ⓘ Anxiety/uncertainty management


ⓘ Anxiety/uncertainty management

Anxiety/Uncertainty Management theory was introduced by William B. Gudykunst to define how humans effectively communicate based on their anxiety and uncertainty in social situations. Gudykunst believed that in order for successful intercultural communication a reduction in anxiety/uncertainty must occur. This is assuming that the individuals within the intercultural encounter are stranger. AUM is a theory based on the Uncertainty Reduction Theory which was introduced by Berger and Calabrese in 1974. URT provides much of the initial framework for AUM, and much like other theories in the communication field AUM is a constantly developing theory, based on the observations of human behaviour in social situations.


1. Differences between URT/AUM and the introduction of anxiety

URT is based on human thought processes and their approach to social situations in which they have uncertainty. URT suggests that uncertainty stems from human attempts to the others attitudes, values, feelings, beliefs and behaviors during social encounters. Humans attempt to reduce their uncertainty in social encounters when there is a motivation to do so. URT highlights three core motivations in reducing this uncertainty: the human anticipates other social interaction at another point in time, the recipient has something the human needs or wants as a form of reward, and/or the recipient is acting in a strange or deviant way which is unexpected.

Berger identified 7 axioms evident truths and 21 theorems within URT theoretical statements which are generally accepted, but are used to observe behaviours in need of more proof. Because of these theorems, weve seen significant growth to the theory, leading to research into AUM. AUM uses the foundations of URT to formulate 47 axioms, with AUM integrating human anxiety management within social situations as well as their uncertainty management. AUM builds on URTs focus on individual or one-on-one communication, as the axioms and theorems focus on intercultural and intergroup communications.

AUM incorporates both the URT and the works of Stephan and Stephan on anxiety to expand URT to incorporate intergroup communications. AUM focuses on both anxiety and uncertainty reduction, highlighting the major difference between URT and AUM. The intended outcome of URT is simply to reduce uncertainty, whereas AUMs outcome is for cultural adaptation and not solely the reduction of uncertainty. The inherent difference is that managing anxiety is to maintain it between minimum and maximum thresholds along a spectrum, while reducing anxiety is unidirectional. This realization, along with the introduction of mindfulness as a factor of effective communication, led Gudykunst to finally designate an appropriate name for his research: Anxiety/Uncertainty Management theory AUM.

Gudykunst assumed that at least one person in an intercultural encounter is a stranger. He argues that strangers undergo both anxiety and uncertainty; they dont feel secure and they aren’t sure how to behave. Gudykunst noted that strangers and in-group members experience some degree of anxiety and uncertainty in any new interpersonal situation, but when the encounter takes place between people of different cultures, strangers are hyperaware of cultural differences. They then tend to overestimate the effect of cultural identity on the behavior of people in an alien society, while blurring individual distinctions.

The purpose of the first iteration of AUM was to be a practical application with a high degree of utility. The format of AUM includes numerous axioms, which in turn converge on one another, moving in the direction of effective communication. See Figure X. The specific number of axioms has varied over the last fifteen years according to updated research in the field of cross-cultural communication.


2. Scope of AUM

Communication theories commonly focus on 4 levels: individual, interpersonal, intergroup, and cultural.

The individual level is the motivation for human communication, influencing the ways humans create and interpret messages for example the need for group inclusion and self-concept support.

The interpersonal level is the way the message is exchanged when humans are communicating as an individual for example one-on-one communication, intimate relationships and social networks.

The intergroup level is the exchange of messages when humans are communicating as a collective for example social identities, collective self-esteem.

The cultural level is how people communicate similarly or differently dependent on their culture for example dimensions of cultural variability.

AUM focuses on interpersonal and intergroup levels of communication, with Gudykunsts axioms fitting into either the interpersonal or the intergroup categories. AUM discriminates between interpersonal and intergroup communications by examining predictions of behaviour. If the behaviour can be explained with cultural norms or with sociological norms, it can be classified as intergroup communication. When the behavior is best explained by psychological factors it is likely interpersonal communication. A second effective differentiator is to examine the identities that guide human behavior. When our behavior is guided by personal or human factors, interpersonal behaviors tend to occur. When it is guided by social factors the opposite is true.


3. Working assumptions

Complex theories such as AUM need to accept certain assumptions as true before the real content can be explored. Some metatheoretical assumptions Gudykunst makes on AUM are on the nature of reality, the way we gain knowledge, and the basis of human behavior. Gudykunst assumes that the basic processes of communication are the same across cultures; only the methods of interpretation vary. Also, he assumes these interpretations are how we gain data to create theories. Finally, and vital to AUM, he assumes that when humans are mindful they have greater control over their communications behaviors. This aspect of human nature is sometimes referred to as determinism.

Gudykunst also employs several theoretical assumptions. The first is that strangers will trigger both interpersonal and intergroup anxiety. The perspective he takes for the sake of developing axioms is that of the stranger immersed in an ingroup.

Another assumption deals with the concept of uncertainty. Gudykunst assumes that when uncertainty falls between an individuals minimum and maximum acceptable levels, effective communication will then take place. The maximum threshold is defined as the amount of uncertainty that we can possess and still comfortably predict the behavior of a stranger. Uncertainty above the minimum threshold keeps us from getting bored with the stranger and hence constraining communication.

Anxiety for the purposes of anxiety/uncertainty management can be described as an apprehension based on the fear of negative consequences. It is more prevalent in intergroup relations because there is an added fear of appearing prejudiced when dealing with an outgroup. Similar to uncertainty, Gudykunst postulates that effective communication relies on managing anxiety between minimum and maximum thresholds. Once we reach our upper limit for anxiety, virtually all of our attention focuses on its source and not on effective communication. The concept of managing levels anxiety can be compared to managing eustress and distress to achieve optimum performance. The positive benefit of the optimum amount of anxiety is trust, or "confidence that one will find what is desired from another rather than what is feared" The negative consequence is avoidance. If we are overcome by anxiety we will simply choose not to communicate.

Another term needing a working definition for the purpose of anxiety/uncertainty management is "effective communication". Simply put, effective communication is the extent to which a message is interpreted by its recipient with the intended meaning from the sender. Communication is more effective when both the sender and receiver use the same frames of reference. However, in intercultural communication this is often untrue and interactions with strangers can in turn prove more difficult.

Finally, the mechanism around which anxiety/uncertainty management revolves is mindfulness. When people communicate mindlessly, they tend to utilize broad categories and stereotypes to predict behavior. As mindfulness increases, the categories become more specific and typically more accurate predictors. Since being mindful makes us open to more information we are more likely to correctly identify the receivers frame of interpretation.

Mindfulness refers to a conscious choice rather than scripted behavior. Em Griffin, author of the Communication book; "A First Look At Communication Theory" and Professor Emeritus of Communications at Wheaton College in Illinois defines mindfulness as "the way that in-group members and strangers can reduce their anxiety and uncertainty to optimum levels". Scripted behavior serves us well in familiar situations, but not in cross-cultural communication. William Howell suggests four levels of communication competence.

  • Unconscious incompetence: We are unaware that were misinterpreting others behavior.
  • Unconscious competence: Our communication skills are automatic.
  • Conscious competence: We think about our communication and continually work to become more effective.
  • Conscious incompetence: We know that were misinterpreting others behavior but dont do anything about it.

Gudykunst defined mindfulness as stage three Conscious competence, in Howells model. In this stage cognitive choice moderates the destructive force of doubt or fear. The last stage Unconscious competence, is less competent than stage three and can quickly shift into oblivious incompetence. Mindfulness involves the creation of new categories, a new process of thinking, and formation of a kin which reinforces Delias description of how a cognitively complex person uses a lot of interpersonal constructs.


4. Theory constructions

Gudykunst uses two types of theoretical statements to construct his theory; axioms and theorems. Axioms are "propositions that involve variables that are taken to be directly linked causally; axioms should therefore be statements that imply direct causal links among variables" Some axioms do not apply in all situations. Boundary conditions specify when the axioms hold. The axioms can be combined to derive theorems. When combined the axioms and theorems form a "casual process" theory A primer in theory construction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc. that explains effective communication. Dialectical processes influence much of our communication within specific interactions. To illustrate, uncertainty involves a dialectic between predictability and novelty. In the current version of the theory, dialectics are incorporated as boundary conditions for the axioms where applicable.

Gudykunst states that in generating the axioms for the theory he assumed that managing anxiety and uncertainty are" basic causes” influencing effective communication. Other variables, are treated as "superficial causes" of effective communication. The influence of these" superficial causes” on effective communication is mediated through anxiety and uncertainty. Being mindful allows us to engage in anxiety and uncertainty management.

Gudykunst uses 47 axioms as building blocks for the theorems of AUM. Axioms can be thought of as the lowest common denominators from which all causal theorems are derived.


5. Self-concepts

Axioms one through five all relate to our views of ourselves, or self-concepts. Gudykunst includes personal identities, social identities, and collective self-esteem in this category. Social identities are employed when we try to predict intergroup behavior and personal identities are naturally employed for interpersonal behavior. They both act in such a way as to help us manage uncertainty and anxiety by sufficiently predicting behavior. If either of these identities feels threatened, Gudykunst believes that we will attempt to raise collective self-esteem and hence fostering a more positive outcome. The greater our self-esteem, the better we are able to manage our anxiety.


6. Motivation

Gudykunsts next set of axioms suggest that our motivation to interact with strangers is directly related to the fulfillment of needs. First, we have a need to trust others to behave favorably or at least in an expected manner. Second, and only in the context of intergroup relations, we need to feel inclusion with the group or anxiety will surely develop. Paradoxically, the third need that Gudykunst points out is our need for self-concept confirmation. We want to be included in the group, but not to the extent that our identity is lost in the crowd.


7. Reactions to strangers

We tend to act more favorably toward strangers whose mannerisms and beliefs converge with our own. In this case, we have a greater propensity to exhibit empathy, tolerate more ambiguity, and have a less rigid social posture when seeking closure. A rigid attitude, or close-minded thinking, leads us to seek closure to an interaction in the most direct way possible. If we were to exhibit empathy and attempt to think more objectively about the perspective of the stranger, we should in turn be postured to accept more ambiguity and seek the most appropriate solution instead of the most direct.


8. Social categorization of strangers

The next seven axioms of this theory focus on how people order their social environments into categories. When people categorize themselves, they become aware of being members of ingroups and outgroups, which generates anxiety and uncertainty. People tend to have more categories for their ingroup than they do for an outgroup, but the more familiar they are with an outgroup, the more categories they see. The categories that people create for outgroups will lead to expectations about the behavior of a member of that group, which can be either positive or negative. Expectations then help people predict, accurately or inaccurately, a strangers behavior.


9. Situational processes

The next four axioms are based on the situations in which communication occurs. People have different scripts they expect to follow for a given situation, much like actors may follow a movie script. Miscommunication occurs when people follow a script they assume the stranger with whom they are communicating to be familiar. People also react to strangers differently based on the conditions in which they interact. For example, cooperation was found to lead to positive feelings towards those one is working with. People also tend to have less anxiety when there are other members of their ingroups present. Power also affects communication, and a person who feels they have less power than the stranger in an interaction will feel more anxiety towards that interaction.


10. Connections with strangers

The next five axioms are based on connections between people. What the axioms come to is the more connected people feel to strangers, the less anxiety and uncertainty they feel in communicating with them. These connections come from attraction, interdependence, levels of intimacy, and number of the same people both communicators know.


11. Ethical interactions

The next three axioms are based on dignity and respect. Both dignity and respect are assumed to be returned when given to a stranger. This leads to moral inclusiveness, which is good for interactions with strangers because both sides expect the rules of fair play to apply to them. When strangers are considered morally excluded, they are treated almost as nonexistent, or as not deserving of respect or dignity. Moral inclusiveness applies not only to communication, but also to bystanders not actively involved in communication with strangers. For example, if a person makes an anti-prejudice statement, the people he or she is with are less likely to make a prejudiced statement towards a stranger.


12. Anxiety, uncertainty, mindfulness, and effective communication

Langer states that mindfulness involves creating new categories, an openness to new information, and being aware of strangers perspectives. Mindfulness is essential for effective communication and one needs to develop mindful ways of learning about strangers. Langer concludes that this should involve: openness to "novelty", awareness of distinctions, being sensitive to different contexts, an awareness of multiple perspectives, and an orientation to the present. For example, strangers are usually more mindful and able to "negotiate potentially problematic social interactions more effectively" than ingroup members. Therefore, ingroup members should be mindful of the process of communicating as opposed to being mindful of the outcome of the interaction.

The following five axioms are essential for effective communication because they focus on the basic causes and processes of effective communication whereas the previous 34 axioms focused on managing our anxiety and uncertainty when communicating with strangers.


13. Cross-cultural variability in AUM processes

Gudykunst believes that for the theory to be complete there must be a cultural level of analysis included and that the axioms regarding cultural variability should only be tested on the cultural level. It is necessary to address cross-cultural variability in the major components of the theory because different types of anxiety are emphasized more in some cultures than in others. This is because there are differences in the dynamics of stranger-ingroup relationships across cultures. For example, Triandis offers that collectivist cultures tend to make a stronger distinction between ingroup and outgroup members whereas members of individualistic cultures usually only draw as sharp of distinctions among differing ethnic groups.


14. Critique

There are many ways AUM theory can be applied. It can be effective in studying the behavior of a stranger adjusting to a new culture, as well as in examining how individuals communicate with strangers and often accurately predict their behavior; this is done when we are mindful. Gudykunst explains that some axioms can be combined to form theorems. These theorems that are generated might be consistent with previous research, while others might be useful for future study. He notes that not all axioms can be combined to form a new theorem. Huber and Sorrentino differentiate between certainty–oriented individuals and uncertainty-oriented individuals and argue that theories of interpersonal and intergroup relations have an "uncertainty orientation" bias. Gudykunst gives three reasons why AUM theory is not limited to uncertainty-oriented individuals. First, uncertainty-orientation is incorporated into the theory. Second, the superficial causes or factors that influence our uncertainty in a situation influence the amount of uncertainty we feel. Lastly, our personality characteristics influence our behavior only when we are not mindful. Gudykunst also defends the number of axioms in the theory because when the goal of a theory is to improve communication, one cannot afford to be vague. Gudykunst acknowledges that there are certain areas where additional research is needed. For instance, one cannot always be mindful when communicating. Potential problems then refer to the recognition of instances in which mindfulness is needed and defining the optimal levels of anxiety or uncertainty. Future research needs to develop ways to measure an individuals minimum and maximum thresholds of uncertainty and anxiety in the same way that anxiety and uncertainty are measured. AUM theory is in a constant state of revision and even the current version of the theory is not complete.


14.1. Critique Critiques by Griffin and Ting-Toomey

Griffin identifies the complexity of the AUM theory as a weakness arguing, "hypothetically, the 47 axioms could spawn over a thousand theorems."

Potential expansion of the axioms as a result of incorporation of more cultural variability indicates the possibility of causing greater confusion and complication.

Ting-Toomey explores the content of AUM theory as a potential weakness demanding further revision of the theories. She points out five conceptual issues in relation to URT and the social penetration theory.

Conceptual issues of URT and Social Penetration Theory:

  • the inevitability of integration of more contextual dimensions into the theories and research;
  • the lack of attention to relational changes;
  • the need for motivational factors and other variables of the host side that influence the uncertainty reduction process;
  • the necessity of actual research on dyadic effect of reciprocity;

14.2. Critique Limited focus: effective communication

The AUM theory regards effective communication as a primary construct, defining effective communication as the attribution of the closest meaning to incoming messages as intended by the sender which would minimise misunderstanding. This view leads to two potential problems as the definition of effective communication and effective communication as the goal of ICC.


14.3. Critique Problem of the definition of effective communication

There are various reasons for human communication which lead to questioning the possibility and the necessity of attributing the closest meaning to such great variety of communication situations. The AUM theory regards effective communication as attribution of the closest meaning to the intended meaning diminishes communication mechanical and linear activity "where messages are transferred from sender to receiver".


14.4. Critique Problem of effective communication as a goal of ICC

AUM theory defines the goal of effective communication as the decrease of miscommunication. Such perspective on communication is mechanical with little emotional attachment, regarding pure communication without misattribution as ideal. As great importance is given to efficiency, culture is referred to as" noise” that obstructs the smooth transition of communication.


14.5. Critique Excessive reliance on consciousness

Anxiety/uncertainty management theory has been criticised for its heavy focus on the person being mindful during communications, with there being an assumption that a person should have to adopt a high level of consciousness throughout communication. However the theory is difficult to apply to instances where a person is compelled by emotion or irrationality, which overrides conscious thought to reach an end goal during communication.


14.6. Critique Meta-theoretical critique

The meta-theoretical assumptions specific to Anxiety/Uncertainty Management theory have been critiqued by Masaki Yoshitake of the University of Oklahoma, who suggests that anxiety/uncertainty management theory is inherently inefficient when attempting to describe a universal experience shared between strangers and members of different cultures. Yoshitake states that it is questionable whether interpersonal communication is really a pure form of communication and suggests a difficulty to determine what is in the mind of a person from another culture altogether. Yoshitake asserts that pure communication never exists in the first place, as every attempt to share a direct experience is mitigated by the limitations of a persons own perceptions. This results in an ever-present "otherness" in communication. Such commentary is a product of Cartesian thought.

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