Chapter 4: Communication Apprehension
Communication Apprehension as a Trait. In the previous chapter we looked at the issue of traits and suggested that a trait is a relatively consistent aspect of our personality or communication. It tends to be enduring and omnipresent. When CA exists as a trait, it means that the anxiety over communication is present regardless of any environmental circumstance. No matter who we are speaking with, no matter where or when, an anxiety reaction exists. Thus communication of any sort public or intimate, serious or banal is problematic. Even talking with a parent or spouse can prove difficult. For those with high CA there is little escape from the anxiety that plagues them. In the U.S. we are a highly communicative culture that places a premium on the ability and willingness to communicate with others. High-Apps, as they are called, are at a significant disadvantage. As we shall see, there are important educational, social, and professional consequences that accompany CA. It is also this type of CA that creates the greatest amount of difficulty for its sufferers. The anxiety that an individual with trait CA experiences is real. It is every bit as real as any other phobia. In the same way that throwing a hydrophobic person into the water is not helpful, forcing High-Apps to communicate constitutes the same sort of wrong headed thinking. At present, the answer to dealing with CA is management of the problem. Keep in mind that High-Apps are able to engineer their lives so that communication intrudes as little as possible. While there are consequences to CA, most manage to live their lives. Not all apprehensives are incompetent communicators. They often perceive themselves to be poor communicators, but that doesn't mean that they are. When forced to communicate, they communicate. They don’t like it, but as we shall see, they do it.
Communication Apprehension in Generalized Contexts.
Although 1 in 5 people are classified as high CA, not all CA is trait-like.
Some people are anxious only in certain types of settings. This is known
as Generalized Context CA. It means that there are general types of communication
settings that evoke anxiety is the communicator. The most common context
for CA is public speaking. In fact, 80% of North Americans are highly apprehensive
when asked to give a speech in a public setting. For others, meetings may
generate nervousness. In general, research shows that the more people we
add to a communication context, the more anxiety occurs in a speaker. However,
for some it may be the reverse. There are well known entertainers for whom
intimate, one on one, relationships are difficult, but performing for thousands
is not problematic. For many students, it is the classroom environment
that generates apprehension. In fact, it has been shown that communication
apprehension can interfere with cognitive processing and memory. Yet, it
is still common practice in schools to demand communication in classrooms.
It is believed that oral communication is evidence of learning. In some
cases that’s true. Yet, it is important to remember that children know
more than they may be willing to say and may be able to say things they
do not understand.
McCroskey points out that if we present a child with pictures of animals and point to an animal and ask what it is, they child may not be able or, more important, may not be willing to answer the question. How can we tell if we’ve actually measured the child’s knowledge rather than their level of apprehension or degree of willingness to communicate? If we take the same child and ask them to point to the Zebra, they are more likely to do this than answer an open-ended question that requires that they speak. It also tells us whether the child is able to recognize the animal and it does this without introducing oral communication anxiety into the context. In contrast children are often capable of performing oral communication without a whiff of understanding. First graders are routinely asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. Most do an admirable job of it. Yet, do we really think that they understand what they are saying? Do they know what allegiance is? Liberty? Justice? Do they know what a Republic is, as opposed to a Monarchy or Oligarchy? Do they know what the term indivisible means? It is doubtful on all counts. Yet they perform. In short, oral communication provides no guarantee of knowledge and potentially introduces anxiety into contexts.
A person can be anxious about communication in almost any type of context. If dinner time was the time when your family went to war with each other, you might find that sitting down to dinner may produce anxiety throughout your life. The important thing to remember about generalized context CA is that the person experiences anxiety in contexts that they perceive to be of a certain type. One might think that a teacher would have little or no anxiety about public speaking. After all, they speak in public for a living. Yet, both authors know people who are quite comfortable in front of a lecture hall with 200 or more students. Those same people are panic stricken at the thought of having to present their research to a small group of colleagues at a convention. Clearly the issue is more than a simple matter of how many people are in a room. There may be a variety of real or imagined issues for the individual who experiences CA in any given context.
Communication Apprehension with Generalized People. In addition to having issues with contexts, there may be certain categories of people that stimulate an anxiety response. This too can cover a wide variety of person types. Maybe interactions with police officers cause us to become anxious. Maybe it’s meeting our dates’ parents. Perhaps teachers or any authority figures. For others it may be potential romantic interests. Once again, the important feature of generalized person CA is that we experience anxiety whenever we interact with someone we perceive to be of a certain type or classification of person. However, interactions with specific people may also be included as long as we experience anxiety when interacting with them, regardless of the context. For example, if we don’t get along with our significant other’s parents no matter what the situation, and the thought or act of communicating with them creates anxiety, then this too represents a type of person based CA.
Communication Apprehension as a State. Everyone experiences CA sometimes. On occasion, some unique set of circumstances causes us to become anxious about communication. State CA occurs when a very specific set of circumstances causes the average person to become apprehensive about communication in situations where they would otherwise be relaxed. For example, most people are not anxious about communicating with their parents. But, suppose that you borrowed their new car and dented it badly. It is likely that prior to informing them of the damage to their car, you’d experience a fair amount of anxiety about the upcoming conversation with your parents. After the conversation, your anxiety level would likely return to normal, pre-crash levels. Any variety of circumstances might increase anxiety temporarily, but the anxiety is transient.
Origins of Communication Apprehension
For the last 30 or so years, most educators and social scientists have tacitly bought into Locke’s notion of the human being as tabula rosa or a blank slate. That is, humans are thought to come to the world with a hand full of basic reflexes and little else. As such, all are equal and most everything else has to be learned or elicited by stimuli that are present in the environment. The way in which humans behave socially was thought to be the product of a broad process of acquisition known as Social Learning Theory. It proceeds from the belief that humans learn to interact socially through a variety of learning mechanisms. For many years is has been accepted that most of how we behave is the result of this process.
More recently, neuro-psychologists have argued rather persuasively, that many aspects of temperament (or personality) are present immediately post partum with no experience, save in utero experience (not likely due to the poor brain development noted in chapter 1), to produce learning. Further, emotional responses have been linked to specific physical processes and neurological structures. What is perhaps most amazing is the degree of predictability that has been demonstrated for wide range of personality attributes including well-being, depression, and anxiety. It is an interesting proposition that merits further consideration. Even if it means that all are not equal.
A debate arises when we feel we must man the barricades on one side or the other of this argument. Primate researchers conducted interesting experiments in which chimpanzee offspring and parentage was manipulated. The researchers bred anxiety prone parents and produced anxiety prone offspring. Similarly, relaxed parents were bred to produce relaxed offspring. Then some of the offspring were switched. Anxiety prone parents were given relaxed offspring to raise and vice versa. Not surprisingly, the high strung chimps were indeed more relaxed than those who stayed with their high strung parents. Likewise, the relaxed chimps that were raised by high-strung parents were more anxious than their counterparts who had remained with their relaxed parents. But, the high strung chimps raised by relaxed parents were not as relaxed as those who were both bred and reared for relaxation. Similarly, the relaxed chimps raised by high-strung parents were not at high strung as those whose genes and environments were designed to produce anxiety. These experiments suggest that there is a combination of effects—that both biology and learning play a part. The remainder of this section will focus on how both mechanisms, learning and biology, produce Communication Apprehension.
The Social Learning Perspective. As was mentioned
above, the social learning perspective suggests that communication apprehension
is a learned behavior. A good deal of this thinking comes from the behaviorist
movement of the 1920’s and 30’s. During that time, behaviorism enjoyed
considerable success that lasted well into the 1990’s. By the end of the
1930’s virtually every chair of psychology was a behaviorist so widespread
was its acceptance. Although its popularity has since waned, it remains
among the approaches to clinical, if not theoretical psychology.
Behaviorism argued that all behaviors are learned through two learning paradigms. Originally, they referred only to overt, visible behavior. The original goal was to eliminate metaphysics from psychology, much as the physical sciences have tried to do. As such, invisible cognitions and emotions were viewed as inappropriate forms of data. In short, if it can’t be seen, it is irrelevant. This rigid stance was later undermined by careful examination of the processes of language acquisition detailed in chapter two. Clearly, there was more going on than a strictly overt behavioral approach could account for. As a result, cognition was later included as a form of behavior, albeit a learned behavior. Behaviorists also bought into the notion of phylogenic continuity. That is to say that learning mechanisms that are used by “lower” life forms can be extended to higher life forms including humans. Thus animal research was a significant part of their research programs. Complex behaviors were thought to be product of simpler behaviors so that the complex behaviors could be analyzed in terms of simple mechanisms that could be built upon. This is the extension of the scientific doctrine of reductionism applied to behavior.
The first mechanism for learning was originally proposed by Pavlov. Known as Classical Conditioning it referred to the pairing of an unconditioned stimulus with a conditioned stimulus to elicit a specific unconditioned response. In the case of Pavlov and his dogs, he found that the presentation of meat powder (an unconditioned stimulus) made the dogs salivate (an unconditioned response). He then paired the presentation of the powder with the ringing of a bell (a conditioned stimulus, he hoped). After a period of time he found that the ringing of the bell produced salivation of the part of the dogs, even when the meat powder was not present. In humans, a similar mechanism was thought to be at work in a case study involving a woman with a phobia for churches. In short, the subject was unable to live, pass, or go anywhere near a church. Take a good look around. This is a problem. There are churches all over the place and not being able to go near one makes for a great deal of anxiety, to say nothing of the driving. After a modicum of therapy, the behavior therapist concluded discovered that the woman had recently lost her spouse in an accident. At the time she was informed by the police, they had lived near a church with a bell tower. As she was told that her spouse was dead, the bell tolled. The therapist concluded that she had been classically conditioned in a single trial by the traumatic nature of the news (an unconditioned stimulus) and the extreme anxiety it produced (an unconditioned response). The church bell ringing (a conditioned stimulus) at the same moment was paired with the bad news and anxiety. Thereafter, she was conditioned so that churches produced extreme levels of anxiety.
The second learning mechanism of the behaviorists is Operant Conditioning. Here behaviors are elicited by reinforcement. There are three types of reinforcers. Positive reinforcers are the rewards that are given for desired behaviors. Negative reinforcers are occur when we are placed into aversive situations until we produce the desired behaviors, then the negative situation is removed. Punishment occurs when we elicit undesirable behaviors and receive some aversive stimulus in response. These learning mechanisms have been applied to rats. They can be positively reinforced by linking a feeding mechanism to a bar in a cage. When the rat presses the bar, food is distributed and they get to eat. They are thereby positively reinforced for bar pressing behavior. Negative reinforcement can be used to produce bar pressing behavior as well. We might pass a small electric current through the floor of the cage that can be turned off by pressing a bar. Once the rat figures out the relationship between the bar pressing and the cessation of the uncomfortable condition, the rat will press the bar in response to the discomfort. They may also extend bar pressing to all forms of discomfort. Punishment does not produce desirable behaviors but can be used to extinguish undesirable ones. If we wish to stop the same rat from pressing the bar, we can administer a mild shock each time it presses the bar. The rat will eventually pair the discomfort with the bar pressing and stop pressing the bar.
It has been argued that the preceding mechanisms can produce CA as well as a host of other anxiety based reactions. In the case of classical conditioning, if communication is present during stressful period in a child’s life, then it can inadvertently get paired with the anxiety. In the case of positive reinforcement , if communication is ignored and not rewarded the behavior is not likely to continue since behaviorists consider it axiomatic that behaviors that are reinforced persist while those that are ignored are extinguished. Similarly, if silence is rewarded rather than talk, they will choose silence over talk in order to elicit the rewards. If silence, is treated as the best way out of a bad situation, it will not be long before a child is negatively reinforced into silence. Finally, if communication is punished at home, school, or in public, then communication will likely be extinguished in response. Yet another notion of learning that can be related to CA is modeling. If children see anxiety related to communication by parents and siblings, they may grow to believe that these are appropriate responses to the act of communication.
In any case, children who are placed in different environments may end up with varying degrees of affect for communication. The child who is taught that children are seen and not heard, whose input is disregarded, whose attempts at communication are viewed with malice and punishment and for whom silence is way to parental approval and love is likely to have a negative view of the value of communication. At the same time, a child whose parents listen to their child, allow him/her input into conversations, reward their child’s attempts at communication, and so forth, are likely to find that the child believes communication to be fun and enjoyable.
The Communibiological Perspective. In the
last three years, an alternative approach has emerged that is based on
the work of neuro-psychologists engaged in the study of temperament. Their
programs of research are aimed at the study of the biological bases of
personality. They have examined the anatomy and neuro-chemistry of emotions
in humans including anxiety. Most of this research has been carried out
using blood studies, and radiographic techniques.
There are a number of conceptual models of temperament offered by neuro-psychologists. Eisinck was among the first to link a three dimensional model to its neurological origins. The model argues that there are three dimensions or factors that comprise temperament. They are, Extroversion, Neuroticsm, and Pscyhoticism. Each of these is a long-standing idea in psychology and each is thought of as continuum. Extroversion is the high boundary and refers to the degree to which a person desires the company of or social interaction with others. An extrovert enjoys social situations and will seek them out as a source of entertainment. At the other end of the continuum, Introverts are quite happy with their own company rather than the company of others. They do not feel the same need for social activity. Rather, they are just as content with solitude and may prefer it to communication intensive situations.
Neuroticism refers to the sensitivity of an individual’s anxiety response. Highly neurotic people will find themselves feeling anxious with comparatively little provocation. They are very easily frightened by a variety of environmental stimuli that may include specific things such as snakes, water, heights, or insects. They may also suffer from high levels of anxiety on a broad basis. For these individuals, everyday life provokes an anxiety reaction and may be quite debilitating. At the other end of the continuum, low neurotics rarely experience anxiety regardless of the stimuli. Also known by psychologists as Sensation Seekers, they rarely feel a threat to their well-being except in the face of extreme danger. The low neurotic is seemingly fearless and may engage in very risky activities including drug use, sexual excess, and hazardous activities like BASE jumping, extreme sports, sky diving, reckless driving, and so forth. For these individuals, it is only in the face of immanent danger that the neurological systems that govern anxiety become active.
The third aspect of temperament discussed by Eisinck is Psychoticism. Psychoticism is frequently misunderstood given the unfortunate connotations that have been attached to the term. Classic psychotic disorders in psychology are clinical depression, schizophrenia, bipolar personality disorders, and a host of others. What they all have in common is that sufferers do not have an accurate view of reality. The profoundly depressed are depressed regardless of their circumstances, the shizophrenic hallucinates things that do not exist, and the bipolar individual responds to the environment with extremes of disposition. In all cases, they simply are not in touch with the same reality as most of us are. These sorts of disorders represent the extreme end of the psychoticism continuum. At the other end, is the person who is fully and completely grounded in a here and now reality. Given the extreme and highly stigmatized nature of the high end of the spectrum, most people at first glance, would say that being low in psychoticism is best. Yet, it is the ability to disconnect from reality that allows us to be imaginative and creative. In order to speculate, we have to forget the here and now and look to the future and imagine what might happen in a future that is yet to come. As such, being a little psychotic isn’t such a bad thing. This construct also helps to account for the well-known connection between many of the world’s great artists and the rate of psychotic illness among them. Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, and even Jimmy Hendricks, Janis Joplin, and more recently Kurt Cobain, might all serve as examples.
Mike Beatty extended these lines of research to explain human communication behavior. He, along with James McCroskey, theorized that CA can be thought of in terms of the three factor model as a low extrovert, high neurotic. Their data-based research further supports this proposition. Beatty also looked at the specific neurological mechanisms that govern the anxiety response. Emotions of all sorts are governed by the region of the brain known as the limbic region. It is located along the central axis of the brain and sits above the pituitary glad, deep within the cerebellum. Many animals, including lizards have a limbic region and in fact, it is thought that the workings of the limbic region in humans are little different than from most other animals. In fact, Beatty argues that it is this “lizard” brain that may account for why otherwise bright people make poor decisions. The real neurological advance that humans have over other organisms lies in the development of the cerebral cortex. Accounting for about 10% of our brain mass, it is the part of the brain in which we do most of our rational thinking. It allows us to make decisions and analyses based on reason and logic. Unfortunately, it’s a rather new feature and may lose out to the much older and time tested lizard brain. For example, when we buy a car, it is often an emotional decision than a rational one. We frequently pay too much for cars because we “fall in love.” Sales staffs know this. The test drive is also referred to as “holding the puppy.” Once we hold the puppy its difficult to give it back. We form an emotional—rather than rational bond. Similarly, if we think back over past relationships, how many were mistakes? Why then did we involve ourselves with people who were simply wrong for us? The lizard brain?
These anatomical structures are invariant across the species. That is to say, all people have the structures that comprise the limbic region. All people have the various neurotransmiters and recepters that are needed. However, there is a considerable degree of variability in terms of how the limbic region functions for each person. It seems to have most to do with the sensitivity of the limbic systems to stimuli. In terms of CA, the principle system that governs behavior is the Behavioral Inhibition System or BIS. The purpose of the BIS is to limit behavior when a threatening stimulus is present. Activity in the BIS ranges from completely inactive or idle to highly active. When the BIS is highly active, we are not. That is, when the BIS is running at full, its purpose is to shut down behavior. A number of years ago, one your authors was hiking in the dessert in New Mexico. Although the dessert looks flat at a distance, it is far from flat. It rolls deeply so that it’s very easy to lose sight of roads and vehicles. As he descended into one such gully, passing several sagebrush and mesquite bushes, he heard something that stopped him dead in his tracks. Even if you’ve never heard a rattle snake (he hadn’t), you’ll not mistake its sound for anything else—and that sound will send your BIS into overdrive as fast as your poor neuroanatomy can manage it. It’s like slamming on the brakes from 70 miles per hour. Your author had frozen before any rational thought could pass his mind. Clearly, this was not a reasoned reaction but a purely emotional one triggered by extreme fear and anxiety.
This is an extreme example but it points out the purpose of the BIS. Keep in mind however that the BIS is a continuum (yes, another one). As such, there are gradations of activity. When it is moderately active, it doesn’t shut us down completely, but rather serves to inhibit or restrict our behavior. We proceed more cautiously. As was mentioned above, this system is present in all humans. However, we differ in terms of how sensitive our BIS is. CA is an anxiety or fear response to the prospect of having to communicate with others. People with high CA, tend to have very low activation thresholds for their BIS. It takes very little in the way of a communication demand, for their BIS to kick in. While the average person does not fear communication with a single, well-known other person (a friend), the high CA individual would find such a situation threatening and their BIS would activate. Most people find public speaking a harrowing experience and their BIS activates at a variety of levels. Depending on our level of BIS activation, we may find that we don’t gesture as much as we normally do, or use as much vocal variety as we normally do. We might avoid eye contact with our audience, etc. All of these are inhibitory reactions. The high CA person, faced with the same prospect, may shut down. There have been cases where students have blanked out or even fainted while attempting to give speeches.
Yet, in spite of the strong inhibitory actions of the BIS, people nonetheless go forward in the face of threatening stimuli. This is because there is a counterbalance to the BIS. The Behavioral Activation System or BAS serves to move people. An idle BAS means we feel no particular compulsion to act while an active BAS compels us to act. Once again, people differ in terms of the threshold or point at which their BAS becomes active. The BAS kicks in when the threat of inaction (standing still) puts us in peril. It’s like jamming on the gas pedal from a dead stop. While our first reaction may come from the BIS (STOP), the BAS overrides it and puts us in motion.
Your nearly snake-bit author retreated once his BAS kicked in and allowed him to retreat. Standing forever in the dessert was not an option. BAS activity seems to be linked to the consequences of not moving. Stepping into the path of an oncoming car, the sound of the horn may cause you to freeze (BIS activation). However, standing still is a bad idea and in order to avoid becoming the next “vehicle versus pedestrian” admission to the emergent care service at your local hospital, you might want to move (BAS activation). Yet, the stimuli that produce action or inaction needn’t be a direct physical threat. Thoughts seem to be able to produce BIS or BAS activation as well. For those who suffer from CA, there is little fear that they will be physically injured by communication. Rather, the fear and subsequent BIS activation is likely rooted in the social consequences of communication. “They’ll think I’m and idiot. I’ll look bad. They’ll laugh at me.” The symptoms of CA can appear well in advance of the communication event itself, so the anxiety must be caused by something other than the stimulus of communication. Similarly, people with high CA are often able to give public speeches in spite of their fear. Here again, the thoughts regarding the consequences of inactivity can lead to BAS activation. They may be terrified but the thought of a failing grade in a required course may cause them to stand and deliver over the vigorous protestations of a BIS in high gear.
The exact nature of these processes remains unclear. Memory almost certainly plays a part in the interpretation of stimuli as threatening or harmless. In fact, anatomically, the regions of the brain dealing with memory are in close proximity to the limbic region. This begs a number of questions. While there is clearly a physical component to anxiety and hence CA, how much is innate and how much is dependent upon past experience and learning. While a tendency toward neuroticism can be clearly seen moments after birth, what role does experience and learning play in the development of specific fears such as communication apprehension--particularly when we look at context based forms of CA. Is there some inherently and universally fearful element to public speaking just as there is something inherently threatening in a rattlesnake’s rattle? Or is there some element of experience, either passive or active, that caused a link between communication and anxiety? This program of research is new to communication and shows great promise. However, it is perhaps too early to discard Social Learning Theory just yet. In all likelihood, the answer is probably that CA is the product of a combination of neurological and learned influences.
The Impact of Communication Apprehension
Regardless of the cause, trait CA has a number of profound effects on the lives of those who suffer from it. Since it is a predominant feature of their personalities and cuts across contexts and specific relationships and situations, it has an impact on most aspects of their lives. It is quite literally, a life-span issue since it is very difficult to “cure” or remediate. In response to threats of all kinds, humans have two basic tendencies—fight or flight. For those with high CA the typical response if flight. This comes in the form of avoidance or withdrawal from communication. Avoidance involves managing communication demands so that communication does not take place. In educational settings, they may miss oral communication assignments. At work they are unlikely to volunteer for team projects, rather preferring to work alone. When communication cannot be avoided, they may attempt to withdraw from communication. At school they will choose seats in low interaction areas of the room along the back and sides. The fight response, while rare involves an independent effort to overcome their anxiety through over-communication. It rarely works. They may join the debate team, or theater in the mistaken belief that with practice, the anxiety will leave them. This section looks at the specific impact that CA has educationally, socially, and professionally. Each of the consequences that is discussed below can be traced to the attempts of high apprehensives to avoid or withdraw from the communication demands in each context.
Educational Impact. As we have mentioned earlier,
the culture of the United States places a high value on oral communication.
As a result, it is often used as a means of evaluation, either directly
of indirectly, in the classroom. This is in spite of the previously stated
fact that children can say things they do not understand and understand
things that they cannot say. It is not surprising then, to find that children
with high CA suffer in the educational system for their silence. Overall,
grade point averages are lower for high apprehensives. This may be due
to the lack of involvement on the part of the children or the result of
prejudice on the part of educators. One the one hand, students with high
CA are unlikely to raise their hands to ask questions or approach a teacher
for clarification. It’s also been found that high levels of CA interfere
with the storage and recall of information. In one study, two groups of
students were given a test for communication apprehension. One group of
students were also given a lecture on a topic and then tested to measure
their understanding and recall of the lecture. The second group of students
was given the same lecture and told that they would have to teach another
group of students the material afterward. They too were given a comprehension
and recall test. The students who thought they were going to have to present
the material later did significantly worse on the test if they were high
CA. This study seems to indicate that communication apprehension preoccupies
the students so that they are unable to attend carefully to the material
they are receiving. Put another way, they are so worried about the prospect
of having to communicate the material to others that they fail to listen
to what they are being told. Although random calling in classrooms has
been a long-standing practice, it is likely to make matters worse for highly
While some of the academic difficulty lies with the student, early research also examined the way in which teachers perceived high CA students. In all substantive subject areas (math, science, English, etc.), students who were high CA were evaluated as less capable. The only area of evaluation where high CA students were rated as above their peers was in terms of deportment or classroom behavior. In short, they appear to judge less oral children as friendly and well behaved but ignorant. In addition to poor school performance, high CA students have more absenteeism, higher rates if illness, and higher drop out rates. They are the least likely to participate and may go to great, and often creative lengths to withdraw or avoid communication. Students have reported that when called on in class they will often respond with, “I don’t know.” In this way they’re public speaking is limited to three words. Others have reported that they punish teachers with bizarre or absurd responses so that they have a difficult time making something useful out of the discussion and then think twice about calling on them in the future. Still others fabricate illness and spend a great deal of time at the nurse’s office or with a guidance counselor. One of the book authors used to run the audio-visual equipment in elementary school. That meant that the films had to be rewound and the equipment returned to their rightful places elsewhere in the building. This could usually be stretched into enough time to avoid the pull-out discussion after the film.
Social. Socially, high CA children tend to have smaller friendship networks. This shouldn’t be surprising given that relationships are the product of communication. For people who fear communication, the prospect of developing and maintaining a large friendship network is daunting. They appear to limit themselves to a small number of close friends with whom they are willing to communicate. Romantically, they thend to date a single person exclusively. Again, this is not surprising given the role of communication in romantic relationships. They appear to form a relationship and then maintain it to the exclusion of others rather than maintaining multiple, communication intensive relationships. Interestingly, one study of relational repair strategies hypothesized that high apprehensives would make use of repair strategies that would not require much communication, such as doing favors for the other person or buying gifts in order to repair the relationship. In fact, when a romantic relationship was damaged, high CA’s used the most communication intensive strategies. They are apparently anxious to safeguard an established relationship rather than risk losing it and having to reform another relationship with all the communication demands that go with it. It should not be surprising either to find that high CA’s tend to marry young. Yet, divorce rates for high CA’s are not higher than for others. They apparently do communicate in close relationships but find the process of forming new relationships more difficult. That is not to say that even communication with their spouse or friends is comfortable. It may not be, but they realize the necessity of it.
Professional. High apprehensives engineer
their professional lives around their anxiety as well. They tend to be
drawn toward fields that seemingly require less communication. Ironically,
they are sometimes surprised by the actual amount of communication the
jobs require. Not all jobs are as communication intensive as others. Computer
programming involves a good deal of time working solo. They may also find
lab work or accountancy appealing provided they don’t wish to advance into
management, but that’s not likely anyway. High apprehensives are rarely
promoted in their professions. Whether this is a direct result of their
low affect for communication or whether they do not wish to be promoted
is unclear. It is likely a combination of the two. That they don’t make
noise at their jobs does not make them appear to be a good leader. Often,
in small groups without clear status ranking, leaders emerge as often because
they talk, not because they’re the most qualified. What’s more, in getting
passed over, they are least likely to make a fuss. At the same time, along
with more money, a promotion means more communication and high apprehensives
have little interest in more communication. One would think that teaching
would see few, if any high CA’s. Generally that’s true. Yet, high CA’s
are found in the teaching profession as well—usually at the elementary
level. They can also be found in law, but most often in tax or corporate
They are less likely to be hired if they’re letters of reference make mention of their reticence. Further, they are the first to be laid-off or terminated. High CA’s are likely to appear to be the most expendable since they spend little time in self-aggrandizement and since they’ll probably clean out their desk quietly and go hope without making a scene. They’re even more appealing as candidates for “down-sizing.” Clearly there are significant disadvantages to high levels of communication anxiety. Most apprehensives manage to live their lives with less communication and perhaps less justice because of it. Yet, there are many very good jobs that pay well and require relatively little communication. However, the anxiety that surrounds communication can be problematic and in U.S. culture, oral communication is given high priority. In spite of the fact that we have no secondary education curriculum for it. For those who want to live without their communication anxiety, there are a number of options available. The next section deals with the methods of treatment for CA.
Treating Communication Apprehension
This section looks at the ways in which communication apprehension has been treated. While few people report a cessation of anxiety, with the exception of skills training, most of these methods have been successful in reducing CA. Each of the approaches to treatment stems from beliefs about the causes of CA. As such, systematic desensitization and cognitive restructuring are rooted in the belief that communication anxiety is learned. Drug or chemotherapy is based on the belief that CA is biological in origin.
Skills Training. While there is little doubt that skills training is an important aspect of communication competence, it is rarely if ever an effective way of managing Communication Apprehension. Yet, even with 80% of the U.S. population suffering from context-based, public speaking CA, we still force them into public speaking classes with the misguided belief that if they just do it they’ll get over their fear. Not so. They may acquire the skills and they may perform, but it does nothing to improve their affect for communication and may even reinforce their beliefs about how awful it is. As we shall see in Chapter 7, how we feel about communication is a critical factor in communication competence. This is not to suggest that skills training is valueless. Quite the contrary, it is of great value in making people more competent communicators. It simply isn’t a treatment for anxiety. The logic is similar to throwing hydrophobic people into the water so that they overcome their fear of water or putting snakes or spiders into the beds of people who are terrified of them. In most cases, it is best to address the anxiety in addition to the skills. Unfortunately, many speech programs are designed to exacerbate the problem. For the high CA student, interpersonal communication is a challenge. Public speaking looms as a terrifying specter. Yet, we often require public speaking for graduation in higher education and often in secondary education as well. In short, we ask the high apprehensive student to talk in front of a group of people they barely know and the instructor grades them as they speak. Each juncture in this context increases communication apprehension. First, the greater the number of people in a context, the greater the CA. Second, communicating with strangers produces more CA than communication with friends. Last, evaluation increases CA. If we are truly interested in dealing with CA, we need to realize that communication competence and communication anxiety are not the same thing and that both issues have to be addressed before we can create competent communicators.
Systematic Desensitization and Cognitive Restructuring.
These two approaches are based on behaviorism and the paradigms of learning
that were discussed above. They have consistently demonstrated that they
can reduce levels of trait communication apprehension by as much as one
standard deviation. To make that more clear, the standard method that is
used to determine levels of CA is the Personal Report of Communication
Apprehension or PRCA-24. Scores range from 24 to 120. The average level
of CA for North American populations is 72 with a standard deviation of
about 14. Generally, persons with PRCA scores greater than two standard
deviations above the mean of 72 (72+14+14=100) are considered high apprehensives.
Systematic Desensitization (SD) and Cognitive Restructuring (CR) are capable
of reducing CA by 14 points or so. Further improvement is unlikely. The
genetic component discussed above may represent a hard floor for improvement.
That is, the biological component of CA may be strong enough to limit anxiety
reduction beyond a fixed point. However, keep in mind that a standard deviation
is a significant improvement. However, it is unlikely that highly apprehensive
communicators can be turned into relaxed communicators using these techniques
SD proceeds from the belief that anxiety is a learned or conditioned response to communication. It therefore seeks to condition another, more appropriate response to communication—one of relaxation. This is accomplished in two steps. The first involves relation training. Behaviorists believe that the anxiety response may be so ingrained that people become unable to tell the difference between tension and relaxation. In order to teach the distinction, one approach is to have clients tense the muscles in various parts of their body (eg., an arm) for several seconds and then relax them completely paying attention to the sensations associated with relaxation. They then move to another part of the body (the other arm), and so forth, on to the chest, legs, back, and face. This is done in order to sensitize the client to the sensations that accompany relaxation. Other methods, such a relaxing imagery can also be used to put clients into a state of deep relaxation. At the same time that clients are taught how to relax, the therapist also develops a hierarchy of fears. The client may be asked to describe the most terrifying communication situation they can imagine and then the most benign. They then ask what would be in the middle of those two extremes and then what might be in between the middle point at the high end, and so on. This would be repeated until a list of scenarios ranging from not too terrifying to god-awful terrifying is achieved. The next step is to pair communication with relaxation, rather than with anxiety. The therapist begins by having the client use the relaxation techniques they have been taught to get themselves into a relaxed state. Then through verbally induced visual imagery, the therapist begins to work his/her way up the hierarchy beginning with the easiest, least anxiety provoking scenarios. If the client becomes anxious at any point, they take the time to relax again before proceeding to the more intimidating scenarios in the hierarchy. In this way, it is believed that with enough practice the person will begin to associate their anxiety not with tension but with relaxation. Ayers and his associates in Washington have experimented with a similar method that can be used by students without the aid or expense of a behavior therapist. Their results have been encouraging.
CR is very similar to SD. It differs in terms of what it considers the problem to be. In SD, the problem is viewed as the physical, behavioral tension that the body resorts to in response to anxiety. That being the case, if the tension is managed then the problem is managed. In CR, the problem is that the client is thinking the wrong kinds of thoughts in response to the anxiety. The goal then is to identify the unproductive thinking and replace it with more productive thoughts. So that if they find themselves thinking about how stupid they appear, or how incompetent they seem, or that the audience is silently laughing at them, the therapists goal is to replace those thoughts with more productive and success oriented thoughts. This takes considerably more time to accomplish than SD although the techniques are similar. A hierarchy is developed here as well and the therapist uses hierarchy imaging to work through the anxiety producing scenarios. When the client reports the detrimental lines of thought, rather than relaxation, the time is spent adjusting the thoughts. In this way, the positive thoughts hopefully become a conditioned response to anxiety.
Chemotherapy. The term chemotherapy has been
so closely associated with the treatment of cancers that most people believe
that chemotherapy refers exclusively to drugs used in the treatment of
those disease states alone. In fact, chemotherapy literally means “chemical
treatment.” As such it applies to all interventions for all disease states
and pathologies that involve the use of drugs. With that said, if the origin
of Communication Apprehension is biological, then it stands to reason that
chemical agents that work on the biology of anxiety would be effective.
Unfortunately, this is a relatively new area of study and psychiatric drugs
are generally not uniformly effective on general populations. However,
a recent study found that SmithKlien Beecham’s drug, paroxetine sold under
the brand name Paxil has been effective in treating sever social phobia,
a condition that is, at least conceptually related to CA. In a study by
Dr. Murray Stein and his associates, 55% of sever social phobics who where
given the drug showed marked improvement. This is compared to 24% who showed
improvement when taking a placebo.
The drug is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or SSRI. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is thought to trigger feelings of well-being and relaxation. As such, SSRI’s are used in the treatment of a variety of depressive and anxiety based disorders. These drugs work by making the neurotransmitter serotonin more available. Specifically, the pituitary causes the natural release of serotonin under appropriate circumstances. When they are no longer needed, an enzyme is excreted to remove the serotonin from the bloodstream. SSRI’s limit the absorption (the reuptake) of existing serotonin. As a result, there is, over time, more serotonin available in the bloodstream. It usually takes 30 days or more for the drugs to be most effective. This represents a promising beginning for the pharmacological treatment of social phobia and communication apprehension. It is almost certainly an avenue that needs to be pursued if we wish to reduce CA by more than a single standard deviation. If biology limits the degree of improvement that is possible through behavior modification, then we will have to address the biological mechanisms that govern communication behavior.