Monday, August 22, 2011

Fear of speaking while black - preliminary results from the NSAL

110 years ago, in Up from Slavery: An Autobiography, Booker T. Washington said that:

“....People often ask me if I feel nervous before speaking, or else they suggest that, since I speak so often, they suppose that I get used to it. In answer to this question I have to say that I always suffer intensely from nervousness before speaking. More than once, just before I was to make an important address, this nervous strain has been so great that I have resolved never again to speak in public. I not only feel nervous before speaking, but after I have finished I usually feel a sense of regret, because it seems to me as if I had left out of my address the main thing and the best thing that I had meant to say.”

Is there any recent information about how a representative sample of African Americans feel about public speaking and other fears? Yes, although it has not yet been analyzed in detail or published in a magazine article. Ten years ago a mental health study called the National Survey of American Life (NSAL) began, led by professor James S. Jackson. The NSAL surveyed a large sample of African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans.  Raw data from the NSAL are posted on the Collaborative Psychiatric Epidemiology Surveys (CPES) web site. The CPES also includes another study of minorities, the National Latino and Asian American Survey (NLAAS). 

The bar chart shown above ranks eight fears from screening questions in the NSAL - six specific fears SC27A through 27F, SC29A (public speaking) and SC30 (crowds). Point to and click on the chart to see a larger, clearer version. For most questions, about 5890 people in the sample provided yes or no answers. (Only about 3870 answered SC29A). Animals or bugs were feared by the the most people, followed by heights, and giving a speech or speaking in class. 

Another bar chart compares the NSAL results with those for the general US public found in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCSR), which I discussed in a previous post. The two biggest differences between the NSAL and the NCSR results are for giving a speech or speaking in class (the number one fear), and for flying (the number eight fear). In the NCSR 10.2% more feared giving a speech or speaking in class than in the NSAL. Conversely, 8.9% less in the NCSR feared flying than in the NSAL. These comparisons are interesting, but preliminary. Eventually psychologists and psychiatrists  will do more detailed analyses on this subject and data.

There already have been two magazine articles in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders based on data from the NSAL. In 2009 J. A. Himle et al discussed the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder in “Anxiety disorders among African Americans, Blacks of Caribbean Descent and Non-Hispanic Whites in the United States.” In 2011 J. A. Soto et al discussed “The relationship between perceived discrimination and Generalized Anxiety Disorder among African Americans, Afro Caribbeans, and non-Hispanic Whites.” One discussion of this article used the phrase “racial battle fatigue” to describe their results.

When I Googled the phrase “speaking while black” I found that it already had been used by Mayowa Obasaju in the title for her 2007 psychology MA thesis at Georgia State University - Speaking While Black: The Relationship Between African Americans’ Racial Identity, Fear of Confirming Stereotypes, and Public Speaking Anxiety. She studied a sample of 84 undergraduate students - 72 females and 12 males.

The image of Booker T. Washington came from the Library of Congress.

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