict that most people abide by posted speed limits on roadways. While we know that there are always exceptions to this (sometimes we are the exception!), we can predict a certain type of driving experience based on rules. Not all places approach speed limits from this perspective.
One of our exchange students came to class one day extremely upset. When asked what was wrong, the student stated he had received a speeding ticket. To this student, the speeding ticket made no sense at all. Why? In the U.S. we approach speed limits as a maximum speed, and risk a ticket when we exceed it. It’s a law. However, this student stated that in his country, speed limits are considered guidelines for how fast to drive. The student went on to explain that police officers in his country are not interested in determining if people accidentally or purposefully drive above the posted speed limit. Instead, they let people make their own decisions regarding the guidelines of the posted speed limits. In this example, the U.S. approach to speed limits is one of law; break the law and there are consequences. The student’s country approached speed limits from a rules perspective; there is flexibility to interpret and act according to the interpretation of the rules based on the current driving conditions, or context.
Think of rules you choose to follow or break every day. Sitting in a classroom, taking notes, listening to your instructor, and doing homework are all “rules” of how to communicate being a student. However, no one is forcing you to follow these rules. You can choose to follow them or not. If you choose to follow them, you probably do so for a variety of reasons. Each rule we choose to follow is a choice. As with all things, there are outcomes as a result of our choices, but unlike empirical laws theories, human rules theories suggest that our experiences are socially constructed in ways that make it easier to organize experience into collectives of general rules that we follow. That way, we are not overly surprised when our interactions do not produce predicted outcomes 100% of the time.
One of the primary strengths of human rules theories is that they account for choice in communication behaviors. They suggest that we are not controlled by external laws when it comes to our communication. Instead, we develop rules to help facilitate and understand our interactions, while at the same time not being bound to abide by these rules at all times (remember, rules are sometimes meant to be broken). Thus, we can take comfort in following rules of communication to guide our interactions, but also know that we have flexibility to “play” with the rules because they are dynamic and contextual.
The primary criticism with human rules theories is that they cannot fully predict behavior or outcomes. However, as of now all theories fail to do this when applied to human communication. Another criticism of human rules theories is that they are culturally and contextually bound. So, when we develop theories about something like communication anxiety as it relates to public speaking, we do so under the framework of our cultural perspective. These same theories often do not apply to other cultures.