Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #3: What Do You Expect? Exploring Expectations to Improve Communication

December 1, 2013
Instructional Communication

Expectations, as part of the filter through which we communicate with the world, too often go unexplored. In both sending and receiving messages, it is important that we consider the impact of our expectations on outcomes, including relationships. To do this, we must take the time to understand our expectations and to use this understanding in crafting successful messages. The purpose of this classroom assignment is to identify and dissect expectations as part of the process of communication. This article documents an assignment in an intercultural communication class that challenged students to apply theory in identifying expectation violations and to move beyond the theory to explore those violations for a deeper understanding of themselves as communicators.

Judee Burgoon’s Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT) served as the stepping-off point for understanding expectations as part of individual communicators’ perceptual filters. The theory is most suitable because it 1) focuses on expectancy violations, 2) weights the perceived value of both the violation and the relationship between the communicators, and 3) asserts that these violations have a range of impacts from positive to negative. In addition, Burgoon’s description of expectancies as cultural guidelines for anticipating behavior made her theory particularly appropriate for an intercultural communication class.

To begin discussion, students watched Daughter from Danang, a film documenting the reunion of a Vietnamese-American woman, adopted in early childhood, and her Vietnamese family. The daughter, Heidi, identifies very closely with mainstream U.S. American culture. Students discussed culture identification and the importance of family group membership before focusing on a clip in which Heidi and her Vietnamese family suffer a breakdown in communication based on expectancy violations. Heidi expected to be loved and accepted without demands, and her family expected that she would resume her role as dutiful daughter. The cultural loading of the roles of mothers and daughters was evident, not just in the film, but in the students’ discussion around their own expectations in watching the film and its lack of a Hollywood ending.

Based on the observation and analysis of the clip and using a model of EVT to frame discussion, students mapped Heidi’s experience. They began by identifying the violation, Heidi being asked to support her mother, as negative; the relationship between the communicators as negative (no future relationship investment); and the outcome as negative (Heidi states that she wished she had never come back to Vietnam). The most challenging aspect of the discussion occurred when students were asked to identify the derivation of the expectation—how did Heidi’s expectations around interactions with her birth mother form?

Expectations are formed and influenced by a range of factors, including context/culture, communicator, relationship, and social norms and regulations, as well as personal desires, needs, and ambition. Students drew connections to culture dimensions, situation, social norms of US American mainstream families, including family roles, and context. Discussion around personal desires became more challenging as students tried to support their assertions with observations from the film. In the end, students discussed how Heidi’s failure to identify her expectations and use that information for crafting communication led to the eventual breakdown in communication and of the relationship with her Vietnamese family. Students were encouraged to consider how controlled communication can be in such intensely emotional situations as a way to remind them of the complexity of genuine interpersonal interaction and the working of EVT.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the activity was the at-home requirement that students explore their own expectancy violations. This required them to identify a violation in their own lives, map it out using the EVT model, and work backwards to identify the roots of their expectations. They then used that information to reflect on how they could have improved that particular interaction and their communication in general. Prior to sending students home with this task, I discussed some of the emotions that may arise during the process and encouraged students to self-monitor their emotional state.

Students returned to class prepared to discuss their EVT map. This served as a transformational moment for some. One student used an incident with her mother as her violation. The student had asked her mother for permission to attend a concert in another state with some of her older friends; her mother said no. The student quickly identified the violation as negative and understood her desire for a continuing relationship with her mother made her perceived future value of that relationship (violation valance) a positive one. However, she struggled when it came to parsing out her expectation. The student said she was surprised by how angry she became just from thinking about the incident nearly five years later.

As we discuss the students’ maps, I often ask them to put themselves in the place of the “other” in the violation. As this student discussed her process of mapping the derivation of her expectation, she realized that going to a concert at 15 with other young people was unrealistic given the social norms of her family. Moreover, she realized that her personal desire to go was in conflict with her mother’s desire to keep her safe, and she and her mother saw the situation very differently. Another student pointed out there may have been other derivation variables at work such as greater social norms and even legal considerations. In the end, this student was able to reflect on her communication and suggest she never would have reached her desired outcome, but could have improved her communication with her mother, and their subsequent relationship, had she understood her expectation was unrealistic. The fact she reported still being angry five years later indicated to her, and to others in the class, that the outcome of that expectancy violation likelywas affecting her current relationship with her mother.

Using Expectancy Violations theory to encourage students to critically analyze the complexities of interpersonal/intercultural communication, especially in conflict, can help them to identify potential issues in interactions. They seem especially adept at recognizing these connections in others’ interactions rather than their own. Practice in self-analysis and its application to communication can set students up for more successful interactions, both abroad and at home.

About the author (s)

Lynn Dee Gregory

Appalachian State University

Associate Professor