Effect of Verbal Aggressiveness on the Perceived Importance of Secondary Goals in Messages

Article excerpt

In everyday communication, speakers pursue both primary and secondary goals. Primary goals have to do with the specific purpose of talk. They include such goals as obtaining information, providing feedback, or making a request. Secondary goals, in contrast, are more general. They include goals to make a good impression, maintain a positive relationship with the hearer, be supportive, and act in accordance with one's principles (Berger, 1997; Brown & Levinson, 1987; Dillard, Segrin, & Harden, 1989). Persons often design messages to realize primary and secondary goals simultaneously.

Although the ability to design messages that accomplish multiple goals is an important part of social competence, the cognitive processes that influence whether a secondary goal will be pursued in a message are not well understood. The probability of pursuing secondary goals in message design is likely influenced by both situational and dispositional factors. With respect to situational influences, cognitive models propose that speakers rely upon implicit rules that connect cognitive representations of particular types of situations to the action of pursuing a secondary goal (Meyer, 1997; Wilson, 1990, 1995). Such rules might specify that, when opening a gift, one should protect the giver's feelings or that, in a job interview, one should make a good impression. Whether a person pursues a secondary goal is also likely influenced, however, by personality-related factors. Research conducted from a constructivist perspective indicates, for example, that persons higher in cognitive differentiation and/or cognitive abstractness are more likely to pursue multiple goals in messages (Applegate & Woods, 1991; Burleson & Caplan, 1998).Jordan and Roloff (1997) found that high self-monitors are relatively more concerned with an impression-management goal. The two studies reported below are concerned with the relationship between another communication-relevant personality trait-verbal aggressiveness-and the perceived importance of secondary goals.


Over the past two decades, an extensive research program on verbal aggressiveness (VA) has been undertaken by Infante and his colleagues (for a review, see Infante & Rancer, 1996). Infante and Wigley (1986) defined VA as a personality disposition that "predisposes persons to attack the self-concepts of other people instead of, or in addition to, their positions on topics of communication" (p. 61). Verbally aggressive messages may denigrate the other's character, abilities, or physical appearance. Verbal aggression also includes teasing or ridiculing the person and the use of profanity. Although the effort to put down the other is often verbal, it may also be nonverbal, involving "facial expressions, gestures, and eye behaviors that attack his or her self-concept" (Sabourin, Infante & Rudd, 1993, p. 247). According to Infante and Wigley, such messages are produced "in order to make the person feel less favorably about self" (p. 61). Verbal aggressiveness has been shown to have negative effects in numerous communication contexts. VA is associated with lower marital satisfaction (Payne & Sabourin, 1990; Sabourin et al., 1993) and can escalate into physical violence (Infante, Chandler & Rudd, 1989). In organizational environments, verbal aggressiveness in supervisors has a negative impact on superior-subordinate communication (Infante & Gorden, 1991). The use of verbal aggression in the management of disagreements is associated with negative outcomes (Infante, Myers, & Burkel, 1994). VA is negatively correlated with cognitive complexity and social desirability scores (Infante & Wigley, 1986).

Although the reasons for verbal aggression are not fully understood, Infante and Wigley (1986) suggested that such messages might result from temporary factors such as frustration ("having a goal blocked by someone, having to deal with a disdained other"), and/or from more enduring, dispositional factors such as social learning, psychopathological reasons, or an argumentative skill deficiency (p. …


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