Communication apprehension is a fear of speaking (see, for example, Richmond & McCroskey, Communication: Apprehension, avoidance, and effectiveness, 5th ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998). Communication apprehension comes in two different forms: (1) trait apprehension influences all communication situations (you’ll fear and try to avoid all forms of communication interaction) and (2) state apprehension influences only certain situations. So, if you have state apprehension you may fear public speaking but have no fear or very little when speaking in groups or interpersonally. Or, you may fear speaking with new people. According to one survey between 10 and 20 percent of college students suffer “severe, debilitating communication apprehension” and another 20 percent suffer from apprehension to the degree that it interferes with their normal functioning (McCroskey & Wheeless, 1976).
Shyness refers to a general reluctance to interact with others. The term generally refers to a disposition, a general personality trait that influences all interactions. Yet, shy people are often more shy in some situations than in others. For example, people may be more shy in interacting with those in superior positions and much less shy when interacting with peers or family members. According to the Encyclopedia of Mental Health, in an article by Lynne Henderson and Philip Zimbardo, shyness may be defined as “discomfort and/or inhibition in interpersonal situations that interferes with pursuing one’s interpersonal or professional goals.” Notice that Henderson and Zimbardo define shyness as dysfunctional—it interferes with your pursuing your own interpersonal or professional goals. Among the behavioral symptoms of shyness are: gaze aversion, dry mouth, low speaking voice, little body movement, dysfluencies in speech, sweating, and even dizziness. Affectively, shy people are more likely to feel shame, have low self-esteem, and feel lonely, depressed, and anxious.
Social phobia (more often referred to as social anxiety) is defined in the DSM-IV-TR as “an anxiety disorder characterized by a strong and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which the patient might feel embarrassment or humiliation.” As with communication apprehension, social phobia can be general—in which case you fear all or most social interactions and performances—or situational in which case only certain social situations (such as perhaps public speaking) generate fear. Notice especially that social phobia is described as a “disorder.” One researcher distinguishes it from shyness this way: “Shyness is a common human trait. Social anxiety is an emotional and behavioral illness causing immense suffering and severe impairment of functioning (Fishman, New York Times, 9/27/07, p. A32).
Reticence, developed by Gerald Philips (see Help for Shy People, Spectrum, 1981) refers to the reluctance to engage in communication and to avoid social and public interactions. Reticence is viewed as a problem of inadequate communication skills and the “treatment” is, logically enough, the acquisition of communication skills.
Unwillingness to communicate is a type of communication apprehension and refers to a person’s reluctance to communicate with others. See, for example, Judee K. Burgoon, “The Unwillingness to Communicate Scale: Development and Validation,” Communication Monographs 43 (1976):60-69.
As you can see, all of these terms refer to essentially the same phenomena—a fear of communication, a reluctance to interact with others. This fear can be mild—in which case it may even motivate you to do an especially thorough job in preparing your speech, for example—or severe (as in social anxiety)—in which case it may severely hinder your achieving your goals—to meet people, to have friends, to interview for a job, to attend company meetings, to give public presentations. Some of the definitions—mainly the ones from psychologists—view this behavior (social phobia, shyness) as dysfunctional, as a disorder. The other definitions—mainly those from communication theorists—view this behavior (communication apprehension, reticence, and unwillingness to communicate), as potentially dysfunctional but not necessarily so. These latter definitions view the behavior as one that can be changed largely through the acquisition of skills and appropriate experience.
Because of the importance of such effects most textbooks, especially in public speaking, discuss ways to reduce such communication apprehension. For example, I include the suggestion that you try to reverse the several factors known to cause apprehension. It’s helpful, for example, to gain experience with different kinds of speaking situations so that you can reduce the apprehension that newness and inexperience often bring. Additional suggestions include practicing performance visualization, systematically desensitizing yourself, and learning to think differently about yourself and your communication abilities (a kind of cognitive restructuring).
Two of the leading researchers in this general area maintain extremely useful websites; each deserves a visit. James McCroskey’s website may be found at www.jamescmccroskey.com and contains a wide variety of measuring instruments on fear of speaking along with papers and articles on the topic. Philip Zimbardo’s website may be found at www.zimbardo.com and contains a section on the shyness clinic in addition to papers and articles on a variety of topics.