The American political scientist and communication theorist Harold Lasswell popularized the concept of the communication channel in his 1948 paper, The Communication of Ideas. Informal channels reflect the non-linear dynamics of a social network and can be as influential, if not more so, than official channels, and are often more likely to stimulate and create discussion and dialogue.
Informal communication contains facts, deceptions, rumors, and unclear data. The channels may manifest themselves via the rumor-mill, social networking, graffiti, spoof newsletters, and water cooler conversations . Normally, such communication is oral and may be expressed even by a simple glance, a sign, or silence. Informal communication is implicit, spontaneous, multidimensional, and diverse.
Informal communication does not follow authority lines as in the case of formal communication. It is established around the societal affiliation of members of an organization and is spread through the grapevine. When one person has some information of interest, he passes it on to his informal group and so on.
Hearing it Through the Grapevine
The term grapevine communication is often used interchangeably with the term informal communication. The term originated in the 1860s during the American Civil War. It described the telegraph lines that were strung through the trees in a manner that resembled grapevines. It also came to mean informal communication that was not very effective because the telegraph system was an unreliable source of communication at the time.
The way grapevine communication works is one person, Person 1, sends a message to Person 2 and Person 3. Then, Person 2 tells Person 4 and Person 5. And Person 3 tells Person 6. As in this case, not all participants within the grapevine send messages. Some participants are just receivers.
Liaisons within an organization usually help facilitate grapevine communication. The use of this type of communication is common among managers as well as subdivision employees.
Why Informal Communication Occurs
It has been shown that informal communication or grapevine communication occurs when formal communication is not sufficient. Research and studies have concluded that informal communication occurs either when insufficient or ambiguous information is transmitted through formal communication. Some organizational theorists feel that some informal or grapevine communication is needed in organizational life.
Jitendra Mishra described eight reasons for the existence of grapevine communication. Some of the reasons include:
- The need for faster communication
- Useful messages transmitted
- Outlets for imagination and apprehension
- Helping to build teamwork and corporate identity
In fact, grapevine communications has characteristics which match these reasons as well as additional ones that makes it not the most reliable way to relay information. These characteristics include:
- Flexibility: There is no formal control over grapevine, so it is more flexible than other forms of communication.
- Rapid communication: It is faster than any form of communication.
- No record: There is no evidence which can be documented for future reference.
- Distortion: The message which is passed gets distorted when it passes from one person to another.
- Spontaneous: Grapevine communication is spontaneous as it is passed automatically from the top level of the organization to the bottom level without any difficulty in delivering the message.
Surprisingly, 75% of all organizations' practices, policies, and procedures are shared through grapevine communication.
Though there is a negative connotation to grapevine communication, studies have shown the employees find informal communication to be more effective than formal channels of communication because it coexists with the formal communication system.
The types of rumors that are spread through grapevine communication can be classified into two groups: spontaneous and premeditated. Spontaneous rumors are spread when people are stressed or in an untrustworthy environment. Premeditated rumors spread within highly competitive environments.
These two groups can be broken down into four classifications:
- Wish fulfillment
- Wedge drivers
- Home stretchers
These types of rumors can also be spread through other types of informal network structures as well.