When people first meet, interaction is likely to be guided by issues associated with uncertainty and self-presentation. Both mutual uncertainty reduction and effective presentational management are seen to be necessary but not sufficient conditions for relational growth. Significantly, these goals may become mutually exclusive when, for example, social actors seek to hide negative or intimate aspects of the self from another, thereby remaining opaque.
Because uncertainty is seen to undermine relationship development, persons are posited as using a variety of strategies to reduce their uncertainty about each other and so increase the predictability and fluency of the interaction. Outside of face-to-face meetings, persons may observe others and/or ask third parties about future interaction partners. However, during conversation, interlocutors are seen to rely upon two primary strategies: question-asking and disclosure. The rate of question-asking is highest at the very outset of interaction and decays rapidly as the interaction progresses. Preliminary question-asking generally focuses on non-personal issues, such as name, place of work, knowledge of others in the situation (e.g., at a party), and so on, so that information exchange is both symmetrical (i.e., partners seek and provide the same information) and synchronous (i.e., partners provide the information across contiguous talking turns).
As conversation continues, question-asking gives way to self-disclosure as persons begin to provide more personal information, including their likes and dislikes, their experiences, their ambitions, and their opinions. Although this information is generally more personal than that accrued from question-asking, talk typically remains noncontroversial. As well, because disclosure is often diffuse and imprecise, talk turns usually become more extended and the exchange of information may become asymmetrical and asynchronous.
Both question-asking and disclosure are likely to be more effective to the extent that interlocutors feel at ease. Hence, conversation partners may invoke tactics designed to relax each other. For example, they may enact behaviors intended to make them appear friendly, approachable, receptive, and/or non-threatening. Such behaviors may be both verbal (e.g., identifying and extending mutually engaging conversation topics) and nonverbal (e.g., direct eye gaze).
When persons first meet, uncertainty may vary for a variety of reasons. First, levels of global uncertainty (i.e., the level of uncertainty persons bring to the encounter) vary. Perhaps as a function of recent or otherwise salient first encounters, some persons are more uncertain than others. For example, persons who have experienced substantial negative outcomes during past first meetings, especially to the extent they are salient in memory, may be expected to be both more attributionally uncertain and more behaviorally uncertain than persons who have experienced generally positive outcomes. Similarly, persons unused to first meetings with potential romantic partners (such as persons recently divorced) are likely to be more uncertain about such encounters than persons for whom such meetings are a relatively common feature of social life. Of course, because of the variability of initial interaction, global uncertainty varies within as well as across individuals.
Uncertainty may also vary across interaction contexts. For example, a person may participate frequently and successfully in first meetings with business contacts and so feel minimally uncertain in those situations. In contrast, the same person may be considerably more uncertain during social encounters, not only because they may be less practiced but because social interaction is typically less conversationally circumscribed than business-related meetings.
Likewise, persons’ uncertainty is seen to vary as a consequence of whether or not they expect to meet a conversation partner again. When future interaction is anticipated, actors appear to feel an increased need to “get to know” each other and so engage in relatively high levels of information seeking. Conversation lasts longer than when strangers expect not to meet again, although persons continue to exchange relatively non-personal information. At the same time, interactants exhibit higher levels of cooperation and are more likely to temper their own opinions than when they expect not to meet again, suggesting both increased salience of self-presentation goals and a subsequent trade-off between information seeking and social appropriateness.
A similar trade-off may occur when persons interact with another who has the ability to reward or punish them. Such power can accrue from another’s status (as in job interviews) or, more informally, from another’s perceived reward value (as in emergent romantic relationships or when interacting with a target who has a significantly more extensive friendship network). In these situations, it is likely that self-presentational goals compete with those associated with uncertainty reduction so that, again, actors’ levels of question asking and disclosure are relatively suppressed.
Finally, persons are likely to become increasingly uncertain during conversation to the extent that others behave in ways that are perceived as deviant. Such deviance may occur as a function of interlocutors violating rules governing conversation content (e.g., making personal disclosures) and/or process (e.g., monopolizing conversation) and elevates the unpredictability of interaction. Because this occurs during rather than prior to interaction, co-interlocutors may withdraw from the conversation rather than elevate their efforts to “get to know” the partner.
In sum, initial interactants typically pursue two sets of objectives: those associated with uncertainty reduction and those associated with self-presentation. Generally, persons behave in ways that allow mutual fulfillment of conversation goals, although, under some circumstances, this may not be possible.
- Altman, I., & Taylor, D. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Berger, C. R. (1988). Uncertainty and information exchange in developing relationships. In S. W. Duck (ed.), Handbook of personal relationships. New York: John Wiley, pp. 239 –255.
- Berger, C. R., & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some explorations in initial interaction and beyond: Toward a developmental theory of interpersonal communication. Human Communication Research, 1, 99 –112.
- Knapp, M. L., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2005). Interpersonal communication and human relationships. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.