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Assessing Communication Effectiveness and Cross-cultural Adjustment among Foreign Students

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3444 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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This review examines the communication accommodation theory (CAT) and the anxiety/uncertainty management (AUM) theory and their application among experiences of international/foreign students during their intercultural encounters in US university settings. In their academic endeavors, international students encounter intercultural hurdles, and communication barriers which are a source of anxiety and uncertainty in campus communities. Successful integration of these students into campus communities, through interactions with their peer and other members of the university community, requires careful management of anxiety and uncertainty. In such a setting, people are required to make certain behavioral changes in order to effectively communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds. In this review the AUM and CAT theories are analyzed with regard to effective communication. Further, the two theories are applied as frameworks for assessing communication effectiveness and social adjustment in intercultural encounters and in the enhancement of communication convergence.

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International students in new cultural environments face doubt and uncertainly in a new culture, with new values, and different attitudes. These students face uncertainty and lack predictability in anticipating new cultural worldviews(Fritz, Chin, & DeMarinis, 2008). In spite of these challenges, internationalization of higher education is constantly on the rise and it presents an opportunity for intercultural learning across university campuses (Volet & Ang, 1998). These challenges notwithstanding, the students who manage to reduce anxiety and uncertainty adjust faster than those who do not. However, it takes time to overcome emotional and intercultural differences or uncertainties. This review assesses the communicative effectiveness and cross-cultural adjustments that these students make across United States university campus.

In navigating across the foregoing cultural settings, foreign students/international students are obliged to make behavioral changes in order to attune their accommodation to people from different cultural backgrounds. For effective communication, they often need to learn new communication skills to make themselves understood by their counterparts, and to understand them. The cross-cultural interactions occur between the students and their peers, faculty, as well as administrators across campuses who always try creating an accommodating environment or one that facilitates effective communication. It would be interesting to review the interaction of the selected theories in enhancing effective communication. I intend to apply the communication accommodation theory and the anxiety and uncertainty management theory as frameworks for assessing communication effectiveness and social adjustment within US university settings.


Theory Overview


In this section, the proposed theories are reviewed; the Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) and the Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory (AUM) Theory. The review will first consider the CAT and proceed to provide a review of the AUM theory. Key highlights, assumptions, and constructs of the theories will be presented. As interpersonal communication theories, theirs various constructs, assumptions and major areas of focus, applications will be made based on existing literature and, possibly identify some of the research gaps that still exist.

Review of Communication Accommodation Theory

CAT is a theory of communication introduced by Howard Giles. The theory focuses on behavioral changes that enable people to adjust their communication to suit their partners and the extent to which they feel that their partner is adjusting their communication. The theory provides a framework aimed at predicting and explaining many of the adjustments individuals make in order to create, maintain, or decrease social distance in interaction (Giles & Ogay, 2007). The thrust of this theory deals with interpersonal communication, but also links it with the larger context of the intergroup. In patterns of convergence and divergence of communication behaviors, CAT underscores communication efficiency, social approval and identity between and across groups. In interpersonal communication, convergence entails strategies that individuals use in adapting to each other or in lessening differences deals with the strategies through which individuals adapt to each other in order to lessen individual differences. Divergence occurs when individuals trigger differences between themselves and their interlocutors. Regaining convergence requires changing a communication approach in order to attune to interlocutors; this entails upward or downward attunement. These two concepts of divergence and convergence are fundamental pillars of the communication accommodation theory.

The theory is widely applied in language communication and literature suggest that accommodation competence is a developmental phenomenon that is distinct and it entails the acquisition and accommodation of the flexible resource necessary in facilitating communication (Pitts & Harwood, 2015). This meta-analytical study presents a strong case that communication accommodation competence is an essential skill in language communication. There is general acknowledgement that communication adaptability is an essential construct of competent communication, a skill that requires knowledge and motivation for effective adaptability to messages and a context. While this is not explicit in the assumption of the theory, cultural competence still remains an important within it.

 The tact of communication accommodation competence through social connection is evoked widely in healthcare research (Gasiorek, Van de Poel, & Blockmans, 2015). The study underscores how social connection becomes an important dimension in replacing language barriers. Language proficiency remains a critical element that facilitates effective communication and allows wider accommodation. However, when language proficiency fails, speakers may seek to accommodate through other dimensions for regaining convergence. The Gasiorek et al. (2015) study is an attempt to investigate the communication accommodation theory around the key concepts of convergence and divergence.

Review of Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory


The AUM theory was introduced by William B. Gudykunst as a theory that would define how humans effectively communicate while balancing anxiety and uncertainty in a social setting (Griffin, 1998). The focus of AUM theory is encounters between cultural in-groups and strangers. An underlying assumption of AUM, according to Gudykunst, is that at least one of the persons in the intercultural context is a stranger. In interpersonal communication, the theory focuses on effective communication, which is the goal of any kind of communication between two of more individuals. To achieve effective interpersonal communication in an intercultural setting, the transmitted message must communicate accurate meaning to the recipient in the manner that the transmitter intended. The central emphasis of the (AUM) theory is the assumption that one has to be able to manage one’s feelings of anxiety in order to adopt to a new culture (Gudykunst, 1998). International students coming to US universities or visiting other foreign institutions, for that matter, face similar acculturation stressors. While host institutions make efforts to ease that acculturation process, such students make considerable effort in order to adjust to the new cultural setting and to communicate appropriately in interpersonal communication situations.

Gudykunst argued in AUM theory that uncertainty and anxiety are the twin threats that must be managed to achieve effective communication (Griffin, 1998). The theorist further argued that anxiety and uncertainty often go hand-in-hand. Uncertainty is defined as the doubts about one’s ability to predict about outcomes of interactions with strangers. These doubts are not always about the past; they may be about events or experiences of the past. On the other hand, anxiety is a feeling while uncertainty is a thought. The two constructs are interrelated to one another.

Every year, thousands of international students travel to the US for higher education in American university campuses. Studying in a foreign university provides an opportunity for these students to make new friends, gain international experience and gain cross-cultural knowledge. In these settings, a welcoming university and community environment is a one of the key factors in the mental health of international students (Sherry, Thomas, & Chui, 2010). However, cultural and language fluency are essential dimensions of reducing anxiety and uncertainty in student intercultural communication among administrators and peers, alike. However, a great deal of literature suggests that language proficiency serves as a passport towards communication and cultural proficiency.

In intercultural adaptation contexts, the AUM theory is widely applied with a focus on adaptation as a mediating outcome. A study conducted among Chinese student on a US campus concluded that the presence of a student organization on campus can help intercultural adjustment of student members (Lin, 2006). While these efforts by administrators or student organization on campus, individual students must use learned skills to reduce their anxiety and uncertainty in their interactions with peers. Interaction between foreign students and their peers, among others is important in enhancing communication and to avoid cultural and communication conflicts. This makes intercultural adaptation critical in student adjustment across university campuses or situations where different cultures converge.

A study of the social interactions of Chinese students studying in one university in the US found out that there was limited interactions between the in-group and strangers (Yuan, 2011). Findings from that study concluded that the Chinese participants expressed mixed perceptions of American culture and different attitudes towards cultural assimilation. The study applies the uncertainty reduction and cross-cultural adaptation, which is similar to the AUM theory. It is evident from other studies that AUM can be applied to intercultural adjustment training (Gudykunst, 1998).

The application of the theory also incorporates cultural and individual variability and their role in the management of anxiety and uncertainty. This means that different contexts, as well as different individuals’ experiences, determine how individuals adjust their anxiety and uncertainty. The variability factors have been considered elsewhere in literature within an intercultural adaptation context among international students (Hammer, Wiseman, Rasmussen, & Bruschke, 2011). The study looked at intercultural-specific effectiveness in the reduction of anxiety and uncertainty. Surprisingly, the study concluded that communication message exchange was not significantly related to either anxiety reduction or uncertainty reduction.

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Scholars have investigated effective intercultural communication and intercultural interaction. Some studies have also specifically dealt with dimensions of intercultural effectiveness (Hammer, Gudykunst, & Wiseman, 1978). Effective intercultural communication is predicated upon the ability to deal with psychological stress, the ability to communicate effectively and the ability to create interpersonal relationships. Follow up studies looking at intercultural communication suggest that proposed dimensions of Hammer et al. (1978) on the dimensions of intercultural communication do not suggest a culture-specific interpretation of intercultural effectiveness (Gudykunst & Hammer, 1984). These studies are integral to the anxiety/uncertainty management theory since one of the assumptions of AUM is that at least one of the partners encountered is a stranger. For effective intercultural communication to take place, the interacting partners must find those elements that would facilitate effective message (communication) flow between the transmitters of information and the intended recipients.

Communication accommodation theory and anxiety/uncertainty management theory

There are clear difference between the two theories, but there are also certain similarities between them. The AUM theory differs in terms of its operational assumptions. This theory is focuses on cultural in-groups and strangers. That makes the communicating partners. The intercultural adaptation is an integral component of the theory. The theory further posits that anxiety reduction and uncertainty reduction can be achieved with intercultural adaptation.

The communication accommodation theory, on the other hand focuses on the behavioral changes that people make to attune to their partner. This theory focuses on the patterns of convergence and divergence of communication behaviors. These patterns relate to social approval, identity or communication efficiency. The communication accommodation theory broadens its focus to include non-verbal dimensions of social interaction. This theory also continues to draw from social psychology, particularly social exchange and social identity theory. The theory also focuses on causal attribution process.

In terms of orientation, both theories are social in nature and are continually evolving. Both theories also extend to explain intergroup communication. The two theories also attempt to predict the reaction of the interlocutor.

Study Proposal

Based on the reviewed literature of the AUM and CAT theories, the researcher proposes some research and hypothesis as questions/hypothesis as a guide to having a better assessment that will provide a strong assessment of effective communication and cross-cultural effectiveness among international/foreign students on US campuses. These questions and hypothesis would provide a broader and deeper understanding of the topic while using these theories as lenses in the study of communication effectiveness. Thus, the proposed research questions and hypothesis are as follow:

RQ1: How common do intentional and unintentional convergences occur during foreign student interactions with their peers?

RQ2: What are the effective ways to manage anxiety and uncertainty resulting from cultural differences across university campuses?

H1: Managing anxiety and uncertainty would help these students               adjust better and make their experience on campus more meaningful and culturally beneficial.

Some of the literature covered in this review has used semi-structured research as a data collection instrument. While quantitative methodological approaches are valid in research, the additional use of qualitative research instruments can delve deeper into the issues of understanding foreign student experiences.

The diversity of national origins of foreign students coming to US campuses represents variability in cultural approaches to tackle the communication barriers. This variability is compounded by the different cultural contexts in their destination universities across the US. The cultural environment in US universities in the different regions with the US is dissimilar. Furthermore, smaller colleges and universities have deployed varying levels of resources with which they address international student matters or resources for creating of greater awareness on campus.

Foreign student enrolment in different institutions of higher learning tends to vary from one university to another. Prevalent intercultural experiences among students, faculty and administrators are consequently likely to vary according to the level of experience in receiving international students. Different schools receive different numbers of foreign students, a situation that makes cultural experiences unique from one institution to another.

Conclusion: Based on review above

From a theoretical perspective, the interpersonal communication theories presented above present remarkable similarities in how they are applied. From a communication standpoint, these theories are complementary and they reinforce each other in the reinforcement of communication. The communication accommodation theory captures the behavioral adjustments that one has to make in order to have communicative convergence or what one needs to do in order to reduce divergence. The anxiety/uncertainty management theory focuses on encounters between cultural in-groups and strangers. In both theories, adjustment is one of the key elements that they represent.


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