Interpersonal communication is a term describing interactions between two persons who know each other as well as share common goals. Amid a variety of interpersonal communication theories, Social Penetration Theory has been effectively used to explain and modify the issue of interpersonal communication. This paper provides an account of how applying Social Penetration Theory has changed the way of communication in a personal relationship, Firstly, it focuses on the theoretical background for the experiment, describing Social Penetration Theory and its major concepts. Secondly, it focuses on the background of the situation and the hypothesis based on Social Penetration Theory, with reference to how the latter could potentially be used to improve the outcome of communication. Thirdly, it describes what happened after the author has made the intended change and interprets the findings.
Social Penetration Theory
Social Penetration Theory states that with the development of relationships communication undergoes evolution moving from non-intimate and shallow to more trusting and deeper, as people gradually reveal themselves to each other with time (Altman & Taylor). One of the primary concepts of this theory is self-disclosure. The basis of social penetration, self-disclosure can be defined as the intentional information sharing about self. Self-disclosure may involve both low-risk and high-risk information sharing along with personal experiences, attitudes, values, ideas, life stories, hopes, past facts, goals, and ambitions, etc. Within Social Penetration Theory self-disclosure is viewed as the gradual sharing of information about self. With reference to the gradual component, this theory is also called as “the onion theory” of personality, because layers of personality get penetrated as intimacy grows with time.
As for the process of self-disclosure, it is influenced by three principal factors, based on Altman & Taylor: personal characteristics, situational context, as well as reward/cost assessments. Personal characteristics factor refers to structuring a personality with the categories of breadth and depth: whereas some issues (sport, politics, work, etc) are superficial and make up the breadth category, others (such as religion, personal fears, etc) are those of depth. The latter are disclosed only to a few selected people The issues of breadth are used by people to hide the core layers of their personalities, which, if revealed, may spur the feeling of vulnerability. The situational factor refers to the situational context, where at the early stages of involvement communication easily penetrates the layers and then considerably slows. One of the most important factors shaping the rates of self-disclosure is reward/cost outcomes. It is assumed that people are only willing to share their core values when they see the reward of this self-disclosure and if it outweighs the costs. Based on all that has been said about “the onion theory” of interpersonal communication, the latter can be represented graphically in the following way:
(Baack, Fogliasso, & Harris, 41)
The situation that was selected for the experiment was interpersonal communication with one college friend. My friend and I have been friends since the time we were freshmen. The friendship was like most guys of our age have: with lots of making fun and hanging out. Three months ago my friend started dating Laura and became absorbed in the relationship. I felt that he wanted to confide in me, but hesitated about doing so. That was probably were did not share about such personal things before and he feared that I would make fun of him or share with others. In this way, my friend remained pretty cautious about disclosing his feelings although sometimes I felt he would want to share.
The change I decided to make was based on Social Penetration Theory, since my intended outcome was to move our relationship to more trusting and deeper by increasing self-disclosure and making rewards explicit. With regard to this, I theorized that if I start disclosing about my own personal relationships and feeling, my friend would see that I trust him and I am not afraid to be vulnerable, and would readily confide in me. The intended change was supposed to lead to a positive outcome since it would move our communication to a deeper level, increase our trust, make us view each other as those who can support.
Findings and Discussion
The findings of the experiment proved the usefulness of Social Penetration Theory in developing interpersonal communication and relationships between my friend and me. I chose to self-disclose one day after I found my friend depressed and absolutely uninterested in any activities that he enjoyed earlier. My friend was reticent and unwilling to speak, but after we watched a movie, he said, “You should not trust any woman, because they date us just for fun before they find someone they think is more cool.” I said that judging my the film we watched this seems true, but in reality all women are different, it depends on their upbringing, values, interests, and character. My friend asked if I know any examples of attractive and smart girls, who would act differently. I said that I certainly do. I told about my sister’s relationship with her partner, in which she continues to love him and care about him despite his serious illness – he has grown visually impaired and cannot function without outside help. Also, I talked about my own feelings: how I misinterpreted the words and actions of the person I dated and broke up only to find out with time that it was my fault, I was too jealous without sufficient reason and did not give my partner any chance to explain. In this way, I explained, I punished myself: first, I was torturing myself with artificially created suspicions and insults, later I started regretting my decision. Once I decided to talk to my ex-date, I found that person avoiding me at any cost. I never resumed the relationship.
My friend was looking at me with his eyes wide open. I think he was stunned. After thinking for a minute, he shared with me the reason for his depression: his girlfriend shared with him about her previous partners, and following the conversation, she went home for a few days. My friend was thinking she was still dating some of her exs. He was smiling as he was talking about this, because, as he said, he understood there was no reason to be jealous so far. He also heartily thanked me for talking about this. The results were positive because we have known each other for quite a long time and have already disclosed things about ourselves. Also, we were both willing to grow closer as friends.
Social Penetration Theory can be used both to understand and improve interpersonal communication and relationship. It only requires wise self-disclosure and being attentive to other persons’ attitudes.
- Altman, I., & Taylor, D. “Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal
Relationships. NewYork: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973. Print.
- Baack, Donald, Fogliasso, Christine, & Harris, James. “The Personal Impact of Ethical
Decisions: A Social Penetration Theory.” Journal of Business Ethics, 24 (2000): 39-49. Print.