When Loved Ones Handle COVID Uncertainty in Different Ways
Does someone around you talk about the pandemic too much? Or not enough?
Posted Apr 23, 2020
Around the world, we are all experiencing a health crisis. We all know what is going on, and we all undoubtedly know someone impacted by this in some way: through compromised health, loss of a job, reduction in salary, or loss of life. I’m based in the greater New York City metropolitan area, where numbers are among the highest in the US. We do not know when numbers will change, or when lives will begin to look a bit more normal.
I often reflect on research to think about how it can make sense of our lived experiences. When I sit and think about what I described in the first paragraph, and what we face each day, one thing comes to mind: uncertainty. As a communication researcher and teacher, I know that my own discipline has been studying uncertainty for many decades. Indeed, we have entire books written on this topic (e.g., Afifi & Afifi, 2009).
During a pandemic, uncertainty is at an all-time high. Collectively, we are experiencing something that living humans have likely never experienced. That said, communication researchers have proposed different ways we might deal with uncertainty.
A classic positioning of uncertainty is that individuals seek to reduce it (Berger & Calabrese, 1975). That is, the feelings accompanying uncertainty might motivate someone to seek out information to reduce or minimize it. An example of this would be the person who is consuming a lot of news and spending a lot of time on social media to gather information about the pandemic. All of this information would serve to reduce the uncertainty about the pandemic.
A more contemporary explanation of uncertainty processes comes from Uncertainty Management Theory (UMT; Brashers, 2001). Departing from the traditional assumption that we would always seek to reduce uncertainty, UMT proposed that there are times where we may want to maintain our level of uncertainty. This type of approach acknowledges, then, that avoiding additional information may be one way in which people cope with uncertainty. An example of this would be individuals avoiding or limiting their consumption of news or the pandemic as a topic of conversation.
Perhaps one of the above descriptions describes your own approach to uncertainty in this pandemic. Still, the reality of the current world likely means you’re quarantined at home with other people. Others in your home could include a boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, roommate, siblings, friends, and/or parents. Living with others during this public health crisis, though, might present an area of conflict if your approaches to uncertainty don’t align.
Consider a couple living together. For this example, we’ll call the couple Chris and Jamie. Chris might discuss the pandemic with Jamie and also watch a lot of news in their shared space that Jamie overhears. It is through this that Chris reduces uncertainty. Contrarily, Jamie might not want uncertainty reduced and, therefore, avoids this topic as a form of management. Over time, Jamie may snap at Chris, ignore Chris, or express frustration when the pandemic is brought up. This can result in a form of conflict and perhaps a negative climate at home. That is, Chris is frustrated or offended by Jamie’s tone, and therefore, Jamie and Chris begin arguing about the conversation at hand.
This is problematic, as it hides the actual source of emotion and conflict. The issue at play here is that Chris keeps bringing up the pandemic. It is not that Jamie is frustrated with the idea of communicating with Chris, it is that Chris’s efforts at uncertainty reduction via media and communication with Jamie compromise or threaten Jamie’s efforts at uncertainty management via avoidance. The conflict at hand, then, is that both partners have different tolerances for levels of uncertainty.
The practical take-away from this, then, might be to have a conversation with the people in your home. Consider approaching this conversation with the goal of understanding how much people in your home might want to know, or not want to know. If people in your home have different approaches to uncertainty, work to respect those boundaries. In the case of Chris and Jamie, Chris can discuss the topic with others who want their uncertainty reduced via social media and phone calls/texts. This would allow Chris to reduce uncertainty, and Jamie to maintain the level of uncertainty desired.
The above descriptions of our approaches to uncertainty are over-simplified and represent two of many ways in which communication researchers understand uncertainty. I would encourage others interested in this topic to consult additional theories such as The Theory of Motivated Information Management (Afifi & Weiner, 2004) and Problematic Integration Theory (see Babrow, 1992), among others.
Afifi, T. D., & Afifi, W. A. (2009). Uncertainty, information management, and disclosure decisions: Theories and applications. New York: Routledge
Afifi, W. A., & Weiner, J. L. (2004). Toward a theory of motivated information management. Communication Theory, 14, 167-190. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2004.tb00310.x
Babrow, A. S. (1992). Communication and problematic integration: Understanding diverging probability and value, ambiguity, ambivalence, and impossibility. Communication Theory, 2, 95-130. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.1992.tb00031.x
Berger, C., and Calabrese, R. (1975). Some explorations in initial interaction and beyond: Toward a developmental theory of interpersonal communication. Human Communication Research, 1, 99–112. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.1975.tb00258.x
Brashers, D. E. (2001). Communication and uncertainty management. Journal of Communication, 51, 477-497. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2001.tb02892.x