Interpersonal Communication: Application in American Sniper

Interpersonal Communication: Application in American Sniper


The creation and sustenance of interpersonal relationships rely heavily on the ability to develop communication effectively between two individuals. Although relationships are mainly between two people, communication can be intrapersonal or interpersonal. Intrapersonal communication occurs within oneself while interpersonal communication is between one person and another. The latter can occur either in a group setting or among individuals. Various concepts are often associated with interpersonal communication, especially through the application of various communication theories. Theories, such as social penetration theory, apply to the communication context through an explanation of how it relates to relational development in any given context. The movie American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood and produced by Bradley Cooper, depicts various perspectives to interpersonal communication. Through group and individual communication dynamics, individuals in the movie relate to various communication concepts. An analysis of the movie provides explicit examples of the ways in which it applies the interpersonal communication in different contexts.

Interpersonal Needs and Communication Practice

According to a study conducted by Ramaraju (2012), interpersonal needs mainly drive the interpersonal communication. Each individual seeking to communicate with another has special needs that he or she desires to fulfill. The first interpersonal need that drives communication is the need for inclusion. Ramaraju asserts that individuals initiate and develop interpersonal communication due to the feeling that they need to maintain satisfactory relations with others. This, thus, implies that the individuals cannot maintain satisfactory relations without interpersonal communication. In American Sniper, this aspect of relational development is evident in the communications that occur between the United States Navy Sea, Air and Land Teams (commonly known as SEALs) in their groupings. For instance, when the Chris Kyle comes into the diner where the other SEALs are, a colleague stands up to engage in an applauding speech to engage him and the others. He clearly says that it was the only way to get his attention. Similar discourses are held between different SEALs during the wars. For example, the communication between Kyle and the psychiatrist can also be said to have been driven by the need for inclusion as he reveals his feelings. Based on the communication, Kyle probably felt that he would get help adjusting to home life, a need which he fulfilled eventually.

Ramaraju describes the second interpersonal need to be that of control. This is the desire to influence others through communication. Control drives most of the communications that occur between the commander and the SEALs at various times during the movie. For example, when Kyle’s father trains him to be a hunter, the need for control portrays itself through the presence of a powerful figure versus a less-powerful one. Further exemplification is as when Captain Martens issues command to the SEALs during the briefing about al-Zarqawi and when Kyle reports the case of Sheikh and tries to convince the captain to help him secure him. Even in training his own children about the need to protect others by being ship dogs rather than sheep and wolves, Kyle’s controlling voice clearly depicts the need to attain control of the audience through his communication. The need for control is also evident during the special force trainings where Kyle explains the rationale behind leaving two eyes open during shooting and clearly proves his point when prompted. In this regard, the aim of Kyle’s communication was to inform the trainer that he, as the sniper, was in control of the situation despite what it seemed like through the set target. Various features of communication indicate such control needs. For example, individuals intending to portray control use a strong tone in articulation and may use gestures that give the impression about their intentions. Facial expressions appear tense or serious, depending on the matters under discussion.

Alternatively, the need for affection, which focuses on the desire to show closeness and/or to indicate compassion, may drive communication (Ramaraju, 2012). Such communication is evident throughout the film in various contexts. Through his communications with his wife and the children, Kyle consistently focuses his intentions on this need except when he is suffering from the post-war disturbances. Furthermore, Max shows his appreciation to Kyle and his son for saving him during his house attack and recognizes that without him, he could not have been alive. The facial expressions and other non-verbal gestures used all show tenderness and sincerity.

In any communication context, regardless of the need being sought, Ramaraju posits that it is associated with various concepts including activity, interaction, and sentiments. The activity concept entails the things done together during communication such as watching out for potential attackers during the war, interrogating potential informants, holding hands while walking and selecting a teddy bear. Such activities also tune the interactions that go on between the participants in the communication. For instance, among the SEALs, communications about Kyle’s reputation, their shared feelings and the reassurance that all would well include some of the interactions that abound interpersonally. Every interpersonal communication applies the concepts of activity, interaction, and sentiments in equal measure to ensure the achievement of communication goals. Communication, based on clear objectives and applying the most basic concepts, can help in relational development by getting people closer together and thus revealing more about themselves (Knapp & Daly, 2002).

Social Penetration Theory

As communication helps individuals to get closer together, the development of social penetration theory intends to clearly explain the rationale behind this closeness. In Altman and Taylor’s (1973) words, the more time the people spend together, the more likely they go through deeper self-disclosure. The social penetration theory holds that one can only build a relationship when the level of self-disclosure is high enough. However, the development of self-disclosure pegs itself to the application of free will. Bylund, Peterson and Cameron (2012) explain the social penetration theory through an onion metaphor. In this metaphor, they linked self-disclosure to onion layers. The more level of disclosure achieved influences the more closeness developed between people. When not allowed to occur because of free will, there is a high potential that rapid social penetration could occur resulting in unsustainable relationships (Knapp & Daly, 2002).

Communication plays a crucial role in social penetration as it results in relational development. The communication process occurs mutually between two or more people and is a construed process which is also relational. As such, communication only comes to an end once the people achieved the intended objective (Ramaraju, 2012).Understanding communication, therefore, becomes a crucial process as, through it, one gets to be aware of the verbal and non-verbal cues in it, and can also apply it in a group or one-to-one interaction setting. From the exploration of the theory, it is evident that social penetration is responsible for relational developments from superficial interactions to the ultimate development of intimacy. As people get close to each other, they reveal more and more about themselves and eventually come to the full awareness of the other. Perhaps the explicit revelation of social penetration is in the development of the relationship between Chris Kyle and Taya Kyle from simple interactions at a bar to the married couple with two children at the end of the movie. Self-disclosure, as part of social penetration, makes it possible for one individual to fully comprehend the life of another to such an extent that the other through non-verbal cues immediately notices any psychological instability in one party. The relationship between Taya and Kyle clearly portrays this kind of awareness. This relationship also acts as the model for the relational development stages in the movie.

Relational Development Stages

Avtgis, West and Anderson (1998) describe the relational development stages as highlighted in the communication context. According to the authors, each relationship goes through the stages of initiation, experimentation, intensification, integration and bonding. The bonding stage provides the greatest intimacy and is unavoidable in every relationship. However, each stage comes with distinctive characteristics which make it stand out. For instance, the initiation stage shows the first interaction between Kyle and Taya in American Sniper. The stage is characterized by communication about general information and relaxing. As the relationship continues to grow, greater interactions continue to be experienced through different communication strategies. For instance, the experimentation stage comes with talk about the past, likes, dislikes, and hobbies. It also comes with sharing fun times together and engaging each other in more intensifying discussions. This is also experienced progressively from the meeting between the Kyles at the bar and later during their first date.

During the intensifying relational development stage, individuals in communication generally talk about their morality and moral standings. For instance, they may share their expectations about potential spouses and what they enjoy most in their lives. When Taya explains to Kyle what her father’s perception of her is, he responds by saying that he thought that was a good perspective and he liked her more because of it. Such kinds of discussions are eminent in the intensifying stage of relationships. The stage gives way to the integrating stage where individuals talk about more intimate issues and may talk about the future together. The discussion involving the desirable number of kids from the perspectives of both partners is an example of this; the two further show this through their marriage proposal and discussions concerning their wish for their country and how far they would be willing to protect the country. Through the eventual marriage, the two exemplify the bonding stage which comes with a pledge of love regardless of the situation.  They accomplished this pledge completely when the two continue to work on their relationship together. For example, when his working circumstances forces Kyle to stay away from home, he constantly calls Taya to remind her of his love. Furthermore, once he comes back home and is unable to fully accomplish his roles within the family, Taya reminds him of his promise of love. This clearly indicates the longevity of a relationship that comes to the end of the relational stages.

While the relationship between Kyle and Taya is the only one that goes through the entire relational development cycle, other relationships also developed to the ultimate level. For instance, the closeness developed between Kyle and Ryan Job goes from the initiation to the experimentation and probably to the intensification stage, albeit differently as their relationship is casual and not intimate. The relationship between Taya and Kyle, however, still shows the different challenges that conventional relationships have to fight to stand strong.

Communication Dialectics

The relational dialectics theory, as explained by Baxter and Braithwaite (2008), explores some of the challenges that may present in relationships through tensions that make them dynamic and in constant need of attention. In relational communications, conflicts often arise due to the nature of needs and desires in any relational communication. The assumptions that no relationship is linear, change is a constant part of relational life, contradiction is inevitable in relationships, and that communication is the key to making all relationships successful founded this theory. Based on these assumptions, it can be helpful to argue that relational communication is what guides successful examination and management of relationship dialectics. In further conceptual exploration, Baxter and Braithwaite posit that communication dialectics found most often on four major concepts which are totality, process, praxis and contradiction. Each of these concepts plays a crucial role in interpersonal communication between individuals in established relationships.

Baxter and Braithwaite (2008) explained the concept of contradiction based on the existence of forces that explicit unity and mutual negation at the same time. In terms of interpersonal communication, this is clearly visible through Kyle’s actions after returning from deployment. Through his psychological challenges, Kyle seems to have forgotten his main reason for resigning from deployment. He remained home to take care of his family yet constantly ignores them, appearing to be more indifferent to theirs and his own needs. The contrast between his physical presence, the need of emotional presence, and the emotional absence he practices communicates a lot and affects the relationship intensively. Totality regards the consideration of certain relational concepts as unified rather than differentiated. For instance, it is impossible to understand the need for privacy and the demand for openness in a relationship. An example of such experience is also visible in the movie when Taya implores Kyle to speak about his problems to get help. Although Kyle should be open enough to communicate with Taya, he feels that it is best to keep her away from some subjects. This causes strain in the relationship between the two as there is no balance between protection and self-disclosure.

Processes also help to understand relational dialectics since some of the indispensable features of relations include change, movement, and activity (Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008). Such processes result in changes in the relationships, such as an event divorce may pose. In the movie, the constant shift between absence and presence in Kyle’s house depicts it well. In some instances, the changes resulting from Kyle’s movement cause strains in the relationship as he is affected both emotionally and mentally. Similarly, getting out of the post-war emotional turbulence results in other changes in the personality of Kyle and he becomes more protective of the family. Such processes need an understanding of their impacts on the family. Similarly, the concept of praxis needs an understanding how the impositions of individuals may result from the actions of the others. The continuous practice of certain activities brings about the need for communication within the relational setting to sustain the relationship. In American Sniper, the constant protective practice by Kyle leads him to overreact during the children’s play session, the event that eventually leads him to get psychiatric help. Their wedding is on the brink of total destruction when both Kyle and Taya finally confronts the issues threatening it and both make the admirable commitment to do the work necessary to save it. The concepts under relational dialectics clearly bring about the overriding need for constant interpersonal communication in relations. This can be a confirmed rationale behind the assumption that constant communication is imperative for relational success.


The film American Sniper clearly brings to the fore how various communications and relations theory come into play in real life contexts. The concepts of relational development stages, social penetration and self-disclosure, interpersonal needs and relational dialectics are all visible in the film. From the overall organization and the underlying theoretical applications, it is undeniable that interpersonal communications not only play a crucial role in one-to-one interactions but also in group relations. Without communication at any stage of relational development, dialectics can result in relationship imbalance and, in diverse contexts, leading to failure. As such, interpersonal communication is important not only in preventing conflicts but also in ensuring that effective conflict resolution strategies are applicable where such conflicts are inevitable such as in dealing with individuals undergoing post-war trauma experiences.


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