Anxiety Uncertainty Management theory, often referred to as AUM, was initially introduced by William Gudykunst. The goal of AUM was to define how humans are able to effectively communicate with one another in social situations by balancing their feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. When this balance can be achieved at an individual level, then it becomes possible to interact with other humans and communicate concepts to them, despite the uncertainty and anxiety which comes with stranger interactions.
Under AUM, there are four levels of communication that have points of focus.
1. The Individual Level
Humans communicate directly with other humans through the creation and interpretation of verbal and non-verbal messages. There is an underlying motivation to communicate with other people and this level of interaction is the specific reason why any communication exists in the first place. If there was no need to communicate with others, there wouldn’t be the additional three levels of communication.
2. The Interpersonal Level
This is the type of communication which occurs when an individual is interacting with a group of people. It can also be the level of communication that occurs when one person who is knowledgeable about a specific subject is teaching facts or concepts to another individual who is attempting to learn. Many online communications are interpersonal, such as what occurs through social networking. Intimate relationships would usually fit into this category as well.
3. The Intergroup Level
This communication type is an exchange of information which occurs from one group of people to another group of people. If someone was a fan of the Green Bay Packers, for example, and they saw a stranger wearing clothing that showed they too were a fan of this NFL team, then both people would feel like they were part of the same intergroup despite not personally knowing one another. Intergroups can be business-related, involve similar social identifies, or even be defined through a cooperative or similar self-esteem perspective.
4. The Cultural Level
As a culture, each person has a specific identity to which they associate themselves. This may sometimes be referred to as “patriotism” or a similar concept. People feel like they belong to their country, nationality, or ethnicity. If you were born in the United States, but your family immigrated here from Japan, you could feel two connections under this level of communication: one to the nation of birth and one to the nation of your family heritage.
By understanding these different levels of communication, it becomes possible to understand how we each communicate at these levels and then become more effective at our ability to transfer information.
What is the Focus of Anxiety Uncertainty Management Theory?
Gudyknust used his theory of AUM to focus primarily on interpersonal and intergroup communication. The theory looks at these two groups and attempts to predict behaviors based on a mutual need to give and receive data. It assumes that humans are mindful, have control over their behaviors, and that the basic process of communication is the same across all types of individuals and cultures.
Then, through this process of communication, it becomes possible for an individual to develop what AUM refers to as a “self-identity.” People can define their personal and social identity through communication with others, which then creates their self-esteem. Once this process occurs, specific categorizations of strangers and situations can occur.
As an individual can categorize strangers and process situations, they can begin to make ethical decisions, identify with strangers in some way, and then moderate through their mindfulness an ability to communicate effectively.
It also helps people be able to identify situations where they want to be actively communicating and situations they may prefer to avoid. This occurs because of the ethics that humans inherently have in AUM regarding the information that is shared.
Gudyknust identifies in his theory that there is a certain moral inclusiveness which must occur for communication to be effective. If there isn’t a shared perceived morality, then it becomes difficult for an individual to have respect for that stranger. A lack of respect makes it difficult to maintain dignity through the communication process, which then causes anxiety to grow instead of being managed.
When an individual recognizes this, then communication breaks down because there is a recognition of avoidance. People will not attempt to communicate effectively with others if their uncertainty and/or anxiety cannot be effectively managed so that a mindful process of moderation can take place.
We all communicate for some reason with other people and groups every day. Sometimes we do this to share information, but we also do this sometimes to define who we believe we are as people. This is the process that the Anxiety Uncertainty Management theory works to describe.