The anxiety/uncertainty management (AUM) theory, developed by William B. Gudykunst, explains Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory 37 how strangers can practice communication effectiveness via the mindful management of anxiety and uncertainty levels of interaction. The root of the AUM theory was based on an integration of the uncertainty reduction theory of Charles Berger and the social identity theory of Henri Tajfel. AUM theory is one of the major intercultural communication theories that explains the antecedent, process, and outcome dimensions of intergroup (intercultural) and interpersonal communication effectiveness.

Anxiety refers to affective feelings such as uneasiness, awkwardness, confusion, stress, or apprehensiveness about what might occur in the encounter. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is a cognitive phenomenon and involves both predictive uncertainty and explanatory uncertainty. While predictive uncertainty refers to our inability to predict strangers’ attitudes or behaviors, explanatory uncertainty refers to our inability to come up with a coherent explanation for strangers’ unfamiliar behaviors. In addition, as individuals navigate across cultural boundaries, they have minimum and maximum thresholds for tolerating anxiety and uncertainty. Too much or too little anxiety or uncertainty hampers intercultural communication effectiveness.

For example, when emotional anxiety is too high, cultural strangers would tend to communicate on automatic pilot and interpret dissimilar others’ behaviors using their own cultural frame of reference. However, when emotional anxiety is too low, they might act in a very indifferent or ethnocentric manner. Likewise, when cognitive uncertainty is too high, cultural strangers would not be able to accurately interpret each other’s incoming verbal and nonverbal messages. When cognitive uncertainty is too low, cultural strangers might overrely on stereotypes to decode the intercultural interaction episode and make overgeneralized attributions.

Littlejohn, Stephen W and Karen A.Floss. (2009). Encyclopedia of Communication Theory.USA:SAGE.105-106

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