Interpersonal Communication

Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck. Encyclopedia of Political Communication. Editor: Lynda Lee Kaid & Christina Holtz-Bacha. Volume 1, Sage Publications, 2008.

Interpersonal political communication refers to episodes of political conversation and discussion that take place between the non-elite members of a political community. Often conceived as a basic form of political participation, it includes activities like conveying and receiving information on political matters, exchanging arguments about how they are to be evaluated, or attempting to convince others of certain points of view. In contrast to mass communication, interpersonal communication is not one-sided but bidirectional. At least in principle it provides all participants with similar chances to control its course. Instant feedback and constant readjustments of the flow of communication are always possible. The structure of its messages is complex and multidimensional, as it involves not only exchanges of verbal statements but also nonverbal metacommunication that may influence how explicit messages are processed. It has a large capacity to convey socioemotional content. Thus, on the whole interpersonal communication appears a richer form of conveying and receiving political messages than mass communication.

On the other hand, the range of coverage of any interpersonally conveyed message is far smaller. Interpersonal communication is decentralized and fragmented, and any particular content can be received by only a small number of addressees. In its capacity to expose large numbers of people at the same time to identical messages it is by far surpassed by the mass media. While modern mass media, especially the audiovisual media, address a politically indistinct audience that is large and socially heterogeneous, interpersonal communication tends to follow lines of social and political cleavage, operating mostly within rather than across structural segments of society. If mass communication functions as the great equalizer of modern society, interpersonal communication rather mirrors its pluralism and diversity. However, to the degree that mass communication provides interpersonal communication with its thematic agenda and frames for dealing with it, some standardization takes place there as well.

The Study of Interpersonal Political Communication

While mass communication is a relatively young phenomenon, dating back just a few centuries, interpersonal communication is as old as mankind itself. Using a shared language to send and receive meaningful symbols in order to orient themselves with regard to one another, as well as to co-orient themselves with regard to their physical and social environments, can be seen as an essential component of humans’ nature from its beginning. While the advent and expansion of mass communication is one of the key features of the processes of socioeconomic modernization, it has supplemented but not replaced interpersonal communication as a crucial instrument of exchanging information, including information on politics.

Nonetheless, as far as political communication is concerned, by far the largest share of scientific attention so far has concentrated on mass communication. Only a relatively small body of research has been accumulated with regard to interpersonal political communication, and even smaller is the stock of studies that analyze both interpersonal communication and mass communication simultaneously. With few exceptions, a clear division of labor characterizes the relationship between scholarly interest in these two forms of political communication, and it is complemented by a theoretical divide. Mostly, research into interpersonal political communication works with different concepts and theories than inquiries into the mass media’s political roles and attributes.

In an age in which new information and communication technologies tend to increase individuals’ capacity to convey messages to larger numbers of other people, while narrowcasting and demand-driven provision of content replace broadcasting and its supply-driven logic in the realm of media, drawing the boundary between interpersonal communication and mass communication appears not so easy. Yet, the paradigmatic form of interpersonal communication remains communication occurring in direct interactions among a small number of individuals. Although often restricted to word-of-mouth communication in face-to-face interaction, in present times it seems more appropriate to include also personal exchanges that are technically mediated, for instance by telephone or e-mail, in the notion of interpersonal communication.

Such communication can be public or private. It can take place in the course of encounters between strangers, when no control can be exerted over the range of participants that share in the dialogue. Or it can occur between persons who are well acquainted if not intimately related to one another, in secluded spaces that are protected physically or at least through norms of civility against anyone entering who is not explicitly invited.

Public Interpersonal Communication

Advocates of more populist rather than strictly elitist conceptions of democracy often emphasize the crucial importance of open political debate in public situations that involves persons who are personally unrelated to one another. Examples are town hall meetings or other kinds of political gatherings as well as, in more recent times, Internet forums and chat rooms where concerned citizens assemble, personally or virtually, to exchange their views on matters of common interest. However, such activities are very demanding in terms of civic skills and tend to be rather unpleasant experiences for many of those taking part. Almost by necessity, communication under such circumstances is emphasizing conflict rather than consensus, and thus may create a fair amount of discomfort if not outright stress among its participants. It needs courage and a certain confidence in one’s ability to prevail in verbal disputes to take a position in plain view of the public. Accordingly, fear of isolation as well as uncertainty about one’s argumentative competence have been identified as factors that impede people’s willingness to take part in such activities.

Expressing political standpoints is sometimes likened to religious practices—something that due to cultural norms is considered an activity that belongs to the private rather than to the public realm. On the other hand, extended experiences with political discussion in the private realm, especially if it implies exchanges with many associates who hold diverse political views, may spill over into the public sphere, nourishing people’s readiness to speak out in public. On the whole, public interpersonal communication appears as a fairly demanding form of political participation. Accordingly, it is rather a phenomenon of a small minority of political activists. In most societies, under ordinary circumstances only few citizens find their way to such events, and even smaller proportions actively engage in their proceedings.

It is difficult to analyse such occurrences in natural settings, and accordingly few attempts have been made so far. An important exception is studies related to recent democratic experiments of plebiscitary institutional reform like “consensus conferences,” “citizen juries” or “planning cells.” The most extensive and far-reaching, but at the same time also most intensely scientifically monitored of these measures are the socalled deliberative polls, invented by James Fishkin (1997). They start like any ordinary survey of a random sample of individuals from some population, for instance, the electorate of a country, on some political issue. But then a huge investment is made to assemble the respondents of this survey at a central location, to expose them to a huge dose of carefully prepared information on the issue in question, and to let them debate the issue extensively in moderated group discussions. Eventually, they are surveyed again to see how their opinions have changed during this intense process of political information and deliberation.

Within this elaborate procedure, the purpose of interpersonal communication between strangers—in this particular case a random sample from a large population—is to contribute to more substantial, better-considered opinions on complex political issues. This is seen as a practical antidote against the notorious shallowness of public opinion as it finds expression and visibility through media polls, which are usually just registering superficial top-of-the-head statements. The resulting opinions of higher quality among the members of a random sample are assumed to qualify as a proxy for the opinions of an ideal, well-informed, and intensely deliberating electorate that in reality does not exist. As such, they may, according to Fishkin, legitimately play a prescriptive role in elites’ political decision making.

These and other studies on organized public deliberation suggest that such events—even when proceeding online and not face to face—can create a sense of community identity and social trust, and change their participants’ attitudes, increase their internal efficacy, raise their interest in and knowledge about political issues, make them on the whole better capable to discuss political issues, and eventually also more likely to participate in other forms of political activity. They thus seem to attest to the political potential of ordinary citizens and justify a stronger appreciation of their voice in the political process of a less elitist, and more plebiscitarian version of democracy.

Private Interpersonal Communication

Most research on interpersonal political communication has concentrated on private settings, concerning persons that together form more or less stable webs of social interaction. Such communication takes place within citizens’ immediate life-world, in various contexts by which people get into touch with each other. People’s homes are the locus where such communication takes place most often, and it tends to be spontaneous, unstructured, and intermingling with exchanges about other topics of a more mundane character.

Measuring everyday political discussion between ordinary citizens is notoriously difficult. Few studies have so far attempted to gain insights into the functioning of interpersonal communication by directly observing political talks. A notable exception is William Gamson’s (1992) study of political discussions among working-class Americans, aimed to demonstrate how common people are able to make sense of complicated issues through political conversation, drawing on media frames, personal experiences, and folk wisdom.

Most of what we know about interpersonal political communication comes from survey research and is derived from respondents’ reports on their communication habits and either respondents’ perceptions or direct measurements of their political talkmates’ attributes. Early research, in particular the seminal studies of Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues at Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, conceived of interpersonal political communication as a matter of functionally diffuse primary groups, tightly integrated by lasting emotional ties of mutual attraction, sympathy, esteem, and trust, and characterized by strong norms, advocating conformity to group standards and prevailing opinions. More recently, the view of political conversations as an exclusive matter of cohesive social groups, densely interwoven by strong ties, has been replaced by a more open perspective, centered around the notion of social networks. It recognizes that such communication may also extend to weak ties, connecting individuals to mere acquaintances and not necessarily involving intimate relationships and positive emotions. Theoretically, such secondary relationships can be seen as an intermediate form of interpersonal communication that bridges the strictly private and the strictly public realms.

Doubtless, processes of socioeconomic modernization and the ensuing trends toward social differentiation and individualization as well as rising social and geographic mobility have increased the odds for citizens’ personal environments to include more such functionally specific linkages. Nonetheless, even today primary relationships are more important than secondary relationships. Data from different advanced industrial societies clearly show that most interpersonal political communication still takes place between spouses, relatives, and friends. Hence, political talkmates are mostly tied to one another by intimate relationships. However, some political discussion also occurs between neighbors, at the workplace, or in voluntary associations. Such secondary relationships’ share is larger in more extended networks. But discussion networks that consist exclusively of mere acquaintances are extremely rare. It seems that political talks within primary relationships are a necessary precondition for discussion activities that extend beyond the realm of intimate relationships.

Background and Intensity of Private Political Communication

Compared with other forms of political participation, political talk appears as a distinct mode of involvement. Dimensional analyses reveal how it is set apart from “vertical” activities that are aimed at influencing government by its “horizontal” logic that concerns citizens’ interactions with one another rather than with elites.

Cross-National Differences

In cross-national perspective, the intensity with which people discuss political matters varies widely (see Table 1). Many European and North American countries’ citizens are very active, with 40% or more claiming to engage in political conversations with high regularity, and large majorities doing so at least occasionally. At the same time, there are also countries where large shares of the population—up to one out of five citizens in some cases—never talk about politics at all. A North/South divide exists in Western Europe, with citizens of the Mediterranean countries being least talkative with regard to politics. Latin Americans also tend to display somewhat lower rates of political discussion, at least as far as conversations with friends—the only kind of political discussion for which comparable data are available on a global scale. In several Asian countries, rates appear also rather low. In North Africa and the Mideast, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, talking politics appears as a minority phenomenon, at least among friends.

Table 1 Political Discussions Worldwide
Discuss Politics Discuss Politics With Friends
Several days a week or daily Never Frequently Never
Western Europe Belgium 28.6 19.4 14.7 35.6
Finland 41.1 4.3 6.6 27.5
France 37.1 11.8 11.4 35.4
Germany 47.0 3.9 24.0 15.3
Greece 19.1 15.0 21.3 21.4
Italy 30.7 20.9 12.9 32.4
Netherlands 38.4 10.5 15.9 19.8
Norway 40.4 3.8
Portugal 31.9 14.1 14.4 45.3
Spain 28.3 22.6 12.1 43.4
Switzerland 47.3 4.4
U.K. 28.8 21.2 9.1 53.9
Eastern Europe Belarus 18.1 20.1
Bulgaria 17.4 24.6
Czech Republic 35.8 9.5 21.7 12.5
Hungary 36.5 12.2 11.3 43.2
Poland 35.0 12.1 21.5 25.2
Romania 10.8 37.7
Russia 20.2 25.4
Ukraine 19.4 21.9
North America Canada 11.0 39.3
United States 16.3 26.0
Latin America Argentina 18.5 48.8
Chile 13.1 43.4
Mexico 15.2 42.1
Venezuela 15.6 43.9
North Africa/Middle East Algeria 8.8 26.3
Egypt 7.5 42.6
Iran 16.8 30.6
Israel 44.2 9.4 37.1 14.0
Saudi Arabia 21.2 28.1
Turkey 12.1 46.2
Sub-Saharan Africa Nigeria 17.1 25.7
South Africa 10.2 46.3
Uganda 19.1 20.2
Zimbabwe 9.7 52.2


Discuss Politics Discuss Politics With Friends
Several days a week or daily Never Frequently Never
Sources: European Social Survey 2002; World Values Survey 1999/2000.
Asia China 24.4 30.0
India 16.5 42.2
Indonesia 10.5 31.5
Japan 7.4 35.5
Pakistan 9.3 43.1
Philippines 6.6 23.4
Singapore 4.3 43.5

Longitudinal studies reveal that such patterns of cross-national differences are very stable. A crucial institutional prerequisite of interpersonal political communication is the freedom of expression. This basic right is nowadays guaranteed by nearly all constitutions worldwide. According to a recent comprehensive content analysis, it is explicitly included in 87.5% of 160 surveyed constitutions from all over the world—far more than make mention of the freedom of the press. Nonetheless, it is clear that in many states this right exists on paper but not in practice. Feeling free to express one’s thoughts, however, is an important facilitator of political conversation. Even when this basic right is guaranteed, heritages of authoritarian rule, deeply ingrained in citizens’ collective memories, may curb their readiness to engage in open political exchange. Other differences between democracies also impinge on their citizens’ engagement in political talks. For instance, political diversity seems to breed discussion, as it appears more intense among citizens of countries that are ideologically more heterogeneous.

Certain situational factors also stimulate or depress citizens’ readiness to take part in interpersonal communication about politics. During dramatic periods of system change, such as processes of democratization, citizens develop a high need for orientation, which may increase their motivation to engage in political talks. But the ordinary ebb and flow of democratic politics also makes itself felt. For instance, election campaigns have been found to stimulate political conversations among voters.

Inter-Individual Differences

While differences between political systems certainly go a long way to explaining their citizens’ general habits of political conversation, individual attributes make for important variations within countries. Citizens’ likelihood to be active discussants has been found to depend on a number of personal characteristics, most notably their ability, motivation, and opportunity, as well as civic integration and political identification.

While evidence is mixed with regard to the importance of socioeconomic resources such as income, there is no doubt that people’s cognitive resources are a crucial prerequisite of interpersonal communication. Their general intelligence and levels of education, but also more specifically their political knowledge, understanding, and awareness, increase their odds for engaging in political conversion. Persons who are generally more involved with public affairs, through intense interest in politics, partisanship, or strong ideological commitments, are also more likely to discuss political matters. Even when controlling for other factors, gender often appears as an important predictor as well, with males discussing politics more intensely than females, perhaps reflecting tradition role conceptions.

In addition, citizens’ participation in extended social networks of interaction seems to stimulate the exchange of political content, as does their involvement in voluntary associations and their general trust in others. Politically, intense discussants tend to deviate from the political mainstream. Cross-national research found that supporters of minority parties as well as persons who are ideologically more extreme engage more readily in political discussion than adherents of the governing majority and ideological moderates.

Homogeneity and Heterogeneity In Private Political Communication

Citizens are usually well oriented about their associates’ political positions, although cross-national differences cannot be overlooked. Where discussion activities are on the whole less intense, citizens typically are also more uncertain about where their talkmates stand politically. In all countries, spouses are particularly well informed about each other’s political leanings. Contexts that nurture secondary relationships, like neighborhoods, workplaces, or voluntary organizations, are less conducive to learning about other people’s political views.

Awareness of other persons’ political preferences must not necessarily reflect reception of explicit statements about voting intentions or similarly clear-cut messages. Rather, inference processes certainly play an important role, with individuals drawing conclusions on their discussants’ political identities from casual statements on specific topics. To some degree, impressions of others’ political standpoints are also vulnerable to projection. People tend to attribute their own preferences on their communication partners. Such attributions are sometimes erroneous. Hence, relying on people’s perceptions of each other implies a risk of overestimating the actual extent of political homophily within discussant networks. In addition, people’s assessments of their associates’ political leanings are also responsive to the general political climates of the wider sociospacial contexts within which their interactions take place.

Notwithstanding, political conversations are typically characterized by a considerable degree of homogeneity. Socioeconomic modernization has so far gradually, but not yet fundamentally, altered the basic rule that “like talks to like.” Hence, interpersonal political communication more often than not occurs between like-minded souls and consists of exchanges of mutually agreeable political messages. To some degree, concordance between individuals who engage in political communication with each other is the consequence of deliberate choice and selective attention. Interpersonal communication is a means to reassure one’s own identity by exposing oneself to affirming information. Hence, individuals tend to construct personal networks of like-minded associates. When successful, they will thus create for themselves a tight cocoon of mutual political confirmation in which the likelihood of being exposed to dissenting voices is negligible.

However, for several reasons it is unlikely that many citizens indeed find themselves in such circumstances. First of all, not all kinds of relationships are similarly controllable by individuals. One cannot choose one’s relatives, and few people will find politics important enough to move to another neighbourhood or change their workplace because it exposes them to discordant political communication. According to several studies, among coworkers the odds are particularly high that conversations entail experiences of dissent and challenge. In contrast, chosen relationships like those between spouses and friends are on average very homogeneous.

In addition, most people are not political animals to such an extent that they let political motives entirely dominate their choices of interaction partners. Selecting associates according to other criteria may thwart citizens’ control over the kind of messages they receive when discussing political matters with these people. Often they may not even bother to check where others stand politically before engaging in regular interactions.

Last, even when undertaking a determined attempt to construct a network of politically like-minded souls, people may find it difficult if not impossible to attain this goal. Choices of interaction partners are constrained by availability and the supply of potential discussants with specific political preferences is a function of the distribution of such positions within one’s sociospatial context. In regions that are dominated by one party, adherents of other parties have a hard time getting in touch with congenial talkmates, and they find it close to impossible to engage exclusively in political exchanges with politically similar associates. Hence, sooner or later they find their own opinions challenged during political talks. In multiparty systems, at least if they are not segregated regionally, this mechanism implies a structural disadvantage for smaller parties.

For many years, research on interpersonal political communication has emphasized its homogeneity, to the point that it has been identified as a major force of the status quo in politics, contributing to the conservation of existing structures of political cleavage. More recently, an increasing theoretical interest in the notion of deliberative democracy has spurred concern for phenomena of network heterogeneity and its sustenance. This research accords a special role to open networks of lower density. Within such rather loose structures, weak ties fulfil an important function as bridges to other networks, serving as channels through which opinion diversity may find its way into political conversation, creating, and sustaining experiences of political disagreement.

Effects of Interpersonal Communication

That talkmates more often than not are politically congenial to some degree reflects processes of selection. However, political conversations are also powerful sources of political persuasion, even if they take place in secondary relationships. Hence, similarity between discussants is often also the result of one person having converted another to her own point of view or even voting preference. In recent years, the scope of research into the political consequences of private interpersonal communication has been expanded beyond this narrowly election-related perspective to include also more fundamental aspects of citizenship, such as citizens’ engagement with politics and their ability to cope with political diversity—a crucially important theme, as the capacity for peaceful accommodation of political differences is essential for any democratic system of government.

Effects on Electoral Behavior

The seminal Columbia studies saw interpersonal influence as a mighty force that was responsible for the tendency of election results to reflect societal lines of cleavage. According to Lazarsfeld and his colleagues, political discussion intensifies during campaign periods. As it mainly takes place within the confines of socially and politically homogeneous groups, it reminds people of who they are politically and what they accordingly ought to do on Election Day. Thus, being exposed to one’s associates’ political views during political conversations activates citizens’ latent predispositions that then guide their electoral behavior.

Numerous studies provide ample evidence that both voters’ political attitudes and their political choices vary in accordance to the frequency with which they engage in political conversations and whom they talk to. While political activation through intense talks to associates with concordant views indeed appears as the more frequent outcome of interpersonal political communication in election times, conversion is also possible, although far less easily attained. While voters seem to be eager to follow their latent inclinations if they get exposed to justifications for doing so when discussing politics, messages that challenge their predispositions encounter resistance. However, if such contestations become strong enough, voters’ sturdiness can be softened and eventually broken. On the whole, however, as concordant information is encountered more often and digested more readily, while exposure to discordant messages occurs more rarely, and leads less quickly to these messages’ acceptance, the aggregate outcome of interpersonal communication at elections indeed tends to reflect and sustain the political status quo.

However, if predispositions are weak, conversion through political talks is facilitated. This implies that the total impact of interpersonal communication as a mover of public opinion tends to grow in the long run, as processes of dealignment erode voters’ perceptional screens for exposure to and processing of messages from interpersonal (and other) communication. Conversions during political discussions appear also more likely in cases of voters who are not political experts and are little interested in politics. In addition, being trusted makes discussants more influential. At the same time, it is clear that interpersonal influence is stronger in primary relationships, although by no means restricted to them.

Effects on Democratic Citizenship

Interpersonal political communication provides not only guidance for citizens’ voting decisions at elections. Irrespective of its content, it also creates a more knowledgeable citizenry with regard to public affairs. Furthermore, political conversations contribute to the quality of citizens’ opinions. People who talk to each other are not only more like to have opinions on political issues, but these opinions also tend to be well considered.

By providing information, and by conveying norms and expectations about proper political behavior, interpersonal communication functions as a powerful mobilizer for political participation. Political discussion stimulates turnout and other forms of party- or campaign-related participation, especially if it takes place in large networks between highly partisan talkmates. Even stronger is its role with regard to socalled unconventional forms of participation. While certain attitudinal predispositions are often sufficient to drive people to the polls even in the absence of political exchanges with any associates, taking part in protest activities of social movements typically requires interpersonal mobilization. Social movements can be seen as politically mobilized everyday networks, and attending protest events, especially if they are of a more disruptive kind, is almost always the consequence of processes of recruitment that work through political conversations. In a way, political activity is contagious, and it spreads through interpersonal channels of political communication.

Yet, the mobilizing role of interpersonal communication depends on a certain degree of unanimity and is often thwarted if political conversations confront citizens with “cross-pressures.” Individuals who are exposed to ambivalent messages from their talkmates, at the same time promoting contradictory courses of action, tend to postpone political decisions and to abstain from more demanding forms of political activity, although this does not seem to extend to voting itself.

While disagreement among citizens’ political talkmates thus seems to entail some problematic consequences, in other ways it has recently come to be seen as an important prerequisite for several important facets of democratic political culture. Again, the main impulse for this research came from the recent deliberative turn in democratic theory. From this view, democracy is not primarily seen as an arena where preexisting preferences are expressed and aggregated, but rather as a communicative process of opinion formation that is to yield preferences of higher quality through an extended and inclusive debate in which problems are carefully analyzed, possible solutions identified, evaluation criteria developed, and solutions achieved that are fair to most if not everyone. One essential prerequisite for such a process to work is that interpersonal communication is not uniform but pits diverse opinions against each other. Only exchanging and confirming concordant points of views cannot be deliberative. Hence, it is essential that some degree of disagreement is sustained in interpersonal political communication.

To be sure, disagreement in private interpersonal communication can be only a minimum requirement for true deliberation. Nonetheless, it has been shown to entail healthy consequences that partly correspond to those demonstrated for much more demanding public deliberations. For instance, it increases people’s awareness and understanding for each others’ standpoints by conveying rationales for political views other than their own, and it fosters tolerance for opposing opinions as well as respect for those expressing them. Experimental evidence suggests that conversations including conflicting perspectives may even neutralize elites’ power to frame the way people think about issues.

Interpersonal Communication and Mass Communication

The most influential assumption about the relationship between mass communication and interpersonal communication is the notion of the “two-step flow of communication” proposed by the Columbia researchers half a century ago. It implies the assumption that far fewer people attend to messages from mass media than to word-of-mouth communication from personal associates, and that those who attend to the media serve—as so-called opinion leaders—as relays that filter media messages and convey only those into their groups that conform to these groups’ prevailing norms. If this hypothesis was ever valid, the expansion of television since World War II has changed its premises profoundly. While reading newspapers is still not a common activity in many countries, television nowadays brings political news to virtually everyone’s attention everywhere. Yet, as demonstrated by Table 1, in many countries considerable portions of societies never get exposed to political information while interacting with other people. Hence, there are sizable pockets of non-discussants who nonetheless take part in political communications by watching television. It is probably safe to say that nowadays the reach of the mass media surpasses the reach of interpersonal political communication everywhere.

Accepting this, some studies argued that the two forms of political communication nonetheless play different roles for those exposed to them. While political conversations have been found to possess a considerable capacity to influence attitudes and behaviors of those taking part in them, mass communication’s influence has been assumed to be constricted to cognitive effects, in particular agenda setting. However, after a long period of neglect, caused by the predominance of the “limited effects model” and the cognitive paradigm in effects research, recent years have seen a revived interest in the question of whether the media can not only inform but also persuade their audiences. Opinions, attitudes, and even behavior are no longer believed to be totally immune from media influences. Hence, the question can be legitimately raised as to which of the two forms of political communication—mass communication or interpersonal communication—is more important with regard to the formation and change of citizens’ political orientations. On the whole, beginning with Katz and Lazarsfeld’s classic study Personal Influence (1955), existing research suggests that mass communication is by no means irrelevant with regard to political persuasion, but that on the whole the impact of political discussion is indeed more powerful than that of media usage. Remarkably, this seems to extend even to cognitive effects like agenda setting.

Various attributes of interpersonal communication contribute to its higher effectiveness as a political influence. Typically, it is more one-sided than mass communication, so that there is a lower chance for oppositional messages to neutralize each other. Furthermore, it is more flexible. Participants in political talks can at all times adapt their messages to the flow of conversation and tailor their messages in such a way that their impact is optimized. To do so, they can make use of a large variety of verbal and nonverbal tactics, including emotional cues. Furthermore, depending on the nature of the relationship they may be able to impose sanctions on their associates in cases of noncompliance. Last, the casual character of many interpersonal communication events may soften individuals’ tendency of selectivity when attending to and accepting inconvenient political messages. Only under very specific circumstances—for instance, when few people engage in political discussion while the media cover politics in a very one-sided way—may mass communication exert a more powerful impact on citizens’ political orientations than interpersonal communication.

While interpersonal communication as a source of political information for individuals is sometimes seen as an alternative to mass communication, empirical research does not provide evidence for such a division of labor. Rather, the intensity of interpersonal communication appears positively linked to the attention paid to the political reporting of mass media, particularly the press. Exposure to sources of political information follows a cumulative “the more, the more” logic rather than a logic of alternatives. Probably, the relationship between media use and political talking is best understood as being transactional. Receiving mediated political information can stimulate secondary communication to make sense of media content by talking it through. At the same time, political discussion can incite increased attention to media’s public affairs coverage, to learn more about some topics one heard about from others, or to prepare for anticipated upcoming conversations.

Often, political talks focus on themes and frames that originate from the media, so that at least to some degree it appears inappropriate to conceive of them as an independent form of political communication. As French sociologist Gabriel Tarde observed more than a century ago, “Every morning the papers give their publics the conversations of the day.” Informal communication is an important tool for processing the information received from the media, assisting people in making sense of the political world beyond the realm of their personal experience. Discussing media content with one’s associates thus serves as metacommunication that helps assess the viability of media messages by means of a “social reality test.” According to recent studies, individuals embedded in politically homogeneous discussant networks tend to perceive stronger biases in the media’s political reporting than others. More important, depending on their political composition, discussant networks may even serve as facilitators or inhibitors of media effects on political preferences. Furthermore, mass and interpersonal communication also seem to interact with regard to political mobilization. Media consumption stimulates political participation especially among people who intensely discuss politics, less so among those who rarely or never engage in political talk.