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Rock Street, San Francisco

Hernandez Diana
Coms St. 9 Theory Essay
Prof. Ruh
7/5/18
Social Penetration Theory
During the span of our lives, we develop new meaningful, as well as inconsequential, relationships daily. We accomplish this through the means of communication, we communicate with each other on a daily basis and relationships are developed. We decide which relationships stay as acquaintances, which relationships become casual friends, and which reach a level of intimacy. This process is repeated as we go through life, but the depth of penetration we allow each individual may differ. The theory I chose to write about is Taylor and Altman’s Social Penetration Theory (1973), which states that relationships begin and deepen through self-disclosure and seeks to explain how information exchange functions in the development, and dissolution, of interpersonal relationships.
A popular metaphor used for explaining how the theory operates is the Onion Metaphor. Humans, like onions, possess layers. Keep on peeling layers and eventually you reach the core. The Social Penetration Theory describes several layers including outer layers, middle layers, inner layers, and core personality. The outer layers are made up of superficial information about a person, such as likes and dislikes in clothing and music, physical appearance, and speech. Middle layers consist of social attitudes and political views. Included in the inner layers are spiritual values, deep fears, hopes, goals, fantasies and secrets. The core personality contains the most private aspects of oneself. To add, humans and onions alike also contain breadth and depth. Breadth refers to the various facets of a person’s life, including work, family, community and hobbies, while depth refers to the degree of intimacy and detail that guides each of these areas. As the relationship between two individuals develops, the partners share more aspects of themselves, thus adding more depth and breadth to what they know about one another.
According to Taylor and Altman (1987), self-disclosure passes through a number of phases as an interpersonal relationship advances. These stages of Social Penetration Theory include orientation, exploratory affective exchange, affective exchange, and stable exchange. The first stage is orientation, also known as the “small talk” or “first impression” stage. In this initial stage, impersonal communication takes place. Non-intimate information is exchanged as participants become acquainted through observing mannerisms and personal dress. Social norms are followed during this stage. The following stage is the exploratory affective exchange stage, where movement to a deeper level of disclosure occurs and communicators begin to reveal more about themselves. In this stage, the personality begins to emerge. Still, deeply personal information is withheld. The third stage is the affective exchange stage, in which evaluative and critical feelings are centered at a deeper level. Participants in this stage begin to disclose personal and private matters while personal ways of speaking, such as slang and the usage of idioms, are allowed to come through. A level of comfort as well as further commitment is reflected in this stage. Finally, stable exchange is highly intimate and allows partners to predict each other’s actions and responses very well. This stage is characterized by openness, breadth, and depth across conversation topics. Depenetration is also known to occur when partners refuse to self-disclose, causing the relationship to stagnate and possibly end (Taylor ; Altman, 1987).
Beyond relationship stages, Social Penetration Theory incorporates aspects of Social Exchange Theory, stating that human beings make decisions based on costs and rewards, seeking to maximize rewards and minimize costs. Applied to social penetration, you will reveal information about yourself when the cost-rewards ratio is acceptable to you. According to Taylor and Altman (1975), relational partners not only asses the rewards and costs of the relationship at a given moment but also use the information they have gathered to predict the rewards and costs in the future. As long as rewards continue to outweigh costs, partners will become increasingly intimate by disclosing more and more. To add, Social Penetration Theory follows a pattern of the “greater the ratio of rewards to costs, the more rapid the penetration process” (Taylor ; Altman, 1987, p.264). This reward/cost ratio suggests, then, that relationships develop more quickly when there are positive self-disclosure experiences and do not develop quickly or at all if too many perceived costs exist.
The Social Penetration Theory was initially important in regarding relationship development as a communication process, however it failed to live up to the actual experience of relationships in daily life. Rather than moving increasingly from public to private in a linear fashion, the current version of the theory suggests social penetration is a cyclical, dialectical process (p. 203). The process is cyclical because intimate relationships proceed in back-and-forth cycles as partners work through insecurities and reservations, and it is dialectical because it involves the management of the never-ending tension between the public and the private (p.203).
Furthermore, scholars argue that the theory is not as clear at describing or explaining

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