I Will Fear No Audience: General Semantics Applied to a Communication Apprehensive Public Speaking Laboratory

By Elkins, Michael R. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

I Will Fear No Audience: General Semantics Applied to a Communication Apprehensive Public Speaking Laboratory


Elkins, Michael R., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Since 1970 research in communication apprehension (CA) has resulted in a great number of publications. McCroskey (1982) asserts CA is one of the most researched areas within the discipline. Although originally McCroskey (1970) viewed CA as a multi-based anxiety linked to oral communication, later, he redefined the construct to include more than an oral communication component. McCroskey (1982) denotes CA as "an individual's level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person or persons."

Programs designed to help people reduce and/or cope with communication-related anxiety have found their way to academe (Hoffman & Sprague, 1982). These programs can be divided into a cognitive approach for combating CA (McCroskey, 1970), a skills oriented approach to fighting reticence (Phillips, 1968), or a group therapy technique for combating apprehension (Lederman, 1983). While treatment programs have assumed a relationship between intrapersonal communication and anxiety about communication, Elkins (1985) provides empirical evidence for this relationship.

Speech communication scholars witness the devastation caused by public speaking anxiety when students desperately search for ways to eliminate their anxiety. Ambler (1982) reports marginal strides toward changing negative attitudes about giving a speech. Three dominant treatment methods (systematic desensitization, cognitive restructuring, and skills orientation), have demonstrated minimal strides toward the elimination of public speaking anxiety (Karst & Trexler, 1970; Trexler & Karst, 1972; Watson & Dodd, 1984). While these treatment methods attack the symptoms of public speaking anxiety, a cure systematically (i) should isolate the problem by making conspicuous certain facts and language habits the speaker evokes and (ii) should advocate specific teachable devices to make an individual's language habits evoke proper evaluation. General semantics illuminates these goals (Lee, 1941).

The major proponent of general semantics, Korzybski (1933), notes a relationship between language and the body's response to language. Elwood Murray in two pioneering efforts applies general semantics to an interpersonal communication laboratory and an analogue laboratory (Brownell, 1982 & Brownell, 1979, respectively). While today the application of general semantics to an interpersonal communication or analogue laboratory is not novel, the creation of a general semantics-based public speaking laboratory for students fearing public speaking certainly deserves consideration. Thus, this paper applies general-semantics principles to a public speaking CA laboratory.

Isolation of the Problem

Watson and Rayner's (1920) well-known study tested an infant named Albert who demonstrated no fear of animals during pre-test investigations. Researchers conditioned Albert to fear white rats by blasting an annoying sound each time a white rat was presented. Eventually, Albert reflexively came to fear the rat without any presentation of the noise. Later, building upon the studies conducted with Pavlov's dogs and eventually developing the methodology of operant conditioning, B. F. Skinner (1953) provided additional support for learned responses.

The fear of public speaking is also a learned response, according to Richmond and McCroskey (1985). I view the fear of public speaking as isomorphic with Albert's fear of rats. Because "fear" is multiordinal, assigning meaning to the word must depend upon the applied level of abstraction. For example, a person can experience the word "speech" as a conditioned stimulus. At the microscopic nonverbal level the body might respond with increased respiration, sweaty palms, and muscular tension (Muller, 1956). At the macroscopic inferential level people do use the words "fear," "anxiety," or "phobia" to symbolize their emotional state related to the conditioned response.

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