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Running Head: THE COMMUNICATION THEORIES EMBODIED IN GOSSIP GIRL

The Communication Theories Embodied in Gossip Girl:


The Expectancy Violation Theory and Communication Accommodation Theory
Student ABC
Pepperdine University

THE COMMUNICATION THEORIES EMBODIED IN GOSSIP GIRL

The Communication Theories Embodied in Gossip Girl:


The Expectancy Violation Theory and Communication Accommodation Theory
There is a group of people called Manhattans young upper east-siders in New York City.
Young upper east-siders are good-looking, influential, manipulative, and inherently rich. These
young upper east-siders are unafraid of almost everything, which leads many of them to receive
horrible grades, violate school rules, and severely hurt others. However, they shake when they
hear:
Gossip Girl here, your one and only source into the scandals life of Manhattan elites, or
XOXO, Gossip Girl.
These two sentences are Gossip Girls signature claims of the beginning and the
triumph of ruining someones social life by revealing everyones scandals. The Gossip Girl is
a character and the main narrator in the American teen drama television series, Gossip Girl,
which contains six seasons. The show is based on the book series written by Cecily von Ziegesar.
Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage are the creators of the television series. Gossip Girl is an
anonymous, omniscient blogger who knows all the detailed secrets and scandals of the young
upper east-siders. The story mainly revolves around the lives of privileged teenagersSerena,
Blair, Chuck, and Nateand how the Gossip Girl dramatically influences their social lives.
However, the lives of another group of people, the Humphreys, which includes teenagers Dan
and Jenny and their father Rufus, a middle class divorced family from Brooklyn, are also tangled
into the lives of upper east-siders because of the trans-class romantic relationship between
Serena and Dan.
The two dominant elements from Gossip Girl are the complicated interpersonal
relationships and the cultural differences between people in higher and lower positions in the
social hierarchy. Therefore, I will analyze the communication behaviors in Gossip Girl through

THE COMMUNICATION THEORIES EMBODIED IN GOSSIP GIRL

the interpersonal lens and intercultural lens. The two theories that will be involved in my
discussion are expectation violation theory by Judee Burgoon and communication
accommodation theory by Howard Giles.
Expectancy violation theory indicates that when we do something unexpected, the other
people have a heightened awareness of the unexpected action and of the people who did it. Then
the other people interpret the violation of expectancy and decide whether this is a positive,
negative or an ambiguous violation valence, which is the perceived value assigned to a breach of
expectations (Griffin, 2012, p. 85). Therefore, by accessing the potential interpretation of others
and their reactions toward our expectancy violating behavior, we should be aware that the
violation of expectations can be used as strategic, goal-attaining acts under certain
communication circumstances (Jordan-Jackson, Lin, Rancer, & Infante, 2008, p. 240).
Speaking of strategy, Blair Waldorf is famous for being good at calculating. In order to
fulfill her wants, no matter what kind of wants she has, she makes plans by fair means or foul.
She usually evaluates communicator reward valance, which is the sum of positive and negative
attributes brought to the encounter plus the potential to reward or punish in the future, and then
determines her next step according to the evaluation result (Griffin, 2012, p. 91). In episode five
of season five, Blair and Louis, her fiance and the prince of Monaco, make a huge
announcement to their family members that Blair is pregnant. Blair knows that her pre-marriage
pregnancy announcement will violate the expectations of Louis mother and her parents, as she
gauges others potential interpretations according to cultural norms, which is the basic
component of the context of that particular exchange of information (Jordan-Jackson et al., 2008,
p.244 & Griffin, 2013, p. 89). On one hand, negatively speaking, although getting pregnant
before marriageimplying the sexual openness of the brideis no longer a terrifying thing, it

THE COMMUNICATION THEORIES EMBODIED IN GOSSIP GIRL

still cannot be considered as a norm of any culture. Blair also knows her mother will be terrified
because, besides being an engaged princess, Blair is still a college studentand getting pregnant
during college is considered too early and inappropriate in the upper east side. On the other hand,
positively speaking, a royal family must have an heir. To announce her pregnancy is to inform
the royal family that they are guaranteed to have an heir. The royal family might be pleased and
Louis mother may be happy to become a grandmother. Therefore, the violation valence in this
case is ambiguous.
Blair still intentionally chooses to reveal the news as early as possible because she wants
to consolidate her chance of becoming a princess and obtaining her position in the royal family.
Blair assesses the potential reactions from the royal family based on her relationship with the
royal family and Louis. In comparison to that of the royal family, her social status is lower, and
people always anticipate that lower-status people will keep their distance (Griffin, 2012, p. 89).
Thus, it is reasonable for the royal family to cancel the engagement and ask her, the girl who is
sexually open and thereby has the potential to have extramarital affairs, to stay away from Louis.
This is the worst thing that the royal family can do to her. However, Blair knows that Louis
passionate liking toward her, another relational factor that would influence reaction of
expectancy violation, can counterbalance her disadvantage in relative status (Griffin, 2012, p. 89).
He would speak for her even against his mother. As Louis mother wants an heir to be born and
for her son to marry his love, the royal family is more likely to speed up the announcement of her
engagement to the public and hold the wedding before her body shows signs of pregnancyso
that she can officially become the princess of Monaco, which is the best thing the royal family
can do for her. Even if the worst thing happens, Blair knows that Chuck, her ex-boyfriend, will
be there for her because of his indestructible liking toward her. Therefore, she will not lose too

THE COMMUNICATION THEORIES EMBODIED IN GOSSIP GIRL

much by announcing her pregnancy. Luckily, the royal family is pleased by the coming heir and
speeds up Blairs wedding schedule. Blair gets what she wants by the strategic use of expectancy
violation.
Besides strategically using EVT, the unintentional violation of expectancy is more
common and also has significant influence over peoples interpersonal relationships. In the end
of the very first episode of the entire television series, Dan plans to take Serena to see his fathers
band perform. Their time together contains a series of positive violation valance, the value
assigned to breach expectancy, and their intimacy is thereby promoted significantly (Griffin,
2012, p. 90). Serena first positively violates Dans expectancy by her physical appearance
overdressing. Dan comes to pick Serena simply in jeans and a jacket, but Serena wears a delicate,
sparking-golden dress and has a big smile on her face. For Dan, Serenas overdressing and nonverbal warmth is not only stunningly beautiful but also reveals her full attention to him. Dan
anticipates Serenas potential behavior and personality based on their relationship (Griffin, 2012,
p. 89). Serena is of a high socioeconomic status as the it girl of the upper east side, and Dan is
of the lower status as he is the least noticeable member from Brooklyn at their school. The level
of similarity and familiarity between them is low as they are very different from each other and
only talked once before. Moreover, Dan anticipates that it would be normal if Serena behaves
self-centered, detached, and does not pay attention to him or even flake out on him based on the
stereotype of upper east-siders (Jordan-Jackson et al., 2008, p.244). However, during their
conversation, Dan discovers that she is approachable, easy going, always smiling and never
elevates herself. Serenas physical attractiveness and personality, two factors of the
communicator characteristics, are out of Dans expectations and produces part of their

THE COMMUNICATION THEORIES EMBODIED IN GOSSIP GIRL

communication outcomes: Dan likes her more (Burgoon & Hale, 1988, p. 67; Griffin, 2012, p.
89).
Later, Dans personality and communication style also positively violate Serenas
expectancy (Griffin, 2012, p. 89). Serena anticipates that Dan is merely a band groupie when
Dan leads her backstage and says he would like her to meet a guy in the band. However, Dan
introduces the band guy to her, saying, Serena, I would like you to meet Rufus Humphrey,
and revealing that he is his father. There is a specific close-up to Serenas facial expression to
Dans words. In a half second, she looks at Dan with questions in her eyes and hesitates before
greeting Rufus happily. Serena is impressed by Dans humor and his unique communication
style, which is the way a message is delivered and eventually contributes to their positive
communication result: pretending to be a groupie but actually introducing his dad to her
(Burgoon & Hale, 1988, p. 67; Jordan-Jackson et al., 2008, p. 244). Serena also feels warmth in
being treasured. She used to be famous for her crazy behavior such as attending parties endlessly
and keeping messy romantic relationships with several boys. Therefore, according to the social
norms, her actions make her a train wreck; she expects others to be aware of her history and to
not take her seriously (Jordan-Jackson et al., 2008, p.244). However, Dan does not care about her
history and introduces her to his father during the first time they go out together. Then, the
delicate part comes right after their brief talk with Rufus. Serena asks Dan, You took me to
meet your Dad on a first date? Dans eyes open up and says So-this, this is a date! Serena
gives him a shy but affirmative smile. Dan never expected that Serena would define their short
time together as a date, again, according to their current relationship (Griffin, 2012, p. 89).
However, there is a sense of liking raising between them, and clearly defining their first time
together as a date confirms that sense of romance, and leads both of them experience arousal, the

THE COMMUNICATION THEORIES EMBODIED IN GOSSIP GIRL

heightened state of awareness, orienting response, or mental alertness that stimulates a review of
the relationship (Griffin, 2012, p. 88). They start to wonder whether they should move forward to
a romantic relationship, and according to the following few episodes, they get together soon.
The series of positive violation valance happening in such a short period of time between
Dan and Serena results from them coming from different family and social backgrounds. Each
ones habitual behaviors are new and fresh to another one. If Dan conforms to the social norms
of upper-east side of Manhattan, Serena might believe Dan is no different than the typical
privileged, spoiled boys; if Serena conforms to the Brooklyn social norms, Dan might think she
looks down on him as she intentionally mimics the Brooklyn way of behavior. Therefore, the
positive expectancy violations can produce more favorable communication outcomes than
conformity to expectations (Burgoon & Hale, 1988, p. 67). Their unintentional expectancy
violations to each other all turns out positive and significantly promote their intimacy.
However, negative violation valance can be very damaging to the interpersonal
relationships. When respondents evaluated the hurtful event as a highly negative expectancy
violation and judged their partner as unrewarding, they were more likely to being less satisfied
and committed, and using destructive rather than constructive communication to follow up
(Bachman & Guerrero, 2006, p. 943) In episode 3 of season one, Blair finds out that Serena once
had sex with Nate, Blairs boyfriend since kindergarten. At the time, Blair and Serena were best
friends. The level of liking and familiarity between them was high. They are also of the same
status as both of them are upper east-siders. Based on their relationship, Blair did not expect
Serena to do such a horrible thing to her, even though Serena was drunk at the time of the
incident (Griffin, 2012, p. 89). Thus, Blair evaluates Serenas behavior as a transgression, one of
the two categories of negative expectancy violation in close relationship (Bachman & Guerrero,

THE COMMUNICATION THEORIES EMBODIED IN GOSSIP GIRL

2006, p. 944). Blair follows with destructive communication in a form of extreme accusation by
using four letter words, such as insisting that Brown, Serenas dream university, does not offer
degrees to sluts. Accusation is the other category of negative expectancy violation in close
relationship, and Serena reacts to Blairs accusations soon (Bachman & Guerrero, 2006, p. 944).
Serena understands that she hurt Blair deeply, and the liking between them has been broken. She
faces the trouble she made and tries her best to fix her relationship with Blair. However, the
harder she tries, the more humiliation she receives. Blair even begins to physically attack Serena
in PE class several times. Serena regards Blairs hurtful physical actions as a transgression
(Bachman & Guerrero, 2006, p. 944-945). Serena does not expect Blair to forgive her, but
Blairs accusation, transgression, and her bad attitude toward her efforts to solve the problem
highly negatively violate Serenas expectation (Bachman & Guerrero, 2006, p. 944; JordanJackson et al., 2008, p.245). Serena reacts to Blair by pushing Blair to the ground and fighting
with her in the PE class. Later the whole school becomes aware that the war between Queen B
and Queen S has begun.
The violation of expectancy plays such an important role in Gossip Girl, as it creates all
the surprises (positive violation valence) and contradictions (negative violation valence) between
these teenagers. The interpersonal relationships among characters get increasingly complicated
from one season to the next, to the extent that almost every character has dated each other,
regardless of the age difference. Therefore, expectancy violation behaviors become increasingly
frequent and dramatic. That is one of the main reasons why Gossip Girl has successfully grabbed
the attention of audiences for over five years.
As mentioned before, another important element in Gossip Girl is the cultural difference
between people in higher and lower social hierarchies. As upper east siders and the characters

THE COMMUNICATION THEORIES EMBODIED IN GOSSIP GIRL

from Brooklyn communicate, the violation of expectancy of each other is unavoidable; however,
as these two groups of peoples lives become tangled together more tightly, they, especially the
Humphreys, start to mimic each others behaviors to seek for less conflictive and more
satisfactory relationships. Their accommodation of one another embodies the communication
accommodation theory, which states: when people from different ethnic or cultural groups
interact, they tend to accommodate each other in the way they speak in order to gain the others
approval (Griffin, 2012, p. 394).
One communication accommodation strategy is convergence, which is adapting your
communication behavior in a way to become more similar to another person (Griffin, 2012,
p.396). Due to peoples underlying desire for approval and acceptance, they are easily and
greatly influenced by others. As the result of group conformity, people become more easily
affected if they are members of particular groups (Giles, 2008, p.122). Jenny, the Brooklyn girl,
always wants to be friends with Blair, the upper east-side Queen B, and gain acceptance from
the group of it girls. In order to gain approval, she commits to both verbal and nonverbal
accommodation by mimicking the way that upper-east girls talk, the way they behave and the
way they dress (Griffin, 2012, p. 394). In episode five from season one, Jenny gets invited to
Blairs sleepover party, and she wants to utilize the opportunity to be officially considered as a
group member and a friend. In order to get approval from the it girls, Jenny starts to break her
family rules, as she even drinks alcohol during the sleepover. Whenever she shows unwillingness,
Blair reminds her Either do it, or swipe your metro-card back home. Its up to you. The last
thing Jenny wants is to be kicked out from Blairs group. Therefore, she puts on exposing attire,
applies heavy makeup, and drinks vodka as those upper east-side girls do.

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However, as friends are more motivated to gain social approval than are strangers, Jenny
quickly becomes active in violating her family rules, believing that those upper east girls finally
start to consider her as a real friend because of her rule breaking behavior (Riordan, Markman, &
Stewart, 2013, p. 92). Later that night, she goes to a bar with Blairs group. Blair teases a man
by deeply kissing him and stealing his phone. Then Jenny calls the mans girlfriend and commits
in verbal accommodation to Blair: I just had my tongue down to your boyfriends throat and he
neglected to tell me you existed until after it was over. Just thought you should know. He is a
real catch! This kind of rude speaking would never be allowed in the Humphreys family, but
this is how Blairs girl group talk in their private conversations. Making adjustments for others is
an integral part of successful interaction (Gasiorek & Giles, 2012, p. 309). Blairs group is
impressed by Jennys phone call idea and frankly praise her, thereby accepting her. Jenny
succeeds as she receives approval, but she is influenced in a terrible way. In the beginning, she is
aware of what is right and wrong and she feels the pressure of group conformity. However, her
strong will to converge and the pushing of Blairs group jointly lead to the result that Jenny is
completely changed in just a few hours.
Besides convergence, divergence is another communication accommodation strategy,
which refers to the accentuating the difference between a person and the others the person talks
to (Griffin, 2012, p. 396). People use divergence usually because they want to emphasize their
moral or hierarchal superiority over the others, and their communication partners always refer to
them as aggressive and not cooperative. Episode twelve of season one fully embodies this
concept. Serena attends a school pool party with her fellow classmates and invites Dan. Someone
has the key to the swimming room and initiates the party. The principal claims that she will expel
either the initiator or everyone who participated in the party. The young upper east-siders decide

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to shield and protect each other, as they are sure that the principle will not expel two-thirds of the
junior class, especially when they all have strong family backgrounds. However, Dan is in a
completely different situation, as his family cannot afford to pay his way back to school if he
gets expelled, and he needs the reputation of the school to ace the upcoming college applications.
Therefore, when he sees Chuck playing with the pool key in a following party, Dan reaches to
him and tells Chuck to tell the truth in order to show Chuck he is honest and earns his own living
rather than relying on his family. Dan diverges himself from Chuck by emphasizing his own
moral superiority, and reinforces his tie to the group he belongs to, the middle class and a hard
working family (Griffin, 2012, p. 399). However, Chuck replies, Poor little Humphrey. Look,
let me clarify something for you. You and I from different worlds. Then Chuck says his family
donation will provide him security from any trouble he makes. Chuck speaks as a representative
of the young upper east-siders, and diverges himself from Dan by emphasizing his economic and
social hierarchal advantages (Griffin, 2012, p. 399). Both of them get a worse impression of each
other as a result.
Another strategy similar to divergence is called maintenance or underaccommodation,
referring to persisting in ones original communication style regardless of the communication
behaviors of the others (Griffin, 2012, p. 398). Underaccommodation is usually viewed as
negative, and Blairs experience at New York University (NYU) in episode two of season three
shows its wide range of potential problematic outcomes (Gasiorek, 2013, p. 608).
Blair wants to rebuild her Queen B status at NYU by gaining adherents, and believes that
her upper east-sider social identity and economic abundance will promote her to achieve her goal.
Therefore, her need to emphasize her distinctiveness becomes unprecedentedly strong (Griffin,
2012, p. 399). For example, on her first day at NYU, she gives others an impression that she is

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born-rich and thus higher in status by stepping out from a limo, wearing fancy clothes, and
passionately kissing her then boyfriend Chuck, who is also fancily dressed. Later, Blair gives out
some expensive jewelry from Tiffany & Co. to some fellow NYU girls and says, I want to help
you. In fact, the real message she conveys is, I am rich and powerful. You are poor and
vulnerable. Follow me, it will be good for you. However, emphasizing based on distinctiveness
usually leads to negative responses (Gasiorek & Giles, 2012, p. 313). The girls who get Blairs
Tiffany gift bags all have knit-brows, a facial expression demonstrating that they are offended. In
the end, the NYU students start to exclude her. Blair throws out an elegant, fancy sushi party,
and only one girl shows up for food and informs Blair that she is not invited to the movie-pizza
party that everyone else goes to. After this, Blair gives a few more attempts to win adherents but
still in an underaccommodating way. She eventually gives up and leaves NYU.
Blairs actions work in high school, as her high school mainly consists of young upper
east-siders. However, NYU is located in Brooklyn, and the student body is anything but young
upper-east siders, who usually get into Ivy League colleges based on family connections. Blairs
underaccommodating behaviors distort the equal, inclusive academic atmosphere, violate her
college peers self-esteem, and eventually lead to the consequence that they exclude her and her
confidence is severely damaged. According to a study by Gasiorek, there are six types of
responses to underaccommodation: asking questions, confronting, stopping the interaction,
changing the subject, expressive nonverbal negative affect, and ignoring/playing along (Gasiorek,
2013, p. 611). From the descriptions above we already can see that two of the six types of
responses, stopping interaction (students neither attend Blairs Sushi party nor invite Blair to join
their movie-pizza party) and expressive nonverbal negative affect (the knit-brows facial
expression) are clearly addressed. If her self-egoism were not blinding her, Blair would notice

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these negative responses, and accordingly conduct adjustments to win adherents, such as
stopping the use of maintenance strategy and starting to use convergence instead. However, she
deeply believes that she is born to be an attractive leader, and that it is condescending for her to
converge to others.
People from different social classes lives in different cultures; therefore, the way they talk,
behave, and perceive themselves are correspondingly different. In Gossip Girl, the
accommodation behavior is dominated by but not limited to the ways through which lower class
people converge to higher-class people and higher class people diverge to lower class people.
Brooklyn people also diverge to upper east-siders and upper east-siders converge to Brooklyn
people. Analyzing their communication behaviors through communication accommodation
theory offers us an insight to understand their fears and desires. The choices they made, to
converge or diverge to whom and from which class, are also largely determined by each persons
unique experiences and personality. Furthermore, the analysis can also lead us to self-examine
our own accommodation behavior and avoid the mistakes those characters make in our real lives.
The expectancy violation theory and the accommodation theory explain the joys and tears
in Gossip Girl. The complicated interpersonal relationships and the wide chasm between the
Manhattans upper east-siders and the characters from Brooklyn allow the show to successfully
catch the attention of audiences worldwide. Moreover, although Gossip Girl is obviously an
exaggerated version of reality and reveals some pessimistic attitudes, such as money-worship,
the general message it conveys is centered on the fusion of people from different cultures, which
is embodied by a happy endingSerena and Dans cross-class wedding. Thus, appropriate
communication is the only way such a fusion is possible.

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References
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Burgoon, J. K., & Hale, J. L. (1988). NONVERBAL EXPECTANCY VIOLATIONS: MODEL
ELABORATION AND APPLICATION TO IMMEDIACY BEHAVIORS.
Communication Monographs, 55(1), 58-79.
Gasiorek, J., & Giles, H. (2012). Effects of Inferred Motive on Evaluations of
Nonaccommodative Communication. Human Communication Research, 38(3), 309-331.
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Gasiorek, J. (2013). I Was Impolite to Her Because That's How She Was to Me: Perceptions of
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Giles, H. (2008). Accommodating Translational Research. Journal of Applied Communication
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Griffin, E. A. (2012). A First Look at Communication Theory (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Jordan-Jackson, F. F., Lin, Y., Rancer, A. S., & Infante, D. A. (2008). Perceptions of Males and
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Riordan, M. A., Markman, K. M., & Stewart, C. O. (2013). Communication Accommodation in


Instant Messaging: An Examination of Temporal Convergence. Journal Of Language &
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