Have you ever felt an indescribable feeling of anxiety at the thought of having to engage in a form of communication? Perhaps you were giving a speech, or maybe you were introducing yourself to a new acquaintance. In this article, we’re going to explore the topic of communication apprehension. We’ll identify what it is, why it occurs, and how to overcome communication apprehension in everyday life.
There are many factors that can determine how comfortable we are when we speak to others. The way we communicate often varies depending on the size of our audience, how well we know them, our self-image, and whether or not we expect to be closely evaluated when speaking.
Communication apprehension is a term that refers to the fear or anxiety an individual experiences as a result of either real or anticipated communication with another individual or group of people (McCroskey, 1984). It is a psychological response to evaluation that may quickly become physically evident as our body responds to the perceived threat.
Although they share similar symptoms, communication apprehension is not the same as stage fright. Stage fright is a response to either the participation in or the anticipation of a public performance. It is experienced at least to some degree by nearly everyone.
Communication apprehension, on the other hand, is a response any communication experience, either public or private, with any number of other people. You may experience communication apprehension whether you’re talking to a large audience, or just one person; a stranger, or even a close friend.
Indicators of communication apprehension may be a nervous feeling in your stomach, shaky hands, talking too fast, or not talking at all. As we become anxious, our body’s circulatory and adrenal systems shift into overdrive, creating excess energy and initiating a “fight or flight response".
These physical symptoms are designed to help us cope with our fear of social evaluation, yet they often make it for us to be effective public speakers. After all, we may become so anxious that we fear we will forget our name, much less remember the main points of the message we're trying to convey.
As defined by James McCroskey, there are four types of communication apprehension: trait-like, generalized-context, audience, and situational communication apprehension.
Trait anxiety refers to communication apprehension that is typical of a person’s daily behaviour. McCroskey describes it as "relatively enduring, personality-type orientation" characteristic of people who tend to feel anxiety across a wide range of contexts. Although trait-like personality variables are highly resistant to change, research shows that they can be, and often are changed during adulthood.
Generalized-context CA is a “relatively enduring, personality-type orientation toward communication in a given type of context." This definition reflects the idea that people can be highly apprehensive about communicating in one type of context, while having less or even no apprehension about communicating in another type of context.
Fear of public speaking is a prime example of this type of communication apprehension.
There are four main areas where this type of communication apprehension arises: public speaking, speaking in meetings or classes, speaking in small group discussions, and speaking to another person.
Audience or person-group CA is a “relatively enduring orientation toward communication with a given person or group of people.” Whereas trait and context CA are personality based, audience CA is a reflection of how an individual reacts to situational constraints generated by the other person or group.
This essentially means that while some individuals and groups may cause a person to be highly apprehensive, other individuals and groups may produce the reverse reaction. This type of communication apprehension is expected to fluctuate in conjunction with behaviour changes on the part of the other person or group.
Situational CA is a “transitory orientation toward communication with a given person or group of people.” Like audience CA, it is not viewed as personality based, but rather as a response to the situational constraints generated by the other person or group. However, while audience CA primarily focuses on prior history of the individual with the given individual or group, situational CA is primarily based on factors that may be present in the moment of communication.
An additional consideration:
Length of acquaintance is a major consideration in the type of communication apprehension experienced. While personality orientations play a more significant role in early stages of meeting someone, any communication apprehension experienced as the relationship develops will largely be related to situational constraints.
There are two main causes of trait-like communication apprehension: heredity and environment. Children are born with certain personality predispositions or tendencies. Also, what happens in the child’s environment will have some impact on the tendencies the child carries over into later life. However, because children are born with different predispositions and tendencies, they will react differently to the same environmental conditions.
McCroskey explains that people develop expectations regarding the probable outcomes of engaging in specific behaviours, such as talking. The more we find out that our expectations are accurate, the more confident we become. However, if we discover that our expectations are inaccurate, we find ourselves confronted with the need to develop new expectations.
When we struggle to develop appropriate expectations, or we only envision negative outcomes, anxiety and fear are produced, and this leads to communication apprehension.
When we engage in a communication behaviour and reach our desired outcome, we develop positive expectations for that behaviour and it becomes part of our communicative repertoire. During our childhood, much of this occurs through trial and error, but as we grow older, cognitive factors play a more significant role.
We usually look back to our previous experience when choosing communication behaviours that we expect to be successful. The formal instruction we receive about communication, at home and at school, further contributes to the way we determine expectations and appropriate behaviours.
As our behaviours continue to be reinforced, we develop stronger positive expectations and our communication behaviour becomes more regularly predictable. In addition, we develop confidence in our ability to communicate effectively.
What about the flip side?
If we have negative expectations for a communication situation, we usually withdraw from it. However, if participation is unavoidable, a fearful response then becomes our natural reaction.
Consider, for example, a person who has attempted several public speeches, and experienced either punishment (an adverse reaction) or lack of reward in each case. When confronted with another situation that requires the individual to give a public speech, the person will fear that situation. The person knows what to expect, and the expectation is negative.
If we inconsistently receive either rewards or punishments during communication, we may develop learned helplessness.
For example, a child may develop helplessness if a parent reinforces the child’s talking at the dinner table some days and punishes it on other days. In such a situation, the child is unable to determine why the parent behaves different from day to day, and thus is helpless in controlling the punishment and rewards.
In school, the child may be rewarded for answering a question in class, but may be punished for talking to another student later on. If the child is unable to see the differences in these situations, the child may learn to be helpless.
These two scenarios highlight how learned helplessness can arise either from inconsistency in the environment, or from the inability of an individual to understand the role of context in producing different outcomes.
Whatever the case, when helplessness is learned, it is accompanied by strong feelings of anxiety.
Learned responsiveness is the opposite of learned helplessness. An individual who is able to discern contextual differences and has developed positive expectations for various communication situations has learned to be communicatively responsive.
Learned responsiveness can either be the result of what an individual learns in their natural environment or an outcome of formal communication instruction.
According to Buss (1980), there are six major elements that have been found to increase situational communication apprehension: novelty, formality, subordinate status, conspicuousness, unfamiliarity, dissimilarity, and degree of attention from others.
Approaching a novel situation can significantly increase communication apprehension, because of uncertainty as to how we should behave. For example, a person who is going to their first job interview may feel more apprehensive than someone who has been to many job interviews.
Casual situations have less rigid behaviour rules and much wider latitudes of acceptable behaviour. On the other hand, formal situations tend to include specific expectations about what is appropriate social behaviour, with very little room for deviation from those expectations. Communication apprehension tends to increase in formal situations, where we feel more restricted.
Interacting from a subordinate position can increase communication apprehension, because in such situations, appropriate behaviour is usually defined by the person holding higher status. For example, talking in front of your boss or teacher may be intimidating, especially if you are being evaluated.
One of the most powerful contributing factors in communication apprehension is being conspicuous, or standing out in one’s environment. Giving a public speech is a prime example of being conspicuous. Meeting new people, or being the new person in a social setting (e.g. new kid in class, or new member of the team) can also make a person feel conspicuous.
Most people feel much more comfortable when communicating with people they know than when communicating with people they don’t know. In general, as the degree of familiarity increases, the degree of communication apprehension decreases.
Most of the time, we find it easier to talk to those who are similar to us, but may struggle to relate to those who are very different. Yet, there are exceptions to this rule. Some people are the most uncomfortable when interacting with those similar to them, because they are more concerned with the opinions and evaluations of similar peers, as supposed to total strangers, with whom they may have little in common.
Degree of Attention from Others
Most people feel most comfortable when they receive a moderate amount of attention from others. When people either stare at us, or completely ignore us, our communication apprehension level can be expected to rise sharply and quickly. In addition, if people become overly intrusive into our personal and private matters, we may become very uncomfortable.
In most instances, the opposite of these elements would be expected to decrease communication apprehension in the situation.
Related article: What is Situational Shyness?
The Personal Report of Communication Apprehension (PRCA-24) has emerged as the most widely used instrument for measuring trait-like communication apprehension.
The instrument is composed of twenty four statements based on the four communication contexts suggested as most relevant to communication apprehension by McCroskey: public speaking, speaking in small groups, large groups, and to another person. Each context is represented by six statements on the instrument.
Scores on the PRCA-24 scale can range from 24 to 120. The higher a person scores on the PCRA, the more apprehension that person generally feels towards communicating with others.
The PRCA-24 is highly reliable and has very high predictive validity. However, sub-scores in the four contexts mentioned above are substantially less reliable than the total PRCA-24 score because of the reduced number of items.
Speaking anxiety is a normal reaction. Even experienced speakers and performers may experience communication apprehension once in a while. Yet, these professionals learn to manage and reduce their communication apprehension so that it does not become overwhelming and disrupt their daily activities.
Interestingly, the physiological state we label as communication apprehension looks very similar to the response our body undergoes when we are revved up and excited. The key difference, however, lies in the mental labels we put on the experience.
Instead of associating the psychological reactions we experience with anxiety and negative feelings, we can channel them in a way that allows us to communicate at our best. Let us explore some ways that we can do this.
First, we should appreciate that communication apprehension does not necessarily remain constant throughout all stages of speech preparation and delivery.
There are four milestones in the delivery of a speech:
Researchers have found that anxiety typically peaks at the anticipatory stage, just before we get up to speak. As we progress through the speech, our level of anxiety is likely to decline.
So how can we use this knowledge to reduce communication apprehension during public speaking?
Well, we can implement strategies to help us reduce our initial nervousness and thus decrease the overall level of stress and anxiety we experience.
As we mentioned earlier, communication apprehension begins in the mind as a psychological response. This means that you can take steps to manage it before you even enter a communication situation.
To prepare yourself for a successful speaking experience, you can use a technique called cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is simply changing how you label the physiological responses you will experience. It involves making the conscious decision to view public speaking as an exciting opportunity, so you can set positive expectations instead of negative ones.
You can create positive expectations by preparing well for your speech. Although you can never predict everything that will happen during a speech, you can and should prepare so that uncertainty is kept to a minimum.
You can do this by gaining as much knowledge as possible about whom you will be addressing, what you will say, and how you will say it. You should also prepare a simple outline that reminds you of the progression of ideas in your speech.
To reduce anxiety when speaking, you should also aim to practice out loud in a situation similar to the one you will face when actually performing your speech. If possible, practice in the actual room where you will be giving your speech.
Using a mirror to gauge how well you are:
While it may feel strange speaking in front of a mirror, doing so will help you gain the level of practice and experience needed to confidently give your speech when the time comes.
There are a number of steps you can take to back control and feel more comfortable whenever you feel anxiety creeping in.
Before you begin speaking, you should pause, look at your audience, and smile. This enables you to calm your nerves and set an appropriate pace right from the start.
You’ll likely find that you’re less nervous if you focus on the audience instead of yourself. Deep breathing during your speech will help to counteract the effects of excess adrenaline. Focus on the value of the information you’re presenting, and make a point of establishing direct eye contact with your audience members.
No matter how well we plan, sometimes unexpected things happen. External distractions during your speech may include a ringing cell phone, an audience member who walks in late, or even a car alarm going off outside. When the unexpected happens, do not let it throw you off guard. Approach unexpected situations with a sense of humour if appropriate, and move on with the important thing, the material you have to deliver.
Systematic desensitization is a behavioral modification technique that can help you overcome communication apprehension. It is a popular technique used in treating anxiety and panic attacks.
How does it work?
Well, people with phobias or irrational fears usually tend to avoid the object of their fear.
For example, some people have an extreme fear of flying and refuse to go anywhere near a plane. However, doing so only adds to their fear because they never get to challenge that fear and discover that flying is not as intimidating as they may have thought.
Systematic desensitization changes this avoidance pattern by gradually exposing the individual to the object of fear until it can be tolerated.
The goal is to reduce anxiety by gradually seeking communication opportunities rather than avoiding them.
Virtual reality (VR) is technology that enables users to enter a world generated by a computer and allows them to interact with it through sight, sound, and touch. Virtual reality training (VRT) has successfully been used to assist individuals who experience communication apprehension.
Studies have shown that individuals with communication apprehension may perceive computer mediated communication as a less threatening communication environment than face to face communication.
Virtual worlds can provide a “sheltering effect” and give users a sense that the impact of a failure during communication would be lessened by technology. Moreover, the absence of virtual/auditory cues in virtual reality may help shy individuals feel more comfortable communicating.
Virtual reality can provide people with a sense of mastery and in turn, greater satisfaction with their communication performance. The result is that such individuals may feel more comfortable engaging with others, even strangers.
This article has taken an in-depth dive into the topic of communication apprehension. We’ve seen the various types of communication apprehension and how it can occur interpersonally, in groups, or when speaking in public. Understanding the causes of communication apprehension is useful in addressing the psychological basis for fear and anxiety during communication.
As we have discussed, one of the most common contexts for apprehension is public speaking. There are many resources that people can use to gain confidence in this form of communication, such as books, personal practice sessions and virtual reality training.
Hopefully the information discussed in this article can help you reduce communication apprehension going forward, and also enable you to support others who experience it.
Hammick, J., & Lee, M. (2014). Do shy people feel less communication apprehension online? The effects of virtual reality on the relationship between personality characteristics and communication outcomes. Computers in Human Behavior, 33, 302–310. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2013.01.046
Assessing Motivation to Communicate. (n.d.). National Communication Association.
McCroskey, J. C. (1984). The communication apprehension perspective. In J. A. Daly, & J. C. McCroskey (Eds.), Avoiding communication: Shyness, reticence, and communication, (pp. 13-38). Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications.
Stand up, Speak out: The Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking. (2016). In Stand up, Speak out. University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing.
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