Axioms of Human Communication

Spending a nice coffee break.

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A central principle of modern communication theory states that human communication encompasses more than simply the words and phrases with which you choose to express yourself. Everything from your body language to the relationship between you and your audience defines the act of communicating. In the 1960s, the philosopher and communications theorist Paul Watzlawick established what he called five axioms of human communication that serve as a framework for studying human interaction.


Watzlawick's axioms of human communication were included in the 1967 book "Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes." This seminal work in communications theory was co-written with Janet Beavin-Bavelas and Don Jackson, two of Watzlawick's colleagues at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California.

No Choice

The first and most famous axiom of human communication is "one cannot not communicate." What this double negative means is that you have no choice in whether you do or don't communicate. Everything you say or do conveys some kind of message. Even if you do nothing, that sends a message of its own.

Context and Punctuation

Watzlawick said that words used in communication draw their meaning from the context of the relationship between speaker and listener. If you call someone a "loser," the word means one thing if the person is a close friend, but can mean an entirely different thing if it's a casual acquaintance. This represents the second axiom: the context defines the content. states that Watzlawick argued that communication is also defined by "punctuation," or the way people associate individual events within the flow of communication. Imagine that you are grilling a steak and your friend interrupts you to suggest that you turn the flame down. You respond angrily. Depending on how you, your friend or an observer "punctuate" the interaction, you can be seen as angry at the interruption itself or angry at the suggestion that you don't know what you're doing. Watzlawick's third axiom holds that the nature of the communication relationship depends on how the participants punctuate it.

Digital vs. Analogic

Communication has two parts, which Watzlawick referred to as "digital" and "analogic." Digital elements are things with concrete, fairly universally understood meanings, such as words or certain gestures that have literal translations. Telling someone, "Sit in that chair," for example, would be a digital message, as would saying, "He's short." Analogic elements, however, are merely representative or referential, and they're often non-verbal. Pointing to a chair as a cue to someone to sit down is analogic, as is using a hand gesture or facial expression to indicate that someone is short. Watzlawick's fourth axiom states that all messages are constructed of both digital and analogic elements.

Symmetrical vs. Complementary

The final axiom states that every communication transaction is either "symmetrical" or "complementary," depending on the power balance between the parties. In a symmetrical relationship, the people treat each other as equals. In a complementary relationship, they are unequal. They could be parent and child, boss and employee, senior and freshman, or even simply an aggressive person and a timid person. These relationships will determine the course of the communication.


Dr. T. Dean Thomlison writes in "Relationalizing Public Relations" that Watzlawick developed these axioms from observing face-to-face communication. However, the application of the axioms goes beyond direct interpersonal contact. Take a TV newscaster speaking to his audience. He doesn't have the option of not communicating; how his report is received depends on the audience's perception of their relationship to his message and how they punctuate his messages. The newscaster's communication has both verbal and non-verbal cues, and the communication is most certainly not symmetrical–the audience can't talk to him.