Stranger Danger! Part 1

You’ve just met someone for the first time, taken your mother’s advice and not judged the book by it’s cover. Now you want to flip through the pages and see what’s what.

There’s a whole theory dedicated to explaining this called the Uncertainty Reduction theory. Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese surmised that during initial interactions, our main goal is to reduce uncertainty by finding out more about them.

Our attempts to reduce uncertainty are driven by the prospect of running into them again, the fact that we what to convince them to give us something they have that we want, and the possibility that we find their behaviour unnatural.

Yes, he’s saying we want to talk to people more when we think they’re weird. Which is true. Berger thought of everything here, didn’t he?

He proposed several axioms to explain too:
Image result for talkativeImage result for shy person clipart

Verbal output refers to how much they talk. The more someone talks, the less uncertain of them we are likely to be.

Nonverbal warmth refers to how nonverbal behaviour shows willingness to communicate. You’re more likely to warm to someone who looks welcoming than someone who’s closed-off.

The axiom of information-seeking behaviours states that the more you know about someone, the less you ask questions to find out more about them. (We’ll get to this in a bit). Self-disclosure talks about how much information the person shares about herself, and the more a person reveals about himself, the less uncertain of them we feel.

Reciprocity talks about willingness to respond. You feel less uncertain when they’re willing to respond. When some is similar to you, you get more comfortable with them. Likewise, the less uncertain you get, the more you like him.

Image result for friend of a friend
Photo Credit: Ian Watson

Berger’s hypothesis also posits the more friends we have in common the less uncertain we are of people. Essentially, if my friend is friends with him, there’s a good chance I’ll like him too.

In Real Life…

Image result for when i first meet someone quoteWhen we dealt with this theory in class, I felt like Chicken Little when the acorn hit him on his head…minus all that ‘sky is falling’ business.

In my very first semester at the University of the West Indies I made a friend who has, over the course of one year (and several courses) together, become a ‘brother’. But this isn’t about him. It’s about a particular friend of his.

I thought he was weird.

That’s probably not nice, but I did. So naturally I tried to find out why. He spoke but only in cryptic half-sentences that raised more questions than they answered. Frustrating much. He wasn’t particularly forthcoming. He always had a scowl on his face and his arms were perpetually folded.

Literally all I could think was, “What is with this guy?”

I only kept trying because he was a friend of my ‘brother’s’ I couldn’t avoid.

Is URT sound?Image result for good scientific theory

URT falls under the socio-psychological tradition. It is an attempt to theorise communication behaviour in initial communication acts, how persons  adapt to uncertainty  and the what motivates their messages. Recall the recipe for good scientific theory (See “Bonne Theorie”).

URT opines that we cope with uncertainty as follows:

  1. Seeking Information: We actively, passively or interactively try to find out about someone.
  2. Choosing Plan Complexity: We ascertain how we’ll communicate with someone.
  3. Hedging: We take measures to protect ourselves from communication risks.
  4. Hierarchy Hypothesis: We use strategies based on what relationship we want to achieve.

URT has been studied extensively, first by Berger and Calabrese, and then by a number of other researchers. Since it applies to many cultures, and explains communication behaviour in the initial interaction phenomenon both in 1975 when the theory was coined and in 2016 with a 20 year-old university student, we must admit that URT is somewhat sound.

However, there is a problem.

If you believe all the axioms are true, then any combination of two of them (theorem) must also be true. So if a theorem falls apart, an axiom falls apart, and the whole theory begins to crumble too.

Through studies with 1,159 students from 10 US universities, Kathy Kellerman and Rodney Reynolds conclude that there is no association between information seeking and level of uncertainty, disproving axiom 3. Knowing about someone doesn’t stop you from wanting information about them.

Sally Planalp and James Honeycutt also suggest that there are external factors that may cause uncertainty. Furthermore, Michael Sunnafrank posited that it isn’t uncertainty that guides motivates communication, but the desire to have positive relational experiences.

The more we begin to poke holes in it, the less sound it becomes. That’s not to say it is completely invalid. It’s just got some work to do.

Cyndi, the Theory Analyst


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