The analysis of interpersonal communication

Women Want is an American romantic comedy brought to the big screen in 2000, staring Helen Hunt and Mel Gibson. The story revolves around Nick Marshall (played by Mel Gibson), a Chicago advertising executive and ultimate alpha male personality and considered to be a chauvinist. He is considered highly skilled at selling what men want and seducing women. Although Nick thinks he is next in line for a big promotion, he is faced with new competition from Darcy McGuire (played by Helen Hunt), who is hired in the position Nick aspired to, to broaden the company’s general appeal to women. In a freak accident, Nick is electrocuted and develops the ability to hear the innermost thoughts of women. He subsequently uses that ability to advance his ideas vicariously through Helen Hunt; encouraging her as if the ideas were her own or even a collaboration of their two ideas. Nick also learns in the process, because of his new abilities, what women really think of him, which provides interesting moments of epiphany and clarity. All of this is played against the backdrop of Nick’s relationship with his teenage daughter and the consequences of him being an absent father for many of her formative years. Nick trumps Darcy for a significant campaign causing Darcy to lose her position. Just as bizarrely as Nick acquired his gift, he loses it. He explains what has transpired to Darcy and risks losing her; however, she is understanding and forgiving.

The characters that the analysis of interpersonal communication will be applied to are relational development as it relates to the initial stages of the relationship development between Nick and Darcy and self-disclosure. The primary source of analysis will be Nick and his relationships to the women in his life, as well as the development of his personal self through self-disclosure. The third variable of interpersonal communication to be examined as it relates to the movie and posited theory is personal space. As evidenced in the movie “What Women Want,” interpersonal communication and concepts of relational development, self-disclosure and personal space will be examined within the contextual framework of interpersonal communications theories.

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Interpersonal Communication

Uncertainty Reduction theory, introduced by Berger and Calabrese (1975) was posited as a means of predicting and explaining relational development or the lack of it between strangers. The theory explains how individuals aspire to reduce the uncertainties that exist between each other particularly during initial interactions as evidenced by self-disclosure. The theory posits that upon meeting each other, strangers move through a series of steps or checkpoints in order to diminish uncertainties about each other and develop an idea of whether one likes or dislikes the other person. The initial stage of this posited theory of relational development is characterized by behavioral norms and exchanges are frequently transactional and demographic (Berger & Calabrese, 1975; Griffin, 2009). As the interchange moves into the second phase, or personal phase, exploration begins to take place regarding beliefs and attitudes of the other individual. This most frequently occurs after there have been several interactions between the two individuals at the entry stage. Most often, one individual will probe the other in an effort to ascertain information regarding morals, values and personal issues. There is also purportedly an increase in emotional involvement as more personal disclosures are made (Berger & Calabrese, 1975). During the final stage of relational development, there is the exit, wherein former strangers make the determination as to whether they want to continue to develop the relationship, with any plans for the future being articulated. In the absence of mutual liking, either individual can opt not to pursue the relationship (Berger & Calabrese, 1975; Griffin, 2009).

The initial interactions between Darcy and Nick reflect the steps posited by the uncertainty reduction theory. During their first encounter when Darcy is introduced as the head of the advertising department, a position Nick knew he was poised to receive, there is an exploration of the uncertainties about the other. Although not verbally articulated, each of them nonverbally sum it each other up by way of expressed thought that only the audience can hear. Darcy asserts that ‘he doesn’t like me already’ upon introduction. Nick surmises speculations as to ‘why it’s necessary for a woman to appeal to other women’ when he is perfectly capable of executing that task as a man. As the relationship begins to transition through the initial stages, there is verbal exchange that transpires between the two as well as audience only exchange as Darcy is moving into her new office. Nick takes note of her decorative style but now because he has developed his new skill of being able to hear the thoughts of women, what Darcy thought were her own questions and assumptions posted about Nick, he can now hear. She thinks about his physical characteristics as interpersonal thoughts and because Nick can hear them, he laughs at the fact that they are ‘checking each other out’.

Self-disclosure has been defined as sharing information with someone which helps the other individual understand the sharer. “Self-disclosure is most revealing when the sharing is in the present and least revealing when it evidences information from the past” (Johnson, 1997, p. 33). The theory of social penetration posits that relational closeness progresses from superficial to intimate and the closeness develops through self-disclosure. The notion of closeness purportedly varies according to factors of reward or benefits, costs or vulnerability, satisfaction, and stability and security (Johnson, 1997). Moreover, some of the most prevalent characteristics of self-disclosure are that the story or the disclosure always represents the storyteller, stimulates feedback which is contingent upon the relevance and amount of self-disclosure, and reveal or unrevealing. It has been posited that as relational intimacy increases so does self-disclosure. Additionally, self-disclosure tends to be incremental, symmetrical, reciprocal, and has the ability to reduce tensions and uncertainties in a relationship (Johnson, 1997).

One of the climatic points of the movie evidences the final stages of the uncertainty response theory in that there is a decision made to continue the relationship after Nick confesses through self-disclosure his skill, how he used it to manipulate the campaign, and the feelings he now has for Darcy. She echoes his sentiment by being understanding and forgiving him for his indiscretion. They agree to continue the relationship, no longer as strangers, as evidenced by their intimate kiss.

Personal space as an interpersonal communication concept is representative of one of the nonverbal styles of communication and reportedly varies contingent upon demographic, cultural and socio-emotional characteristics (Baxter, 1970). Personal space may be defined as an invisible area that surrounds an individual which serves as a buffer or comfort zone during interpersonal interaction. One’s preferred distance for comfortable communication has societal, social and conversational intimacy determinants such as contact vs. non-contact, stranger vs. friend and business vs. casual (Hall, 1973). Within particular physical environments, guidelines regarding appropriate social norms and behavior regulate individual behavior during the course of social interaction. Spatial invasion or societal norm violations of personal space can occur when an individual undesirably or unexpectedly enters the personal space of another. Evidence of these violations, according to Felipe and Sommer (1966) can produce signs of discomfort and even flight from the situation.

Although there were several examples in the movie of issues regarding personal space, one of the most poignant was the interaction between Nick and his daughter. There were figurative as well as literal personal space violations that transpired over the course of the evolution of their relationship. For example, because of the distance in their personal relationship, Nick felt a certain level of personal space violation when his daughter, Alex came to stay with him in his Chicago apartment. Although Nick verbally expressed a desire to be there for his daughter, he also manifested tendencies toward space violation particularly when Alex and her boyfriend were in his apartment (making out).

A second personal space violation between Alex and Nick occurred when Alex was dumped by her boyfriend at the prom. Although she invited her father to ‘rescue’ her while she was in the bathroom crying, she protested when he wanted to see her in the stall. She willingly invited him into the girls bathroom, which for many would be a societal violation of personal space; however, she reasserted the need for personal space when he attempted to enter the stall she was in.


As evidenced by the aforementioned the interpersonal communication characteristics of relational development, self-disclosure and personal space have been examined as they relate to the movie “What Women Want.” Although the movie was a romantic comedy, the interactions between males and females and the use of humor provide some insight into human relations. The uncertainties that exist upon initial meeting as evidenced particularly by the relationship between Nick and Darcy, and articulated by the uncertainty response theory bespeak the initial impressions and assumptions made when strangers meet. The power of first impressions can truly determine if a relationship will ensue and both parties can participate in the determination of that relationship. Secondly, self-disclosure is a powerful interpersonal communication tool and reveals the most about the individual only in as much as the individual is willing to personally share in the present. Lastly, personal space in interpersonal communication is a societal determinant that provides general guidelines as to how communication between individuals should transpire. It is important to note, however, that rules regarding personal space can and do fluctuate and are contingent about the situational variables that can and do affect it.


Baxter, J. (1970). Interpersonal spacing in natural settings. Sociometry, 33, 444-456.

Berger, C., & Calabrese, R. (1975). Some exploration in initial interaction and beyond: toward a development theory of communication. Human Communication Research, 1, 99-112.

Felipe, N., & Sommer, R. (1966). Invasions of personal space. Social Problems, 14, 206-

Griffin, E. (2009). A first look at communication theory. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hall, E. (1973). The silent language. Garden City: Anchor Press.

Johnson, D. Reaching out: interpersonal effectiveness and self-actualization. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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