Right after I talked  to my Mom on Skype, I was reading this blog post “Me and My Relationships” by Williams Zinsser, the author of “On Writing Well“. Starting with a letter that he recently received from this broker, Zinsser found out that Sandra, the leading assistant who was assigned to manage his relationship has decided to change her career path to become a stay-home mom.

Then Zinsser moved on to reflect on his relationship with other people, whom he thought were merely old-fashioned merchants: the barber, the lady in the coffeeshop, and the laundryman. None of these people, though sincerely caring about Zinsser in their own way, claimed that they were having a relationship with him.

The problem that Zinsser has with “relationship” is that “it means whatever anyone needs it to mean. It doesn’t denote a specified act–like, say, ‘falling in love’ or ‘getting married’.” I take my hat off to Zinsser for pinpointing this problem. The word “relationship”, like many other words in languages (not only in English, but I’m thinking of some Chinese too), is misused or manipulated to denote many broad meanings. It’s vague, leaving room for imagination. Thinking of the Facebook status where you can identify yourself as “have a relationship with xxx”, we have almost no idea what exactly that means: if they just get serious, or plan to get married, or no plan for marriage at all.

Moving up from the usage of relationship on a personal level, it occurred to me that “relationship” is also widely employed in public relations. One of the leading theories in public relations is “relationship management theory”, in which public relations is perceived as relationship management and research is focused on factors that affect organization-public relationship. “A mutually beneficial relationship” is what public relations is aiming for under this theory. Isn’t the same problem still staying with this perspective? What specified act does this “mutually beneficial relationship” denote? And who will be the participants in this act? It needs to be contextualized upon different occasions.


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