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Anxiety, Uncertainty, and Intercultural Communication

Summary and Keywords

The effects of uncertainty and anxiety are profiled in association with intercultural communication and the initiation and development of intercultural relationships. Uncertainty is cognitive and refers to what one knows about another and one’s level of predictability about another. Anxiety is the affective equivalent of uncertainty and refers to the level of discomfort associated with interacting with a stranger. Two major theories are associated with this process, including uncertainty reduction theory and anxiety/uncertainty management theory. Other communicative factors also affect uncertainty and anxiety reduction and management during intercultural communication.

Keywords: anxiety/uncertainty management (AUM) theory, ethnocentrism, intercultural communication apprehension, uncertainty, uncertainty reduction theory

Introduction

In 1948, the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis coined the term “global village” in his book titled America and Cosmic Man. Lewis’s friend, Marshall McLuhan, also used the term in his writings and predicted that via the technological advances of mass media, the natural time and space barriers inherent in human communication would vanish, and people would begin to interact and live on a global scale. Nearly 20 years into the 21st century, McLuhan’s vision of a global village is no longer considered an abstract idea, but a near certainty. Technological changes have made Earth a smaller planet to inhabit. The shear speed and frequency with which people can interact with others from different cultures is astonishing. Initiating a relationship with someone from across the globe is much easier than it was only a few years ago. But establishing and maintaining relationships across cultures is also very hard work. Establishing a relationship with someone from a different culture, who may look, act, and communicate differently, presents the intercultural communicator with some complex predictive and explanatory problems.

Over the past 40 years, a substantial body of research as accumulated in the communication literature regarding anxiety, uncertainty, intercultural communication, and the development of intercultural relationships. A central theme of this research is the effect of uncertainty and anxiety on the initiation and maintenance of intercultural relationships. All relationships must begin somewhere. Intimate friends and partners were once strangers. Communication with a stranger, particularly a person from a different culture, can be frightening and full of uncertainty.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Much of the work on uncertainty and anxiety in intercultural relationships began with the seminal work of Charles Berger and his associates with the introduction of uncertainty reduction theory (URT). Berger’s early work with URT focused on the initial stages of relational development among intra-cultural interactants, that is, people from the same culture. According to Berger, uncertainty refers to the amount of predictability, that is, what someone knows about the person with whom they are interacting. When someone else is a stranger, interactants may know almost nothing about the other person, and uncertainty is high. When interacting with strangers, because of the high uncertainty, interactants experience anxiety. Uncertainty is cognitive (what is known about the other), whereas anxiety is affective (how one feels and the negative arousal triggered by uncertainty). Uncertainty and anxiety are closely linked. High uncertainty triggers high anxiety. The central premise of URT is that when strangers first meet, their primary goal is to reduce uncertainty and increase the predictability of their own and the other person’s behavior. To accomplish this, they use specific communication strategies.

According to URT, uncertainty reduction can be a proactive, interactive, and retroactive process. That is, interactants can reduce uncertainty before, during, and after interacting with someone. Interactants can proactively reduce uncertainty and weigh alternative behavioral options prior to interacting with a stranger. For example, if someone is about to interact with a person from a different culture, he or she might anticipate that the other person does not speak the same language and adjust his or her speech accordingly. Interactively, during communication interactants often reduce uncertainty by asking a lot of questions. Retroactively, uncertainty can be reduced by attempting to explain someone’s behavior after it has been enacted. For example, after interacting with a South Korean, we may be able to explain why the person did not engage in direct eye contact.

Uncertainty can also be reduced passively, actively, and interactively. Passive uncertainty reduction might include unobtrusive observations of someone. For example, co-workers who do not know each other may passively observe other co-workers on the job. Active uncertainty reduction might include asking questions about someone from a third party. Interactive uncertainty reduction is the focus of URT and involves the actual exchange of verbal and nonverbal messages between and among strangers.

Axioms of Uncertainty Reduction Theory

The earliest versions of URT include seven axioms outlining the theory’s fundamental assumptions. These are presented below.

  • Axiom 1: Given the high level of uncertainty present at the onset of the entry phase, as the amount of verbal communication between strangers increases, the level of uncertainty for each interactant in the relationship decreases. As uncertainty is further reduced, the amount of verbal communication increases.

  • Axiom 2: As nonverbal affiliative expressiveness increases, uncertainty levels decrease in an initial interaction situation. In addition, decreases in uncertainty level cause increases in nonverbal affiliative expressiveness.

  • Axiom 3: High levels of uncertainty cause increases in information-seeking behavior. As uncertainty levels decline, information-seeking behavior decreases.

  • Axiom 4: High levels of uncertainty in a relationship cause decreases in the intimacy level of communication content. Low levels of uncertainty produce high levels of intimacy.

  • Axiom 5: High levels of uncertainty produce high rates of reciprocity. Low levels of uncertainty produce low reciprocity rates.

  • Axiom 6: Similarities between persons reduce uncertainty, whereas dissimilarities produce increases in uncertainty.

  • Axiom 7: Increases in uncertainty level produce decreases in liking; decreases in uncertainty level produce increases in liking.

Although people in any culture will seek to reduce uncertainty during initial interaction, the original seven axioms of URT are based on communication patterns of people in the United States and may not be generalizable across cultures. Many researchers believe that the verbal and nonverbal communication strategies people use to reduce uncertainty vary considerably from culture to culture. For example, Axioms 1 and 2 focus on the quantity of communication and suggest a linear relationship between the amount of verbal and nonverbal messages exchanges between strangers and uncertainty. In other words, as verbal and nonverbal communication increases, uncertainty decreases. This may not be the case across all cultures, however.

Regarding Axiom 1, Gudykunst and Nishida found that the frequency of verbal communication predicts uncertainty reduction in individualistic cultures, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, but not in collectivistic cultures, such as Japan, China, and South Korea. The United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia are low-context cultures, where much of the information in a communication context is found in the actual verbal code. Persons in low-context cultures look to the verbal code to reduce uncertainty. Japan, China, and South Korea are high-context cultures where much of the information is found in the physical and social (i.e., nonverbal) context. Rather than talk a lot, persons in these cultures reduce uncertainty by focusing on nonverbal cues, such as sex, age, and status. In collectivistic, high-context cultures, one’s sex, age, and social hierarchical status are very informative and thus reduce the need to communicate verbally.

In Axiom 2, “nonverbal affiliative expressiveness” refers to those nonverbal behaviors that reduce the physiological and psychological distance between interactants. For example, in the United States, direct eye contact, affirmative head nods, smiling, and an arm’s length distance between interactants is considered affiliative expressiveness. In other cultures, these same behaviors may actually increase uncertainty and anxiety. In cultures such as South Korea and Guatemala, for example, persons of lower status do not engage in direct eye contact with parents or people of higher status because doing so communicates conflict or a challenge. The specific nonverbal behaviors that constitute affiliative expressiveness vary considerably across cultures.

Axiom 3 asserts that high levels of uncertainty cause increases in information-seeking behavior. As uncertainty levels decline, information-seeking behavior decreases. This is probably valid across cultures, but what constitutes information-seeking behavior may vary across cultures. As mentioned earlier, in the United States, people often seek information from others by asking a lot of questions, again, using the verbal code to reduce uncertainty. In other cultures, particularly collectivistic, high-context cultures, people may seek information through nonverbal means, perhaps by observing the other person’s sex, age, and status. Saudi Arabia, for example, is a large power distance culture where one’s place in the social hierarchy is clearly articulated. Familial roles, for example, are very well defined. In Saudi families, fathers rule unquestionably, followed by the eldest son. The role of the eldest son in Saudi culture is very clearly defined and consistent across the culture. So, if one were to meet the eldest son of a Saudi family, questions are not needed because his role is already known.

Axiom 4 refers not to the quantity of communication, but to its quality. In this case, the lower the level of uncertainty, the higher the level of intimacy in the communication. Intimate communication may be defined as interaction based on issues related to the interactants’ attitudes, beliefs, motivations, and dispositions. Although this axiom may be valid across cultures, what constitutes intimacy across cultures may vary considerably.

Axiom 5 deals with the rate of reciprocity, or the give and take and the mutual exchange of information between strangers. Berger and Calabrese contend that during initial interactions interactants are motivated by the high uncertainty to ask for and give the same kinds of information at the same rate as each other to avoid the awkwardness (i.e., the anxiety) of the initial interaction. As the relationship develops and uncertainty is reduced, there is less felt need to reciprocate, because the interactants are more comfortable with the relationship.

Axiom 6 centers on the notion of similarity. Berger and Calabrese argue that as similarity between interactants increases, uncertainty decreases. Likewise, the more dissimilarity present, the more uncertainty . . . People can be similar to one another in a number of ways; for example, two people may share race, language, age, sex, and/or occupation. Attitudinal similarity and linguistic similarity between interactants is also a key variable in reducing uncertainty. Uncertainty can be difficult to reduce if two people speak different languages and share few attitudes.

Finally, Axiom 7 focuses on the concept of liking. Unless we know something about other people, it is difficult to like them. Thus, liking other people is somewhat contingent on knowing something about them (i.e., less uncertainty). The research on this axiom, even within the United States, is mixed. In some cases, the more we know about another, the less we may like that person. For example, if we learn over time that a new acquaintance is often dishonest, we may begin to dislike him or her.

As mentioned above, the original seven axioms of URT were designed to explain communicative processes between and among strangers in the United States. Gudykunst and Kim have argued that interactants may be more motivated to reduce uncertainty during initial intercultural communication than during initial intra-cultural communication. Moreover, as explained above, culture affects how one reduces uncertainty. For example, Gudykunst points out that people from collectivistic, high-context cultures, such as China and Japan, reduce uncertainty in initial encounters, but the kind of information they seek is different from that sought by persons from individualistic, low-context cultures. In high-context cultures, much of the information resides in the physical and social context such as the other’s sex, social background, and rank in the social hierarchy. These variables tell much about the individual. In individualistic, low-context cultures, the verbal code is used to reduce uncertainty.

Anxiety/Uncertainty Management (AUM) Theory

Once again, the central premise of URT is that initial interaction with someone is replete with uncertainty and anxiety and that interactants try to reduce uncertainty via specific communicative strategies. Related to this, Gudykunst developed a theory called anxiety/uncertainty management theory (AUM) to explain the relationships among uncertainty, anxiety, mindfulness, and communication effectiveness. During initial communication with someone, Gudykunst argues that the processes underlying intra-cultural communication are the same processes underlying intercultural communication. Gudykunst refers to these common properties as communicating with strangers. Gudykunst maintains that a stranger is someone who is physically near but conceptually distant.

Although URT and AUM are similar, AUM shifts the focus from uncertainty and anxiety reduction to uncertainty and anxiety management. To be sure, during initial encounters with strangers, the primary motive is to reduce uncertainty whether it is during intra-cultural or intercultural encounters. But Gudykunst notes that over time, once uncertainty has been reduced to tolerable levels, interactants move toward managing the uncertainty. Specifically, AUM stipulates that people have minimum and maximum thresholds for uncertainty and anxiety. The maximum threshold is the highest amount of uncertainty or anxiety individuals can experience and remain comfortable communicating. An individual’s minimum threshold of uncertainty or anxiety is the lowest amount of uncertainty a person can experience before becoming unmotivated. Interaction with too little uncertainty may be dull and uninteresting. If one’s uncertainty is above the maximum or below the minimum thresholds, communication effectiveness is compromised. Essentially, interactants have to manage between too much and too little uncertainty. Moreover, AUM further stipulates that minimum and maximum thresholds vary considerably across cultures. Individuals in individualistic, low-context cultures tend to be more tolerant of uncertainty than are individuals from collectivistic, high-context cultures. Hence, persons raised in individualistic, low-context cultures tend to have higher thresholds for uncertainty than do individuals from collectivistic, high-context cultures.

AUM also incorporates the concepts of mindfulness and communication effectiveness. Mindfulness refers to a person’s conscious attention to processing information about strangers. A mindful communicator is open to new information about others. When people are not mindful, they tend to assume that persons from other cultures simply understand their messages. Communication effectiveness refers to the idea that a stranger receiving and interpreting a message attaches the same meaning to the message that was intended by the sender. If one can manage uncertainty and anxiety, mindfulness can be achieved, which leads to intercultural communication effectiveness. AUM points out that there may be a number of factors that restrain uncertainty and anxiety management, however. Some of these include one’s motivation to interact with strangers, positive or negative reactions to strangers, and stereotyping of strangers, among others. For example, if an individual carries rigid stereotypes of strangers, that will lead to an increase in anxiety and a decrease in one’s ability to predict their behavior. On the other hand, to the extent that one can categorize strangers in the same categories they categorize themselves, that will increase the ability to predict their behavior accurately, therefore reducing uncertainty and anxiety.

In constructing AUM, Gudykunst posited 47 axioms relating to anxiety and uncertainty management. Although a complete treatise of these 47 axioms is beyond the scope of this article, a few representative axioms follow:

  • Axiom 3: An increase in our self-esteem when interacting with strangers produces a decrease in our anxiety and an increase in our ability to predict their behavior accurately.

  • Axiom 11: An increase in the rigidity of our attitudes toward strangers produces an increase in our anxiety and a decrease in our ability to predict their behavior accurately.

  • Axiom 16: An increase in our understanding of similarities and differences between our groups and strangers’ groups produces a decrease in our anxiety and an increase in our ability to accurately predict their behavior.

Intercultural Communication Apprehension

Perhaps the most studied communicative phenomenon in the communication field is communication apprehension (CA). Nearly 50 years of research on this construct has led to a substantial body of research. Probably hundreds of studies have been conducted on CA. Jim McCroskey is considered the father of the CA construct and defined CA as the fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with others. Although a complete review of the literature on CA is beyond the scope or purpose of this article, a brief introduction is warranted because of its link to intercultural communication, anxiety, and uncertainty.

In the United States about 20% of adults suffer from CA almost any time they interact with others. Yet virtually everyone experiences CA occasionally. Most scholars recognize four types of CA, including trait-like, context based, audience based, and situational CA. Trait-like CA is an enduring personality predisposition (possibly genetic) where an individual experiences CA most of the time across most communication situations. As mentioned above, about 20% of adults in the United States experience trait-like CA. Context-based CA is restricted to a certain generalized context, such as public speaking, group meetings, or job interviews. Persons with context-based CA experience anxiety only in certain situations. Many people fear public speaking, for example. Audience-based CA is triggered not by the specific context, but by the particular person or audience with whom one is communicating. Persons with audience-based CA may experience anxiety when communicating with strangers or their superiors, for example. College students with audience-based CA may experience anxiety when communicating with professors but not when communicating with other students. Finally, situational-based CA, experienced by virtually everyone, occurs with the combination of a specific context and a specific audience. For example, students may feel anxious interacting with professors but only when they are alone with the professor in the professor’s office. At other times, perhaps in the hallways or in the classroom, interacting with the professor may not trigger anxiety. To repeat, virtually everyone experiences CA at some time.

Two decades ago Neuliep and McCroskey extended the line of research on CA to intercultural contexts and introduced the concept of intercultural communication apprehension (ICA). Reasoning that intercultural communication is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety, Neuliep and McCroskey argued that many people probably experience ICA when interacting with people from different cultures. They defined ICA as the fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with people from different groups, especially cultural and/or ethnic groups. Persons experiencing ICA tend to avoid rather than approach intercultural interaction and thus are less likely to engage in communication tactics that reduce uncertainty. Persons who do not experience ICA communicate comfortably with persons from other cultures, managing uncertainty and thereby facilitating effective communication. Situations containing new, atypical, or conspicuously different stimuli often increase uncertainty and anxiety. Intercultural communication is often replete with novelty and dissimilarity. Hence, interacting with a person from another culture in a novel and unfamiliar context may produce levels of ICA that inhibit the ability to manage uncertainty and anxiety. Interestingly, ICA inhibits effective intercultural communication but may have no effect on intra-cultural communication.

Related research has shown that ICA is positively associated with high uncertainty about one’s own communicative behavior with persons from different cultures, uncertainty about the other’s behavior, and uncertainty about interacting with persons from different cultures. Furthermore, ICA is negatively associated with both responsive and assertive communicative behaviors; both of which have been shown to reduce uncertainty and anxiety. Neuliep and Ryan found that people who were assertive (i.e., approach oriented) and responsive (i.e., empathetic listeners) during intercultural encounters reported experiencing less ICA. Because they are seen as strangers, people from different cultures may seem unusual and novel. This difference can create tension and anxiety, which in turn can lead to avoidance. On the other hand, some people may be positively predisposed to initiate intercultural interactions even when they are completely free to choose whether or not to communicate. This predisposition, labeled by Kassing, is called intercultural willingness to communicate. ICA is also negatively associated with intercultural willingness to communicate. Individuals with high ICA prefer intra-cultural interaction and are less likely to approach intercultural strangers, thus inhibiting their reduction and management of uncertainty and anxiety. These same individuals may be likely to approach in-group members without much apprehension, however. To the extent that individuals avoid intercultural interaction, anxiety and uncertainty reduction is difficult, if not impossible.

Ethnocentrism

Research in communication has shown that ethnocentrism negatively affects uncertainty during intercultural encounters. According to Neuliep, ethnocentrism refers to the idea that one’s own culture is the center of everything, and all other groups are scaled and rated with reference to it. Consistent with Axiom 11 from AUM, ethnocentric persons hold rigid attitudes and behaviors toward in-groups that are biased in favor of the in-group, often at the expense of the out-group. Ethnocentric persons see their group as superior to some out-group. Behaviorally, ethnocentric persons foster cooperative relations with in-group members while competing with out-group members.

Neuliep and his associates argue that ethnocentrism should be viewed along a continuum and that not all ethnocentrism is necessarily negative. Neuliep and McCroskey have argued that as newborns, humans are asocial and are entirely, and naturally, egocentric. By the age of two or three, children engage in social perspective taking of their biological or adopted families. Over time, as they become socialized, children observe that their families coexist with other families and that this culmination of people constitutes some form of neighborhood, clan, tribe, community, city, society, and finally culture. When they realize that they are a part of some much larger whole, children are enculturated and essentially ethnocentric. In many of his writings, Neuliep argues that throughout their socialization process children have been taught the correct (i.e., cultural) way to think, feel, and behave. As Neuliep maintains, culture teaches one how to think, conditions one how to feel, and instructs one how to act, especially how to interact with others, that is, communication.

Given this line of reasoning, Neuliep and McCroskey also argue that because ethnocentrism is a natural outcome of socialization and enculturation, it is not necessarily pejorative. To be sure, ethnocentrism may serve a valuable function when one’s in-group is challenged. Ethnocentrism forms the basis for patriotism and the willingness to sacrifice for one’s central in-group. On the other hand, the ethnocentric tendency for people to see their own way as the only right way can be dangerous and lead to prejudice, discrimination, and even ethnic cleansing.

In his research, Neuliep found a significant relationship between ethnocentrism and uncertainty reduction in intercultural encounters. Highly ethnocentric persons prefer intra-cultural interaction and avoid communicating with persons from other cultures. Because highly ethnocentric persons see themselves as superior to persons from different cultures, they feel little or no motivation to communicate effectively with them, are generally not mindful, and have little or no motivation to reduce uncertainty. Gudykunst has asserted that one’s self-esteem is fostered by his or her group memberships and affects interacting with strangers. Ethnocentrism accentuates this process specifically when initial encounters are with out-group strangers (i.e., intercultural communication) as opposed to in-group strangers (intra-cultural communication). This may lead to an increase in uncertainty and a decrease in uncertainty reduction and thus lower effectiveness during intercultural encounters.

Conclusion

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, McLuhan’s vision of a global village is no longer considered an abstract idea. Today, literally billions of people have access to information not available to them only a few years ago. The ease and speed with which people of differing cultures can now communicate was unthinkable in McLuhan’s day. To be sure, initiating intercultural relationships is difficult and requires one to reduce and then manage uncertainty and anxiety, and to be mindful. Then, communication effectiveness can be achieved.

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