Martin Buber is arguably the most influential advocate of
qualitatively interpersonal communication, as defined in this section. His book
Ich und Du (I and Thou) is a worldwide classic, selling millions of copies
since its publication in 1922.a
Buber states that “I-It” and “I-Thou” represent two ways in
which humans can relate to one another. “I-It” relationships are stable,
predictable, detached. In an “I-It” mode we deal with people because they can
do things for us: pump gas, laugh at our jokes, buy products we are selling,
provide information or amusement. “I-It” is also the approach of science, which
attempts to understand what makes people tick in order to explain, predict, and
control their behavior. Buber would have regarded advertisers as operating in
an “I-It” mode, crafting messages that lead people to buy their products or
services. “I-It” relationships exist in personal relationships as well as
impersonal ones: On an everyday basis, parents and children, bosses and
employees, service providers and customers—even lovers—deal with one another as
objects (“I wish she would leave me alone.” “Can you pick me up after work?”
“How can I get him/her to love me?”).
In profound contrast to “I-It” relationships, Buber
described an “I-Thou” way of interacting. “I-Thou” relationships are utterly
unique. Because no two teachers or students, parents or children, husbands or
wives, bosses or employees are alike, we encounter each person as an individual
and not as a member of some category. An “I-Thou” posture goes further: Not
only are people different from one another, but they change from moment to
moment. An “I-Thou” relationship arises out of how we are now, not how we might
have been yesterday or even a moment ago. In an “I-Thou” relationship, persuasion
and control are out of the question: We certainly may explain our point of
view, but ultimately we respect the fact that others are free to act.
Buber acknowledges that it is impossible to create and
sustain pure “I-Thou” relationships. But without this qualitatively
interpersonal level of contact, our lives are impoverished. To paraphrase
Buber, without “I-It” we cannot exist, but if we live only with “I-It,” we are
not fully human.
Think of your most important relationships:
1. To what degree can they be described as “I-Thou” or
2. How satisfied are you with this level of relating?
3. What obligation do you have to treat others in an
“I-Thou” manner? Based on your answers to these questions, how might you change
your style of communication?