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Human Communication Theories

Jenny Bee 12/10/2007 Comm. 300/Bowman In this paper, I will briefly describe, and compare and contrast two theories discussed in the book, A First Look at the Communication Theory by Em Griffin: Uncertainty Reduction Theory and the Expectancy Violations Theory. Furthermore, I will also include real-life situations that apply to these theories. Expectancy Violations Theory has its roots in Uncertainty Reduction research, therefore, there will be some similarities between these two theories. But before I compare the similarities, I will discuss the obvious differences.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT) is a theory developed by Charles Berger that is used to explain relational development between strangers and “how human communication is used to gain knowledge and create understanding” (Griffin, 130). In the beginning of every relationship there is a high level of uncertainty about the other person. The goal then is to reduce the uncertainty and to increase predictability by going through various levels of communication. According to Berger, there are three stages in every interaction, the entry stage, the personal stage, and the exit stage.

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The beginnings of an interaction between two strangers will typically follow a question and answer format in which the questions are often demographic and transactional. Such questions could include hometown, date of birth, or occupation. This is phase is what Berger calls the entry phase. When both people are satisfied with the first stage then they will move on from there. The Uncertainty Reduction Theory suggests strangers have a natural desire to gain information about others in order to reduce their own uncertainty and decrease levels of anxiety.

This reduction of uncertainty is important to relational development because successful reduction of uncertainty provides for positive future interactions. In a study done by William Douglas in his journal article, “Uncertainty, information-seeking, and liking during initial interaction” (1990), he claims that in an initial interaction between two strangers, it is not uncommon for either parties to “self-disclose,” in order to acquire more information about each other, ince disclosure of even mundane information can draw out similar disclosures from the other party. URT also describes two types of uncertainty, behavioral and cognitive. Behavioral uncertainty involves the prediction of behavior in certain situations, such as knowing that an interaction is running smoothly with non-verbal cues such as smiling. Cognitive uncertainty is associated with beliefs and attitudes people hold and is reduced through the acquiring of information (Knobloch, 2002).

The Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT), developed by Judee Burgoon, attempts to explain people’s reactions to unexpected behavior in social settings. In an interaction, whether verbal or non verbal, people anticipate how the other person will behave and typically the expected behavior meets the standard of what is considered “normal” in today’s society. When people unexpectedly violate those expectations, humans interpret and evaluate their communication behavior and the way it makes them feel.

The theory proposes that expectancy will influence the outcome of the communication as positive or negative and predicts that positive violations increase the attraction of the violator and negative violations decrease the attraction of the violator To personally test this theory out myself, I allowed myself to break some common non- verbal “rules. ” I live in Manchester Village on the USD campus, and every morning, along with several others, I wait for the school trams to take me to class. At the tram stop, there are two benches that would each comfortably fit up to four people.

However, I realized that I rarely even see three people sitting together on one bench, and I’ve honestly never seen more than three. In fact, most people stand, leaving open spots on the benches. Well one morning, I noticed three people sitting on a bench, two of which I assumed to already know each other since they seemed to be sharing notes, whereas the third person was sitting quietly to herself. Right then, I decided to be the fourth person on that bench. I sat down next to the third girl and almost immediately, she got up and stood a few feet away.

Now I had to ask myself, what caused her to leave her spot on the bench when all four of us could have sat there comfortably? This situation could be applied to Judee Burgoon’s Expectancy Violations Theory. According to this theory, everyone has different levels of personal space, that when violated, the receiver can choose to perceive the violator favorably, or unfavorably, depending on the perception that the receiver has of the violator. In this case, I believe I was perceived unfavorably because I violated her personal space and made her feel uncomfortable.

However, according to Gigliotti (1987), violations of an expected behavior could also bring about a positive outcome if the violator behaves more positively than what was expected. Another real-life example of this theory came when last year, one of my roommates, lets call her “Amy” invited a boy, let’s call him “Brad,” over to our dorm one night. Both people were intoxicated and Brad accidentally stumbled into my other roommate, “Taylor’s” bedroom and woke her up. Taylor, a very shy, conservative girl, screamed and demanded Amy to make Brad leave. Amy felt bad and asked Brad to leave.

Surprisingly to all of us, Brad very politely obliged and left. We all thought that would be the last of Brad but surprisingly, he returned the following morning, profusely apologized to all of us and offered to buy us all breakfast. We were all a little surprised as we expected he would be upset for having been invited over one minute then kicked out the next. But his behavior violated our expectations of him because he acted more positively than we were expecting. Afterwards, my roommates and I were all surprised at ourselves for reacting positively to him after he violated our expectations.

This incident proves to me that Burgoon’s theory is valid and also fits in with Marc Sander’s study on “the role of positive and negative expectancy violations” (2001), in which he studies the various types of reactions produced after an expectancy violation. Now that I’ve discussed some obvious differences between the Uncertainty Reduction Theory and the Expectancy Violations Theory, I will discuss some similarities between the two. More than just being similar, these two theories can be tied together in that both theories require people to show behavioral norms when first getting to know each other.

In an interaction between two people, if a violation of an expected behavior occurs, than this may cause arousal and uncertainty in the reciever. The reciever can then choose whether or not to continue the interaction or stop altogther because the violater has either made the reciever uncomfortable or the reciever has reacted negatively towards the violator and may not be interested in getting to know the violator. Earlier I described my personal experience with expectation violations when I sat next to a stranger on a bench and made her feel so uncomfortable that she got up and moved away. Well in preparing for this paper, I decided to test

Burgoon’s theory out once more, but this time, I sat next to stranger of opposite sex. I whole heartedly expected him to react the same way the girl did in my earlier experiement, but to my surprise, he jokingly said to me, “sick of standing huh? ” as he tried making more room for me on the bench. This sudden interaction violated my expectation of him, but followed what Burgoon calls “reward valence. ” Not even thinking about it, I found myself conversing with him for about fifteen minutes as we both waited for the tram bus. Afterwards, I had realized that “rewarded” him by continuing the interaction even though he violated my expectations.

And to further expand on how these two theories go hand in hand, our converation did consist of questions such as, “what’s your major? ” and “what year are you? ” These questions are ones that help reduce uncertainty and are devoid of opinion according to Berger’s Uncertainty Reduction Theory. Furthermore, in a study done by Michael Kramer on uncertainty reduction on job transfers (2003), he describes how new employees are faced with stress due to the new relationships they have to develop and the uncertainty that goes along with that.

But the stress itself should motivate the employees to reduce the uncertainty by trying to get to know their fellow co-workers and develop a relationship with them. In this study, four steps need to be followed by new employees: they need to gain sufficient task information in order to perform appropriately, they need to develop relationships necessary to function, they need to build and clarify role expectations and relationships, and they need to develop appropriate scripts and schemas to understand the social system they have joined.

In a new job environment, following these steps is necessary to reduce uncertainty and help decrease the chance of violating any expectations of your new coworkers. To give another a real-life example of how uncertainty reduction and expectancy violations tie together in a job transfer situation, I will tell you of my own experience in working in a new environment. This semester I started a new job as an office assistant at an insurance company.

I had previously worked in an office setting before so I thought I had a good idea of what to expect. At my last office job, we were required to dress in business attire and refrain from being loud in the office. All my co-workers were older and mature, and usually, the office was pretty quiet. Coming into this new job, I was blown away at how different it was. The dress was pretty casual and everyone was always making jokes and just having fun. I was surprised and for the first couple of weeks, I didn’t know how to act.

I wasn’t sure what kind of behavior was appropriate or not and I didn’t want to violate anyone else’s expectations of me. So for the first few weeks, I was pretty quiet and I focused on getting to know everyone’s personality and closely examined how they all worked so I could follow along. Now after working there for several months, I feel a lot more comfortable and I know what behavior is appropriate and favorable and what is not. A few days ago, the company hired two new employees and I notice they both seem to be extremely shy and quiet.

I assume it will take them a few weeks to go through Berger’s three stages of uncertainty reduction and Kramer’s four steps for new employees to reduce uncertainty and avoid expectancy violation. Furthermore, in William Smith’s research study (1996) on uncertainty reduction theory to service encounters, Smith claims that in an interaction between a customer and a service provider, the first few words said by the service provider to the customer will lead to satisfactory or unsatisfactory perceptions of the service quaility in general.

His research study examines the service encounter in the perspective of the uncerstainty reduction theory and his results showed that reducing uncertainty between service providers and customers should increase perceived service quality experiences. In my own experiences, both as a customer of a service encounter and as a service worker, I find Smith’s research to be very accurate. As a customer, I am always uncertain of how a conversation between myself and a service provider will turn out.

To call a company and hear a depressing voice from a service provider on the other end strikes me as very unproffessional and almost immediately I will decide whether or not I believe that company has good customer service or not. But after the first few similar exchanges, I will still be as polite as I can, attemping to reduce some uncertainty, in order to see if that would spark a new attitude in the service provider. If not, then that’s when I deem the company as having poor customer service.

Now, as an office assistant at an insurance company, I speak to clients almost everyday over the phone. Regardless of how I feel that day, I always try to sound as cheerful as I can. Up until recently, I never thought about how my voice sounded on the other end until I picked up a call last week from a gentleman who had recently lost his home in this year’s San Diego wildfires. As soon as I answered, there was a hesitant pause, then the man proceeded to tell me how it was a pleasant surprise to hear a sweet voice on the other line.

He then started talking to me about how depressed he’d been after he lost his home and how he had to make plenty of phone calls to different companies but I was the first to make him feel like I actually cared about his situation and that is why he will always be a client of this insurance company. This incident further explains how EVT and URT are similar and can be tied together in situations such as this, how an expectancy violation can lead to positive results and how reducing uncertainty between customers and service providers lead to an increase in perceived service quality experiences.

As I have explained, Uncertainty Reductions Theory and Expectancy Violations Theory are different in that URT is a bit more complex than the EVT in that it contains eight axioms and twenty-one theorems, whereas the EVT focuses more on personal space, and rewards and punishments given to one who violates an expectation. However, in certain situations, like the real-life examples I have provided, these two theories can tie together when it comes to meeting new people.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory aims to explain initial encounters with people whereas Expectancy Violations Theory attempts to predict and explain people’s behavior when their expectations are violated. Together, these theories emphasize the internal processes that are necessary in creating meaning behind messages and show how each perspective applies to numerous communication contexts. The theories discussed in this paper illustrate the process needed to bring individual meaning to various types of messages.


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