Communication Anxiety

Margaret Daisley
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

"Communication anxiety," as Gail Hawisher (1990) calls it, has been well-documented in the literature on these technologies. When CMC is a new experience, it is like "speaking into a vacuum," especially when one's comments are met with silence. Gail Hawisher and Charles Moran (1993) say that there is always a sense of personal risk in communicating online. "A response--any response--is generally interpreted as a success while silence means failure," they say. Initiating communication--the role assigned to MU students in the co-school group work--results in an "intense" desire to get a response (23-24). In Bakhtinian constructions of language, "every utterance is addressed," says Charles Schuster (1990), and no response to an utterance can leave a speaker feeling "illiterate" (228).

Silence in any instructional situation, given the fact that instruction is always associated with evaluation, is pregnant with negative connotations. Rhoda Carroll (1993), in an informal survey of her own students, captured their feelings about silence in the physical classroom. In that setting, especially after a teacher has asked a question, students said : "It feels like the bomb is gonna drop"; "It is unnatural"; and, "Silence can be death or life." The majority of students Carroll surveyed seemed to be preoccupied with filling the void with the "right" answer, worried about "not having enough time" to formulate a "good" response, and anxious about not wanting to be the first to break the silence. Only a few students claimed that they "loved to be heard." In CMC, these feelings can be intensified. Keith Grint (1989), in listing reasons for "failure" or "non-participation" in CMC, mentions the problem of "invisible others." In his own study of CMC use, respondents to a survey claimed that "conversations were, if anything, regarded as more, not less, open to public ridicule" (191).

Throughout the period they were involved in virtual collaborative projects, many of the students in Terry's class maintained that it was "unfair" to be assigned to work with "people you never met." The inability to see the OU group members, compounded by the fact that e-mails to them were frequently met with silence, seemed to make some students at MU doubtful about their very existence. "Actually," Student 1 said to me during an interview, "a bunch of us pondered in the past whether they were real people, or whether this was one big joke on us all. 'Cause, like, who knows? Basically each group only has contact with one or two people from the other side. Who knows?"

In the face of this "communication anxiety" students looked for ways to explain what was happening. Again, this follows Kalamaras' and Ulmer's constructions of silence as being a rhetorical act which initiates, or participates in, a dialogic relationship with "others," in the social and psychological senses of the term. Additionally, students' attempts to explain these silences follow Hymes' description of how individual expectations of appropriate silences also define what is considered inappropriate. Student 4, interviewed while the NII project was under still underway, said

See, this is the thing. I've heard other groups trying to get ahold of the OU people, and nothing is happening. They aren't responding at all. Like, J--'s in a [another] group, and she hasn't had any response from these OU people. We haven't got any response from these people. So, it's very strange. And to me, it doesn't sound like the OU people really have it together that well."

This student's theory of why they weren't getting more participation from their OU counterparts was that "It's all one class. Meets Wednesday nights. Once a week for a couple of hours. So, you know that's kind of a blow-off class." Student 1 also expressed frustration:

We're being judged- on someone's work, we don't even know them. Like it's not easy to get in contact. I mean, who knows when they're on? Who knows when we're on? No offense, but I'm not wasting the money to call them on the phone. I think the concept is a good idea. I don't think it works, unless the classes were all at the same time and we were allowed to actually interact in maybe the talk mode and actually talk to them. I don't really feel it's quite productive. I actually think it hinders.


This is a metaphor first suggested to me by a colleague, Nick Carbone, and mentioned in a previous article, "The Game of Literacy: The Meaning of Play in CMC." RETURN

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