Communication anxiety/avoidance is one of the most studied phenomena in the field of communication. Communication apprehension (CA) is defined as “the fear or anxiety associated with real or anticipated communication with others” (McCroskey 1984). CA is problematic when anxiety reaches levels that interfere with goal attainment.
Inherently social, communication apprehension is emotionally based, although CA does involve attitudinal and behavioral components. Other anxiety-related constructs (e.g., reticence, willingness, shyness) are more belief-based and attitudinal, and all incorporate elements of avoidant behavior. Because responding can be via thinking, feeling, and behaving, these anxiety/avoidance constructs are related, but not isomorphic. Fear of negative evaluation permeates self-perceptions, external orientations, and behaviors.
Such emotional responses are not necessarily aversive. Low levels of anxiety may be perceived as anticipatory arousal or excitement, and not negatively experienced. But as anxiety increases it becomes more aversive and debilitating, interfering with social interaction demands. In societies that place priority on active communication and talk, social anxiety can be painful and inhibiting.
Communication-based anxiety/apprehension occurs due to individual characteristics, situational factors, or their interaction. These factors give rise to “trait,” “state,” and “interactional” approaches to the study of CA. An enduring, cross-situational fear of communication is labeled trait apprehension. Transient responses, occurring in selected moments are considered state anxiety. Most explanations include a combination of both.
Types Of Communication Apprehension
Trait communication apprehension is an enduring orientation toward communication. The trait predisposes someone to respond to many kinds of communication demands with anxiety and trepidation. A person who is trait apprehensive will be fearful across time, and respond anxiously to many different circumstances. Trait CA is resistant, although not impossible, to change.
Audience-based communication apprehension is anxiety toward communication with a specific person or group. It tends to be consistent across time with those specific receivers. For example, some work has reflected students’ fear of communicating in classroom settings with other students and teachers. Some people report an enduring anxious response toward communication with their spouse, and not surprisingly, this is linked to lower relational satisfaction.
State, also called situational, communication apprehension is a transitory response to a communication situation. One experiences the state of anxiety in a given circumstance, but as soon as that interaction or situation terminates, the arousal dissipates. State CA fluctuates widely across contexts, but due to accumulated effects, is reliably more intense and consistent among high trait-apprehensive individuals.
The premise underlying context-based communication apprehension is that certain settings have similar interactional demands that may create anxiety (i.e., as soon as people find themselves in that setting with those performance demands, anxiety occurs.) People may experience heightened anxiety in one context or multiple settings. Four primary contexts are associated with CA: public speaking, meetings, group discussion, and dyadic interactions. Although researchers have also investigated more specific contexts such as classroom, writing, or health-related interactions.
Public speaking remains the most widely recognized, studied, and feared communicative context. This typically involves prepared presentations in a one-to-many setting, where one primary sender has multiple receivers who do not interact in a balanced, reciprocal manner. While gender differences overall are negligible for CA, an exception is public speaking where females tend to be more anxious.
Meeting and group contexts may be less anxiety-provoking because participants share communicative responsibility in the more interactive settings. However, status differentials may exacerbate anxiety. The dyadic or interpersonal context tends to be the least anxiety provoking (although not for everyone). The dyadic pattern is typically one-to-one with both conversationalists sharing approximately equal responsibility for the interaction. Interpersonal communication is generally less structured and more social than other contexts. One reason dyads tend to be less anxiety-provoking is that interactive rules may be fewer, looser, and subject to negotiation and adaptation. Nevertheless, because of their innately more personal interaction demands, interpersonal communication contexts still evoke anxiety in many people.
Assessment of CA is primarily through self-reported feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, but there are also some studies measuring physiological responses (e.g., S. Booth-Butterfield 1987) and assessments of overt behaviors, especially in the public speaking context. The most widely used measure of trait CA is the personal report of communication apprehension (PRCA-24). This 24-item self-report scale measures four separate contexts of CA, which are either summed to identify levels of trait CA, or used individually to measure anxiety in specific contexts.
Causes Of Trait Anxiety
Development of trait CA may be due to genetics, modeling, and/or reinforcement patterns. There is good evidence that some types of apprehension/inhibition are biologically based or heritable (e.g., studies of twins, adoptees, and physiology). Modeling may also impact avoidance, when individuals act in ways they see others act. However, modeling tends to be more applicable to behavioral than emotional outcomes.
Reinforcement is based on the premise that consequences or outcomes of what we do cause us to either repeat or avoid certain behaviors. When people are consistently punished for communication, they learn to fear it. But a particularly dysfunctional pattern of reinforcement occurs when responses or reinforcement contingencies are random or unpredictable. Under these circumstances, productive expectations for avoiding punishment or garnering rewards cannot be formed and thus anxiety develops.
Recent attention among some communication scholars has refocused on the extent to which CAA is inborn or acquired. Most conclude that high CA is a combination of biological predispositions and long-term reinforcement patterns creating ambiguous or negative expectations for communicative outcomes.
Effects Of High Communication Apprehension
Numerous communication scholars have conducted anxiety-related research, but the leader and most prolific researcher in these efforts has been James C. McCroskey. Most research on outcomes of CA has been correlational in design, with a few experimental and observational studies (Greene & Sparks 1983; M. Booth-Butterfield & Booth-Butterfield 1986; Behnke & Sawyer 2000). The effects of high CA for the individual include (1) avoidance of communication encounters, (2) withdrawal or minimization of communication within interactions when they cannot be avoided, (3) cognitive interference which distorts information processing, and (4) behavioral disruption. These negative effects have been studied in a variety of contexts including educational settings, interpersonal situations, organizational contexts, health-related environments, and across cultures. For example, high anxiety is related to preferences for jobs with low interaction demands, self-selected seating arrangements, and task choice. High CAs often exhibit avoidance and disruption in performance/participation classes, whether this involves making speeches, playing music, or explaining science projects. Not surprisingly, they tend to avoid, withdraw from, or perform poorly in presentational circumstances.
Highly anxious people have been shown to differ on both self-perceptions and perceptions elicited from others. High CAs report a preponderance of self-focused negative thoughts. They have lower self-esteem, less creativity, and a greater need for structure. In addition they tend to be less assertive, more self-conscious, and higher in receiver apprehension and touch avoidance. They believe that others view them as less competent and may respond with verbal aggression when forced to interact. Higher trait anxiety is related to lower satisfaction with many types of communicative interactions; e.g., healthcare providers, social interactions, work settings.
Studies find that others tend to view apprehensive individuals as more withdrawn, lonely, less socially attractive, having few leadership skills, low on immediacy and lacking interaction involvement. They are generally perceived as more difficult to interact with and as possessing poor social skills. Teachers’ and supervisors’ perceptions are similarly negative, contributing to lower evaluations and levels of achievement among highly anxious individuals.
Physiologically, anxious individuals experience greater levels of arousal, especially measured by heart rate, and such anxiety may occur a week or more before a presentation. Importantly, among high CAs, arousal does not quickly dissipate when completing communicative tasks such as public speaking, making it even more aversive.
Overt behaviors are generally congruent with the need to avoid or minimize communication in order to control aversive arousal. The most consistent observable effect is low verbal output. Whether in public speaking, groups, or dyads, high CAs talk less than others. Studies reliably report that they engage in less eye contact, maintain neutral facial affect, pause more, exhibit either excessive “fidgety” movement or gestural rigidity, and are more disfluent. Additional actions have also been noted in some studies, but they are more idiosyncratic and less widely verified. When assessing CA via behavioral output, it is best to observe clusters of behaviors rather than one indicant.
Due to fear and expectation of negative evaluation for their communicative efforts, high CAs avoid drawing attention to themselves. They may be overlooked by teachers, acquaintances, or supervisors. Thus, while they perform equally well in large lecture classes and there is no indication of substantive intellectual differences, due to communication expectations, high CAs tend to have lower GPAs and job attainment compared to lower CAs.
Treating Communication Apprehension’s Effects
The debilitating effects of high levels of CA have focused attention on alleviating the negative impact. This has taken two primary directions: therapeutic programs and contextual adjustments. Therapeutic approaches seek to lower anxiety by reducing levels of activation and cognitive disruption, hence altering the individual’s cognitive, emotional, and/or behavioral responses. Primary forms of treatment are cognitive therapies, systematic desensitization, and communication skills training, with visualization offering a combined approach.
Reducing anxiety via cognitive therapies involves changing the way people think and feel about communication interactions, often altering their belief systems. This will likely take substantial in-depth, focused effort. Systematic desensitization (SD) incorporates training in muscle relaxation while visualizing a hierarchy of threat situations to reinforce a calm approach to communication challenges. Repetition of images successively approximating the fear-provoking situation, while in a relaxed state, desensitizes the apprehensive individual to the communication threat.
Skills training focuses on developing more competent behaviors and eliminating dysfunctional actions. Skills training involves planning, rehearsal, and practice of the communication challenge. Each form of treatment can be effective for specific types of anxiety-based avoidance, although meta-analysis indicates additive effects for multiple therapies, and performance visualization incorporates elements of all three to reduce high CA.
Reducing anxiety through context adjustments, compared to changing the individual, is most often applied to instructional practices. Numerous studies have examined pedagogical approaches supporting anxious learners. Providing sufficient assignment structure, arranging the room in conversational and nonthreatening patterns, facilitating introductions, supportive teacher behaviors, and avoiding excessive evaluation especially via oral communication, are all strategies that have been found to create a more sympathetic environment for people with high CA, at all levels of learning.
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