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In my last blog I wrote about the purposes of human communication and suggested that social closeness is essential for effective communication. Janice Light, in her 1988 model, described social etiquette as the ability to conform to social conventions of politeness and one of the key purposes of communication.
I believe that social etiquette has been overlooked when working with people with communication difficulties. Social etiquette may be seen as ‘the cherry on the cake’ and not really necessary, when getting a basic message across is so difficult for someone with a communication disability. However, the way in which someone greets you when they meet you, how they show interest in what you are saying or how they say goodbye, all effect how you respond to them and can influence your subsequent interactions with them.
Moreover social etiquette can often be done non-verbally – a smile to show you are pleased to see someone, a nod of agreement to show you are following what they say, a handshake or ‘thanks for coming’/’good to talk to you’ when you say goodbye. These are all basic and almost universal communication symbols.


Social etiquette is not just a communication add-on that can be missed out because it’s too much effort.  It can be crucial in developing and maintaining relationships.

For those of us who work or live with people with communication difficulties it’s important that we consider the purposes of human communication. As long ago as 1988 Janice Light suggested that there were 4 main purposes and we believe this is still a good model to bear in mind.
(Light, J. (1988) “Interaction involving individuals using augmentative and alternative communication systems: state of the art and future directions”, AAC, 4, 2, 66-82)

She described these purposes as:
1. Expression of needs and want – to regulate the behaviour of another person to get something
2. Information transfer – to convey information from person A to person B
3. Social closeness – to establish and maintain relationships with others
4. Social etiquette – to conform to the social conventions of politeness

We believe that there is a tendency to concentrate too much on 1 and 2 and not enough on 3 and 4. If we dwell on needs and wants, which is very often the focus of communication aids, there is a danger that the person with the communication difficulty will find it hard to establish and/or maintain relationships.

In 1998 John Locke wrote that ‘small talk’ is crucial for the construction and enjoyment of relationships with others and that by revealing thoughts we elicit reactions from others. This is what we regard as social closeness or engagement. ‘Small talk’ or ‘social closeness’ may sound irrelevant but it is one of the most important purposes of human communication.
(Locke, J. L. (1998) “Where did all the gossip go? Casual conversation in the Information Age”, American Speech Language Hearing Association, 40, 3, 26-31)


Talking Mats, which uses attractive and motivating communication symbols, is one way to help people to express their thoughts and achieve ‘social closeness’, whether they are a 4 year old boy with Downs Syndrome or a 95 year old woman with dementia.
Talking Mats is one of the few resources that is versatile enough to be used as a stroke communication resource, for consulting children and young people or to help with communication difficulties and dementia, to name but three.
It allows people to express their thoughts in a visual way which in turn can elicit a response from their communication partner. Moreover, solid research has shown that Talking Mats increases engagement in people with different communication difficulties.

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