Tweet-sized thought for the day: Communicative and expressive behaviour

By Gordon Rugg

Expressive behaviour shows how you feel. Instrumental behaviour gets the job done. The balance matters.

More detail

These two concepts are widely used in the social sciences.

Expressive behaviour shows how you feel.

Expressive behaviour is also known as communicative behaviour. Expressive behaviour shows people how you feel about something. Politicians use it a lot to signal that they care, and to show tribal allegiance. With expressive behaviour, the key point is to send out a signal about how you feel, regardless of whether you’re actually getting the original job done.

Instrumental behaviour gets the job done.

Instrumental behaviour is about getting the job done, regardless of whether anyone sees how you feel about it.

This isn’t an either/or choice. Sometimes a behaviour is highly expressive and also highly instrumental. A lot of legal test cases are highly expressive (the person bringing the case is signalling that they’re willing to risk huge legal fees or prison for their beliefs) and also highly instrumental (because if the person bringing the case wins it, then that will get the law changed in the direction that they want).

When you’re worn out and feeling miserable, it’s horribly easy to slip into expressive behaviour. That’s okay for some situations, but it’s not okay for others. A classic example is when you’re unable to find a new job, and you sink into a pit of misery. In this situation, you need to tackle the problem of job-finding via instrumental behaviour – for instance, by reading a book like What Color Is Your Parachute, to find other, more successful strategies.

The balance matters.

This doesn’t mean that instrumental behaviour is always better than expressive behaviour. It isn’t. They each have different purposes from the other. There are a lot of situations where expressive behaviour is far better than instrumental behaviour. Sometimes it’s more important to show the other person that you understand and that you care, rather than simply fixing the practical problem. A lot of tech support people hit problems with this, when they think that the key point is fixing the problem, but they’ve missed the importance of showing the customer that they care about how the customer feels. The concept of “It’s not about the nail” is highly relevant here. A lot of relationships hit avoidable problems because one partner wants expressive behaviour, and the other is offering instrumental behaviour.

So, getting the balance right between expressive and instrumental is a valuable skill. Once you’re aware of these concepts, you have a much better chance of getting that balance right, and getting a good outcome.

An example of this is What Color Is Your Parachute. It’s a book that changed my life. It’s about taking control of your life instrumentally by working out where you want to be, and finding the best way to get there. It’s also strongly ethical; it’s not about climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, but is instead about self-fulfilment and the route to where you really want to be. There’s a lot of Christian content which might irritate some readers, but that content is kept clearly separate from the instrumental material about jobs and careers.

One important feature is that this book is heavily based on evidence. That evidence is often surprising – for instance, the most common strategy for finding a job, namely looking in the job advertisements in the paper, is one of the least effective strategies.

This book comes out in regular updated editions, and is in most public libraries.

It’s available on Amazon:

There’s also a website supporting it:

There’s a new book out by the same author:

I haven’t read that yet, but if it’s as good as What Color, then it will be well worth getting.


This is one of our series of Tweet sized thoughts. These are intended as a quick, effective way to publicise concepts that aren’t as widely known as they should be. We’re using this format rather than simply tweeting because it gives us a way to unpack the concepts in more detail, with examples, links and references if needed. Please feel free to tweet these concepts if you wish.

We’re taking our usual approach of indicating useful related concepts in bold face where it’s easy to track down further information, and of only giving references where they’re not easy to find.


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