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Expectancy Violations: An Important Theory in Communication

Updated on January 6, 2017

Inside the class, there is a student who raises an argument to his professor. He claimed that the professor’s explanation is wrong, and he insisted that his solution is far better. The professor furrows his eyebrows to the student. The other students were stunned and are expecting the professor to give the student a punishment. The atmosphere inside the class is filled with silence as the other students held their breath and wait for the professor’s reaction to get mad. But to their surprise, the professor didn’t get mad. Instead, he laughed hard and accepted the student’s challenge to show his solution on the board.

This scenario shows that sometimes, people’s expectations are violated. In every given situation, humans can’t help but predict what will happen next. Just like two smart boys playing chess, they are trying to read each other’s technique in order to predict the next move. If a little boy accidentally broke the vase in their house, he is expecting his mother to get angry. When we know we’re going to be late in work, we expect a sermon from our boss. If we cannot pass our final requirement on the given day, we expect no grade for that.

What is Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT)?

EVT explains that violations of expectancies occur when actions are sufficiently discrepant from the expectancy to be noticeable. Unexpected behavior causes arousal and uncertainty in people, and people then look into the violation in order to predict another’s behavior.

Valence Value

Another key concept of EVT is the communicator’s characteristic that has valence value. When riding a bus, we expect our seatmate to occupy the space for a single seat. But if he or she occupies more than the given space, we will feel irritated. But for instance, a guy in a professional suit who is very attractive, sit next to you. A while ago, he falls asleep and unconsciously, he is leaning on your shoulder. You might discard in your mind the idea that you are irritated because a stranger lean on your shoulder, since he is quite attractive. You might even feel lucky. But what if a guy in a shabby shirt sit next to you and fall asleep in your shoulder, wouldn’t you feel mad? EVT assumes that although individual communicators have many characteristics, the communicator reward level refers to whether the communicator, on balance, is deemed rewarding or not and whether or not interactions with the communicator are desired. We evaluate all communicators on a positive to negative evaluation according to their apparent “reward value” for us. Of course, someone who is physically attractive; has high status, a professional, is more positively regarded than someone who is physically unattractive, lacks a sense of humor, and is of lower status.


Distance is also important in EVT. The four personal zones by Hall say that Proxemics deals with the amount of distance between people as they interact with one another. Based on how close people are during interaction, can be an indication of what type of relationship the people involved have.

For instance, it would be very uncomfortable if a stranger sit next to you while waiting for your friends. You might think that he is a robber or a kidnapper. But if your friend sits next to you, you are comfortable that nothing bad will happen.

This theory also explains the importance of space as an indication of relationship. The intimate space (0-18 in.) is a reserved space for the closest person. Maybe that explains why lovers are so close to each other no matter where they go. The personal space (18 in.-4ft.) is for family, friends, and relatives. The intimacy is not the same as the intimate space, but still greater than the social space (4ft.-10ft.) which is for groups and new acquaintances. Finally, the public space (10ft.-infinity) is for strangers. This can explain why during the first day of class; students are more likely to sit far away from each other when the room is still vacant. But as time goes on, when each and every one becomes comfortable with each other, the personal space becomes closer.

EVT in Technology and Social Media

Today, in our generation where technology rules, EVT can also be used in explaining some of the violations in social networking sites. Of course, in Facebook or Twitter, there is no actual personal space, but we became connected through our friends, and even strangers. The expectancy violation happens when the user’s profile has unexpected audience aside from his or her intended audience, or there is something that irritates the user - over posting of status, too many selfie photos, conflicts and personal controversies with a name tagged, disturbing emotional and nonsense stories, and other things that can negatively affects the user. Unexpected behavior of friends can also be noticed in these sites. For example, drunken photos of your cousin might lift an uncomfortable feeling to you. If the imaginary space inside the social networking sites is violated, the user can block, report, or even unfriend that disturbing object if serious violation happened.

Since this theory focuses mainly on nonverbal communication, it is highly important to consider the gestures and read the atmosphere, since “humans have a competing approach and avoidance needs”; we should be aware when the right time is, where the right place is, and what the right behavior to do is.

Do you know this theory?

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