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Communication Ethics Literacy–Long Live the Radically Strange


As I wrap up the blog posts for this exploration of communication ethics, it seems appropriate to address the eternal question posed by every student throughout time: But how do I use this in real life?


By definition, communication ethics has a practical application in real world settings. Arnett, Harden-Fritz, and Bell (2009) situate communication ethics at the “creative juncture” of philosophy of communication and applied communication, “the recognition that we take a given philosophy of communication… and apply it in interaction with others” (p. 33). Thus, communication ethics can be described as pragmatic–it accepts that we must face what shows up, whether we like it or not, and that we must deal with the differences of others, the ever-changing communicative moment, and our own changing self. That’s about as practical as a theory gets.

Image courtesy of Ambro /

Image courtesy of Ambro /

While communication ethics privileges learning as its first principle, it also privileges difference and disagreement, stating clearly “that learning does not necessarily suggest agreement” (Arnett, Harden-Fritz, &  Bell, 2009, p. 209). Not only does it not require either party to change his/her position on the Good, it encourages each party in discourse to stand his/her communicative ground while simultaneously being willing to change the ground if the communicative moment moves her/himto do so. While this may seem straightforward–people are different, times change, and we change–its not always straight forward in practice. Returning to the theme of narrative, each communicative partner brings a narrative paradigm to the interaction, and this narrative is usually backgrounded, meaning, the parties may not be aware of their own narratives. Thus, while we may think that we are showing up, listening without demand, and standing our own ground, we may not even be fully aware of what our own ground is or what the Other is trying to communicate.

Image courtesy of Dan /

Image courtesy of Dan /

This is why Arnett et al. (2009) choose the metaphor of literacy when describing the practical application of communication ethics literacy in daily life. As with any form of literacy, there is a base level of knowledge that is required to qualify as literate. In reading, we recognize that a third grader has a level of literacy vastly different from that of a graduate student. Further, I can be highly literate in a certain subject area (Communication) but be functionally illiterate in another (HVAC repair).  So it is with communication ethics literacy. The foundation of this literacy is the ability to “[identify] the good in the interplay of self and Other and the particular historical moment, attending to what is protected and promoted” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 210); however, the degree to which we are able to accomplish this will vary based on our level of general communications literacy and the specific subject area, or context, of the communicative act. As is demonstrated in Arnett et al., the contexts of communication ethics are many: public discourse, interpersonal, intercultural, organizational, business/professional, health care, and more. Fluency in one context does not necessarily mean fluency in all contexts. There will always be room for improving our level of communication ethics literacy.


I’ve spent the last seven weeks or so nearly breaking my arm patting myself on the back for my high level of dialogic ethics literacy as we’ve proceeded through this course. I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter many types of differences from a young age and blessed to have a curious and open nature. Both/and has never been a problem for me. However, through the study of the various contexts of communication ethics, I can certainly see room for improvement in my own practice of communication ethics.

Image courtesy of Stoonn /

Image courtesy of Stoonn /

Arnett et al. (2009) provide a simple, yet compelling, example of communication ethics in every day life. A faculty member at a university complained to the president of the school that the stairwells of certain buildings were “filthy.” Rather than just forwarding the message to the cleaning staff, the president decided to investigate for himself what “filthy” looked like, recognizing that one person’s filthy might be another person’s clean. The president decided that the stairwells did indeed require a higher degree of cleanliness, only to get pushback from the cleaning staff indicating that with limited budgets and personnel, priority had to be given to certain areas over others. Should they skip cleaning classrooms to clean stairwells? (pp. 214-215).

Image courtesy of Iamnee /

Image courtesy of Iamnee /

I found this example meaningful on two levels. First, navigating difference means understanding that a concept that may seem to be “common sense” (remember: in postmodernity, there is no such thing as common sense), what “clean” means, can easily have a different meaning depending on the person and the context. Second, there will be Goods competing for attention that are beyond our awareness. To the professor and the president, it seemed that the Good of a clean stairwell should be a no-brainer to a cleaning crew; however, there were other Goods beyond their awareness at play that drove the priorities of the cleaning staff.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /

While I tend to be very open and tolerant in personal and public issues, the contexts of interpersonal, intercultural, and public discourse, I can see that in the world of work, especially when I am the boss (either as employer or manager), I tend to favor a narrative of “common sense” that doesn’t always allow for a dialogic negotiation of difference. My inquiry project, examining the communicative practices of a fictional organization, really shed light on my own tendency in high-stress or crisis situations to focus on the Good of doing what needs to get done over the Good of dialogic exchange. As I looked for examples of structured communicative practices in my inquiry project, I found myself siding with the Captain, a person who really didn’t invite a lot of dialogue. I found myself excusing him because, Hey, he’s dealing with life and death, there’s no time to sit and discuss everyone’s narrative and personal ground. I realize that I have this attitude when dealing with work-related tasks, and I experience frustration when those working for me who don’t approach tasks in the way I think they should be approached. While I’m of the school of “I don’t really care how you do it, just get it done,” this method is not always productive. As I considered how I might take what I’ve learned in this course into my personal “real world,” I realize I can improve my ethics literacy as a boss.


First, I want to consider that everyone that works for me has her own story, multiple stories for her personal life, her work life, and beyond. I must first identify my own narrative for the workplace, and recognize it as such, a story, not simply common sense. Then, I need to be open to the story that my employee(s) is bringing to the workplace, with full understanding that he may not be fully aware of his own narrative. Finally, as a leader, I need to craft a story of our work and our workplace that is shared by all of us. I imagine this as a Venn diagram of stories. We don’t all have to live in the same narrative, but we will be happier and more productive at work if we can at least have an overlap of a shared space for the story of our shared work.

(Arnett et al. 2009, p. 96)

(Arnett et al. 2009, p. 96)

Even in those areas where I feel more highly literate, I take away with me the need to remain aware. Listening, attentiveness, negotiation, the core of dialogic communication ethics, is a cyclical process. The Self, the Other, and the historical moment are temporal and temporary, subject to change at a moment’s notice. So in areas of family, community, friendships, work, client relationships, citizenship, I must be aware to resist the  “tendency to look only to find what we want or demand to see” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 218) and resist the urge to think that communicative practices that work today will work tomorrow.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

I’ll conclude with this quote from Lisbeth Lipari (2004):

In  my dialogic encounter with you, I will not only listen for your radical alterity but I will open and make a place for it. It means that I do not resort only to what is easy–what I already know, ow what we have in common. It means I that I listen for and make space for the difficult, the different, the radically strange. (p. 138)

Long live the radically strange! May we grow and prosper, in spite of, and because of, our differences.

Question: Where are you most literate in communication ethics? Where might you have room for improvement?


Arnett, R.C., Harden Fritz, J.M., & Bell, L.M. (2009). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference. Los Angeles, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Lipari, L. (2004). Listening for the Other: Ethical implications of the Buber-Levinas encounter. Communcation Theory, 14, 144-141.



  1. leapupchek says:

    This is a nice note upon which to celebrate a birthday! I appreciate the way you have taken us to a broader understanding of the concepts, provided a bigger picture that we must take into account, even as we improve the way we apply ethical concepts to our daily interpersonal communication events. Nice job. LP

  2. […] COMM 616: Communication Ethics Literacy–Long Live the Radically Strange […]

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