Reticence is a communication problem with cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions and is due to the belief that one is better off remaining silent than risking appearing foolish (Keaten & Kelly 2000). Reticent individuals tend to avoid communication in social and public contexts, particularly novel situations that have the potential for negative evaluation. The publication of Gerald M. Phillips’s first article on reticence in 1965 was groundbreaking in that it expanded scholarly interest in communication anxiety and avoidance problems beyond fear of public speaking, spawning cognate constructs such as communication apprehension (McCroskey 1970) and launching a major new line of research.
Reticent individuals view themselves as incompetent communicators, and measured against norms about appropriate levels of talkativeness in social situations, they tend to fall short. Reticence is typified by a set of faulty beliefs about communication, such as that good communicators speak spontaneously and one must be born with good communication skills. The adoption of this set of beliefs creates anxiety and feelings of helplessness. Reticent individuals fear negative evaluation and appearing foolish, and they have learned to associate anxiety with communication, which contributes to their avoidance and withdrawal pattern.
Although there is debate about how much overlap exists between reticence and cognate constructs, there are theoretical distinctions. Stage fright and speech anxiety refer to fear of public speaking; reticent individuals often fear giving speeches, but their anxiety about communication extends to social situations. Communication apprehension involves fear or anxiety across contexts, similarly to reticence, but does not include faulty beliefs or skill deficits.
History of the Reticence Construct
Although Phillips developed the reticence construct, he credited F. Laura Muir with introducing it to him. First defined as a personality-based, anxiety disorder (Phillips 1965), by 1977 reticence was reconceptualized as a problem of inadequate communication skills (Phillips 1977) and remained as such throughout Phillips’s work. Drawing on his 1968 definition, Phillips (1984, 52) defined reticence as: “when people avoid communication because they believe they will lose more by talking than by remaining silent.” This served as the definition of reticence from 1977 until 1997, when Phillips published his final article on reticence. He posited that the major characteristic of reticent persons is avoidance of social situations in which they feel inept. Reticent persons may or may not have deficient social skills, but they think they do, and most do. Thus, the conceptualization of reticence for two decades was clearly about reticent behavior. Phillips felt that whether or not reticent people experience anxiety is not important.
In a refinement of the construct in which he adopted the term communication incompetence as a replacement for reticence, Phillips (1991) (1) identified the classical canons of rhetoric – invention, disposition, style, delivery, and memory – as the major subprocesses that are involved in a competent act of communication, and (2) argued that the reticent communicator may be incompetent in one or more of these rhetorical sub-processes.
Another aspect of reticence, introduced in the 1970s and remaining as a central component, is reticent individuals’ adherence to a faulty set of cognitions or beliefs (Kelly et al. 1995). These beliefs contribute to the reticent person’s avoidance of communication and ineptitude as a speaker, and include, among others, (1) an exaggerated sense of self-importance; (2) a conviction that speaking is not that important; and (3) a belief that it is better to be quiet and let people think you are a fool than prove it by talking.
Thus, the conceptualization of reticence throughout the decades of the 1980s and 1990s included cognitive and behavioral dimensions and recognition of an anxiety (i.e., affective) component that was considered irrelevant to treatment of the problem. The behavioral dimension was central, involving avoidance and ineptitude brought on by skills deficits in the rhetorical sub-processes. The cognitive component was the faulty belief system that justifies the reticent person’s avoidance of communication.
The most recent reconceptualization, offered by Keaten and Kelly (2000), modified some aspects of the construct while retaining most of its essential features. To the cognitive and behavioral dimensions, Keaten and Kelly added the affective component, arguing that reticent individuals’ anxiety about communication is relevant. Their definition, derived from the belief that “it is better to remain silent than risk appearing foolish” (2000, 168), represented a departure from Phillips’s (1984) definition, and was supported by research findings (Keaten et al. 2000). Their conceptualization was further elaborated as a model of reticence in which reticence is viewed as part of a cycle of social interaction constituted by six components: need, perceived incompetence, perceived helplessness, anxiety, devaluation, and withdrawal.
Measurement of Reticence
Until 1997, the procedure used to assess reticence for both treatment and research purposes, developed by Phillips, was an individual screening interview. Interviewers were instructors in a special course for reticent college students. The brief interview followed a protocol in which students were asked questions about the communication difficulties they experienced. On the basis of student responses and observation of their verbal and nonverbal behaviors, the interviewers determined which students were appropriate candidates for the treatment. The final decision to enroll a student in the program was made jointly by the interviewer and the student. Thus, individuals were deemed to be reticent through the screening process, which continues to be the method used to assess reticence for treatment purposes. The concurrent validity of the method was established by Sours (1979).
Keaten et al. (1997) published a 24-item standardized measure called the Reticence Scale (RS), which has been used to assess reticence for research. The RS measures six dimensions of reticence experienced in social situations: (1) feelings of anxiety; (2) knowledge of conversational topics; (3) timing skills; (4) organization of thoughts; (5) delivery skills; and (6) memory. The scale has obtained good reliabilities and there is support for its construct and concurrent validity. More recently, a 12-item version of the scale has been tested which also has good reliability (Kelly & Keaten in press).
Treatment of Reticence
Launched in spring of 1965 by Phillips, the Reticence Program at the Pennsylvania State University was designed as a treatment for reticence. In the early 1970s the program was modified to incorporate the educational philosophy of Robert Mager, an approach that better fit the changed definition of reticence as deficient communication skills. The program was offered through an introductory college speech course and has been implemented at other universities.
“Rhetoritherapy” was the term Phillips coined to designate the skills training approach used in the Reticence Program. As Phillips & Sokoloff (1979, 389) defined it, rhetoritherapy is “a form of systematic, individualized instruction directed at improving speech performance in mundane, task, and social situations.” The cognitive restructuring component of the training aims to change reticent students’ faulty beliefs about communication. They are encouraged to set realistic goals and to perceive situations as rhetorical, i.e., as opportunities for achieving social goals.
Given the emphasis of rhetoritherapy on speech as a means to accomplish goals, Mager’s (1972) concept of goal analysis became the centerpiece of the program. The goal analysis method helps students pinpoint realistic goals, identify behavioral criteria indicating goal achievement, and develop specific plans of action. Students set goals for communication contexts (e.g., social conversation, public speaking), prepare goal analyses, implement actions, and evaluate their performance. They begin with easier goals and work on achieving progressively more difficult ones, practicing the communication techniques they are taught. A study by Keaten et al. (2003) provides support for the effectiveness of the goal analysis approach.
Phillips was adamant later in his career that his method was behavior modification, aimed at improving skills in the rhetorical sub-processes representing the five canons of Aristotelean rhetoric (Phillips 1991). The five canons as applied to rhetoritherapy are: (1) invention, the process of sizing up a social situation to determine topics for communication; (2) disposition, the process of arranging ideas in a sequence; (3) style, the word choices for expressing the ideas; (4) delivery, the actual presentation of the ideas; and (5) memory, the process of drawing upon resources such as what has been successful in similar situations in the past.
Since the 1970s, studies of the Reticence Program have employed self-evaluation papers, standardized scales, and observer ratings and have consistently found the program to help reticent students. The earliest study – by Metzger in 1974 – compared assessments of improvement by the instructor, the students, and observers, and found that students showed noticeable or at least adequate improvement, although a few showed only minimal improvement. McKinney’s (1980) results indicated that students in the Reticence Program reported significant decreases in anxiety and avoidance behavior on all items concerned with social interaction, class participation, group discussion, and interviewing, and on most public speaking items. Kelly and Keaten’s (1992) study found a greater reduction in self-reported shyness and communication apprehension for those in the Reticence Program than for those in either a speech course or a control group.
Because of limited research, there is less evidence for the long-term effectiveness of rhetoritherapy. Oerkvitz (1975) assessed participants’ perceptions of their improvement one year or more after completion of the program and found that 75 percent of respondents said that they had improved, 17 percent had not, and some gave mixed responses. Similarly, Kelly (1992) mailed a questionnaire to former Reticence Program participants, with 91 percent of respondents reporting that they had improved their communication skills upon completion of the program and 87 percent reporting continuing positive benefits. They indicated greater confidence, less fear, communication skill improvement, and more control over their behavior as results of the program.
Research on the impact of the program on reticent beliefs (Keaten et al. 2000) revealed a moderate treatment effect for three of seven beliefs: “The most significant changes in beliefs center around the relationship between communicative ability and skill development … reticent individuals begin to realize that communication skills can be learned … they learn that preparation is a vital component of effective speaking” (2000, 144). Another study – of the perceived effectiveness of the components of rhetoritherapy (Keaten et al. 2003) – found that respondents viewed the rehearsal and performance of a speech and an oral interpretation of literature as most helpful. Additionally, they reported that goal analysis was helpful, practice was more helpful than instruction, and the supportive classroom environment was instrumental in the development of their communication skills.
Together, these studies demonstrated the effectiveness of the rhetoritherapy approach as a treatment for reticence. The treatment has been found to reduce anxiety about communicating, to change faulty beliefs, and to a lesser degree to improve behavior.
- Keaten, J. A., & Kelly, L. (2000). Reticence: An affirmation and revision. Communication Education, 49, 165–177.
- Keaten, J. A., Kelly, L., & Finch, C. (1997). Development of an instrument to measure reticence. Communication Quarterly, 45, 37–54.
- Keaten, J. A., Kelly, L., & Finch, C. (2000). Effectiveness of the Penn State Program in changing beliefs associated with reticence. Communication Education, 49, 134–145.
- Keaten, J. A., Kelly, L., & Finch, C. (2003). Student perceptions of the helpfulness of the Pennsylvania State University Reticence Program components. Communication Research Reports, 20, 151–160.
- Kelly, L. (1992). The long-term effects of rhetoritherapy. Unpublished manuscript, University of Hartford, West Hartford, CT.
- Kelly, L., & Keaten, J. A. (1992). A test of the effectiveness of the Reticence Program at the Pennsylvania State University. Communication Education, 41, 361–374.
- Kelly, L., & Keaten, J. A. (in press). Development of the Affect for Communication Channels Scale. Journal of Communication.
- Kelly, L., Phillips, G. M., & Keaten, J. A. (1995). Teaching people to speak well: Training and remediation of communication reticence. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Mager, R. F. (1972). Goal analysis. Belmont, CA: Fearon.
- McCroskey, J. C. (1970). Measures of communication-bound anxiety. Speech Monographs, 37, 269–277.
- McKinney, B. C. (1980). Comparison of students in self-selected speech options on four measures of reticence and cognate problems. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
- Metzger, N. J. (1974). The effects of a rhetorical method of instruction on a selected population of reticent students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
- Oerkvitz, S. K. (1975). Reports of continuing effects of instruction in a specially designed speech course for reticent students. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
- Phillips, G. M. (1965). The problem of reticence. Pennsylvania Speech Annual, 22, 22–38.
- Phillips, G. M. (1968). Reticence: Pathology of the normal speaker. Speech Monographs, 35, 39– 49.
- Phillips, G. M. (1977). Rhetoritherapy versus the medical model: Dealing with reticence. Communication Education, 26, 34–43.
- Phillips, G. M. (1984). Reticence: A perspective on social withdrawal. In J. A. Daly & J. C. McCroskey (eds.), Avoiding communication: Shyness, reticence and communication apprehension. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 51–66.
- Phillips, G. M. (1991). Communication incompetencies: A theory of training oral performance behavior. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Phillips, G. M. (1997). Reticence: A perspective on social withdrawal. In J. A. Daly, J. C. McCroskey, J. Ayres, T. Hopf, & D. M. Ayres (eds.), Avoiding communication: Shyness, reticence, and communication apprehension, 2nd edn. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 129–150.
- Phillips, G. M., & Sokoloff, K. A. (1979). An end to anxiety: Treating speech problems with rhetoritherapy. Journal of Communication Disorders, 12, 385–397.
- Sours, D. B. (1979). Comparison of judgments by placement interviewers and instructors about the severity of reticence in students enrolled in a special section of a basic speech course. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Back to Educational Communication.