Sydney Thomas-Ware &
October 27, 2010
“It’s okay chickabee.” Phrases like this may not make sense to anyone who
understands the English language, but to a woman of the wild like Nell, it makes perfect
sense. Nell is a movie about a young woman hidden away in the center of the woods
isolated from humanity. Under the care of her mother she spent her lifetime speaking a
mix of unclear English and a language developed between her and her twin sister. When
Nell’s mother passed away, in order to keep Nell out of a hospital institution, two doctors
set out to learn her language and way of life. The movie Nell had many theological
connections related to the communication process including Symbolic Interaction
Theory, Coordinated Management of Meaning, and Uncertainty Reduction Theory.
Symbolic Interaction Theory
The Symbolic Interaction Theory was the most evident throughout the movie.
According to Mead from the textbook the Symbolic Interaction Theory is when people
are motivated to act based on the meanings they assign to people, things, and events.
These meanings are created in the language that people use both in communicating with
interpersonal context and intrapersonal context, or their private thought. Language allows
people to develop a sense of self and to interact with others in the community. The goal
for interaction is to create a shared meaning between people. Meaning can only exist
when people share the common interpretation in the symbols they exchange through
interaction. Dr. Jerry and Dr. Paula, two of the main characters in the movie, used the
interpretive approach to observe and study Nell’s distorted form of communication. A
scene from the film that demonstrated the importance of meaning for human behavior
was when Jerry makes a tape recording of Nell speaking to herself in her native tongue.
After studying her language Jerry attempted to have a conversation with her. It wasn’t
until he says the word “tay” that they encompass a shared meaning. In a conversation,
meanings shared can sometimes be misinterpreted. A prime example, in the movie Jerry
tries to have a conversation with Nell for the first time. His understanding of specific
words was different than her actual meaning. The words “tay” and “may” meant my
sister and me to Nell, but Dr. Jerry assumed that she was making an inference to him and
Nell. On the contrary, when Dr. Paula shows the videotape of Nell talking into the mirror
saying “Taye” and “May” she interpreted the meaning of Nell as identifying an objective
and subjective self.
The Importance of the Self-Concept
Self-concept is a set of perceptions people hold about themselves (text). In the
beginning of the movie Nell’s self-concept is quite different in comparison to another
young woman of her age. Given that she was raised in isolation, her self-concept was
close to non-existent. Through interaction with Paula and Jerry, Nell’s self-concept was
further developed. An example of the development of Nell’s self-concept was shown in
the scene where Jerry and Paula give Nell an anatomy book showing her how two people
making love. Another scene that exhibited self-concept is when Jerry got naked for Nell
in the lake to show not all men will harm her. In the bar scene when Nell exposes herself,
Jerry reacted to teach Nell that it’s not appropriate to expose herself sexual.
Social Structure is worked through social interaction
This assumption presumes to be true. Nell had social constraints due to the rules
of society. Doctors wanted to place Nell under observation in an institution because she
was a woman of the wild. The judge in the movie gave Nell free will to change the rule
and with the help of Jerry and Paula she was able to prove to society that she can live on
Mind, Self and Society
Mind is the ability to connect social meanings using symbols (text). It wasn’t until
later in the film when mind, language and significant symbols were developed between
Paula, Jerry and Nell after observation and interaction with each other. Examples of
Nell’s significant symbols shared between her particular others included words like
“may” “tay” and “guad in agel.” Nell used these words consistently when trying to
express herself. Nell’s web of social relationships was limited to only particulars others;
those of who she trusted, her mother, twin sister, Paula and Jerry.
A closely related concept of mind is thought. In the movie, Nell had conversations
that could be presumed as thought or a direct conversation with her beloved late twin
sister. Depending on the construal from the interpreter, determines how you view Nell’s
conversation. Nell could not effectively communicate with people in society. However
she continuously had conversations out loud. Given that people could not understand
what she was saying and whom she was talking to made it difficult to determine who her
words were geared toward. Role taking was crucial to the success of Nell’s adaption.
Role taking is when you put yourself into someone else’s shoes (text). Jerry took on the
role of living and learning Nell’s way of life in order to help instruct her how to adapt to
society’s way of living. Had he not assumed this responsibility, Nell could have possibly
ended up as a study subject at an institution.
The looking glass self is our ability to use ourselves as another sees us (text).
Since Paula and Jerry assume the roles to help Nell adapt into society she viewed them as
guardians. When Jerry and Paula were in a verbal altercation Nell tells them to stop and
apologize to each other. Paula says, “Mommy loves daddy really” which is an indication
of the looking glass self. Her response to Nell signifies she realizes what she and Jerry’s
roles are in Nell’s life. Once Nell began to communicate openly with Paula and Jerry a
trust factor was established. They then developed the need to live up to Nell’s
expectations. At this point of the movie the Pygmalion effect was prevalent. When Nell
was extracted from her home and placed into an institution due to the media intruding she
didn’t live up to Jerry or Paula’s expectations. Instead of proving to the doctors at the
institution that she is capable of living amongst society she became non-communicative.
Acting off Impulse
The “I” in self was more dominant during Jerry’s qualitative observation. He
spontaneously turns on music to see how Nell would respond. Nell’s fanatical reaction
leads Paula to be the voice of reason, explaining to Jerry that acting on impulse dealing
with Nell is not a suitable approach. Paula’s “Me” parallels with Jerry’s “I” when he has
an urge to act without warning.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The strengths and weaknesses of the Symbolic Interaction Theory in relation to
the movie were quite evident. Overall it was extremely difficult to achieve a clear
understanding of what Nell was trying to express due to the assumptions and the
monologic approach from Paula and Jerry. The symbolic portion of the theory was easy
to apply to the movie Nell, but in contrast the character Nell defied some rules and
assumptions of theory, exhibiting the vagueness of the Symbolic Interaction Theory.
Self-concept was the most obscure since applying this portion of the theory depends
solely on the viewer’s interpretation of the characters.
Coordinated Management of Meaning- Hierarchy of Meaning
The hierarchy of meaning was used throughout the movie Nell. Each level of the
“Hierarchy of Meaning” represents a stage of Paula, Jerry and Nell’s verbal
communication, understanding and relationships. Content is raw data that can be
compared to Nell’s unidentifiable language. The second level of meaning is speech act
that consist of the actions we perform by speaking (text). In the movie Jerry reassures to
Nell that he promises to keep her safe because he is her guardian angel. Episodes consist
of communication routines that have a beginning, middle and end. Jerry and Paula’s
relationship throughout the movie and their constant contradictions of each other’s
observational techniques were an illustration of episodes. Relationships, the next stage of
the hierarchy of meaning, are when people recognize their potential and limitations as
relational partners. The climactic scene where Paula and Jerry recognize their potential as
relational partners is when they realized they’ve done all they could do for Nell. Paula
reassures Jerry with a subtle kiss that everything will be okay. Life scripts are past or
present episodes that affect how we communicate with others (text). It was evident that
Jerry had a negative bias toward hospitals. When Paula mentioned that Nell should be
placed into a hospital for her own safety Jerry became defensive against Paula. Cultural
Patterns, the last stage of the hierarchy of meaning is the connection to your view of the
world and your connection to it. At the end of the movie Nell tells the court how people
like Jerry and Paula know big things and see big things but they don’t look into each
other’s eyes. Seeing only small things fulfills her world but she says it won’t enable her
to grow and adapt to society.
Strengths and Weaknesses of CMM
The strengths of Coordinated Management of Meaning paralleled with the movie
when relating the rules and guidelines of the hierarchy of meaning.
Uncertainty Reduction Theory
“Everyday life is infused with uncertainty.” The Uncertainty Reduction Theory
focuses on reducing the uncertainty between strangers (text). The entry phase between
Jerry and Nell was rocky. The uncertainty between them was high because neither of the
characters could understand each other. To reduce cognitive uncertainty Jerry and Nell
had to develop an understanding of each other’s way of thinking. During the personal
phase to reduce the cognitive and behavioral uncertainty Paula and Jerry self-disclosed
private information about their lives. Making their relationship closer and establishing
trust. When Paula and Jerry kiss this is the exit phase of their relationship. In addition
these actions lessen the behavioral uncertainty between the two.
In order to reduce uncertainty Paula and Jerry used passive, active, and interactive
strategies while observing Nell. Jerry used disinhibition searching as part of his passive
strategy of observing Nell when he was watching Nell from a distance in the woods.
Paula uses reactivity searching as part of her passive strategy. She uses a hidden camera
planted in Nell’s cabin to study her actions and speech. Jerry used the strategy of
interaction in order to reduce uncertainty. He engaged in conversations with Nell by
attempting to use her language.
It was prevalent throughout the movie that Nell had uncertainty avoidance. She
first demonstrated this avoidance when she refused to go out during the day. It was later
exhibited when she refused to leave the woods.
Strengths and Weaknesses
According to the Uncertainty Reduction Theory it states one of the weakness, as
the initial encounter is not an individuals primary concern. The movie proves other wise.
Jerry’s primary concern is to reduce uncertainty during each encounter with Nell and
maximize their relational outcome.
In conclusion, Nell was a great movie for communication analysis. In a low-
context culture like the United States, it is imperative the meaning of our conversation is
clear. The Symbolic Interaction Theory gave a clear perception for the impact of the lack
of meaning words have in a conversation. Without shared meaning in communication
there leaves mass room for error and assumption of an understanding of what someone is
trying to say. This was previewed throughout the movie until a common sense of words
was established. We (society) are quick to categorize and diagnose a problem in someone
when they live outside the unwritten rules of “how to live in the U.S.” “Everyday life is
infused with uncertainty” (text). The Uncertainty Reduction Theory was present in the
movie. Uncertainty was one of the main barriers that inhibited Nell’s growth in society
and relationships with Paula and Jerry. A focus in the theory is eliminating the feeling of
discomfort and level of uncertainty in the initial encounter. Paula and Jerry both made an
extra effort to do so in order to help Nell successfully adapt into a new world.
Coordinated Management of Meaning focuses on the individual and society and his or
her relationship with society, which seemed to be Nell’s greatest challenge. This was a
form of communication she was never forced to venture into. For that very reason Nell
had no interpersonal skills and only personal meaning of her language. Nell did not
struggle to communicate. She struggled to fit the norm of society’s way of