The Relevance of Communication Studies During a Pandemic

Communication Studies, as a major, is largely misunderstood by non-Communication Studies majors. The word “communications” implies media and technology, but there's a reason there's no 's' at the end of communication. The major is not Franklin’s version of Grady’s Public Relations, nor is it Mass Communications. Majors don’t explicitly learn about performing social media analytics or how a company should design an advertisement for a new product. Instead, Communication Studies sits in the “soft skills” social science category that covers everything from rhetoric to basic human interactions that are influenced by complex societal structures—and more.

Students who major in Communication Studies can go on to do jobs that are, on the surface, directly linked to other majors. I, for example, am doing a PR internship for a local nonprofit—and yet I’ve never felt majorly unprepared for any task.

COVID-19 has impacted us all, of course, but it’s been especially interesting to be in this major and to analyze how a pandemic is influencing our communication habits in real time. From Zoom happy hours to increased physical distancing, our nonverbals in particular have drastically changed during this time and may never go back to what they were before.

girl with school supplies and a mask on Photo by Kelly Sikkema from Unsplash Last semester, I took Nonverbal Communication in Close Relationships, which was a bit ironic as we all wore masks and blocked off half of our faces. As we learned, of course, nonverbals are more than just facial expressions, but they’re still a big indicator of overall emotion. This is difficult in particular for teachers and professors who are trying to teach to people who look like robots—any nonverbal feedback they’d usually get during an in-person lecture pre-COVID has been muted by masks, distance, and technology.

The other day in class, my professor gave me one of the best compliments I’ve gotten in a long time. I was in an upper-level Communication Studies course with the same professor that taught Nonverbal Communication, and she made the comment that I smiled with my eyes. Last semester, we talked about how one of the distinctions between genuine smiles and fake smiles involves eyes that crinkle—and afterwards I couldn’t figure out why at first that compliment made me so happy.

I realized later that I was pleased that she could tell when I was smiling because communication is so inhibited right now, so the fact that people can tell when I’m expressing joy is really important. Knowing what other people are feeling helps to foster human connection, something I miss more than being able to go to the grocery store without a mask.

Of course, other Communication Studies classes I’ve taken over the years have impacted my personal perspective on COVID-19 as well. Intercultural Communication in particular gives a nuanced view surrounding the different responses to COVID-19 and public health protocols worldwide. The use of traditional wartime rhetoric against a pandemic—an unseen global enemy—is particularly linked to this political moment in time. Heightened tensions between roommates and family members during stay at home orders were understood and eased through concepts learned in my Communication in Close Relationships class.

Communication Studies is a “soft skills” major, sure—but it’s more than that. The interpersonal side of the major is based on science and research that impacts everyone, and the rhetorical side goes back to Aristotle but continues to be relevant today. In today's world, clear communication is more important than ever, but our audience has globalized and diversified. People trained in effective communication are going to be more valuable than ever—don't count the “soft skills” majors out of this one just yet.