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Social Penetration Theory Essay

Posted by admin as Example papers

Example Essay on Social Penetration Theory

One should start by saying that the social penetration theory states that human relationships throughout their development undergo a development, i.e. communication moves from the relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to somewhat deeper and more personal levels.

The theory was developed by two theorists, Altman and Taylor in 1973 who published their theory in the article called dated 1973 called Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal Relationships, published by New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Speaking about individual interpretations of the Social Penetration Theory, one should note that it states that the more we spend time with others, the more likely we are to self-disclose ourselves for more intimate though and details of our daily life. By the same token, the communication partner will also develop a deeper relationship.

As for the Meta-theoretical Assumptions of the Social Penetration Theory, it is interesting to note that should the self-disclosure become high, then the deep relationship develops. The Social Penetration Theory contains the “if-then” statement regarding the level of self-disclosure (about time and manner) (Griffin, 2000).

As for the Critique of the Social Penetration Theory, I would like to note that the Social Penetration Theory makes most of its predictions about the future of the relationships development based on the subjective levels of self-disclosure. The theory is based on a cost-reward model, and continues to argue that in order for the human relationships to develop and reach a deeper level, the Social Penetration Theory states, the parties involved in communication need to self-disclose. When one is to judge the Social Penetration Theory, she/he needs to make predictions depending on the existing levels of self-disclosure. The Social Penetration Theory explains what should happen in relationships and that gives leeway for interpretations and inconsistencies. The subjective interpretations of the levels of self-disclosure remove the Social Penetration Theory from the general logic, and the authors of the theory believe that linear model is something that explains the Social Penetration Theory (Anderson et al, 1998).

The founding fathers of the Social Penetration Theory, Altman and Taylor, compared people involved in a communication process to a multilayered onion. According to the theory, each person’s opinion, belief, obsession, habit, custom or prejudice is layered around and within the human consciousness. When people first meet they are seen as hidden behind these layers, yet as people meet often, learn about each other, the layers that used to cover these people’s consciousness and guided their behavior will shed away and reveal the true nature of the person (West & Turner 2000). One should understand that the layers of the Social Penetration Theory have different depth and breadth depending on the person. The breadth of the layer is a variety of topics that are an indispensable part of individual’s live. The depth of the layer is the amount of available information available on each topic presented in the breadth of the layer.

The outermost shells that cover the individual are person’s dress, speech and manners. The inner layers are getting more and more private expressing the intimate details about the person’s life, feelings, emotions and thoughts. As the two people get together often and develop self-disclosing communication, these people start to share more aspects regarding themselves with each other, providing breadth, depth via exchange of existing information, feelings, personal feelings and activities. According to the Social Penetration Theory, the human relationships are sustained only when they are rewarding and are disconnected when they provide more dissatisfaction to the person then rewards (Cragan, J. F., & Shields, 1998).

One should add here that the Social Penetration Theory although seems to work in general fails to account for various factors that indeed influence self-disclosure. Things like gender, race and ethnic background drastically influence personal findings and contribute to the rate at which the person losses its layers.

Social Penetration Theory initially views the penetration as direct change from the public person status to the private person status. At the same time the penetration is viewed as cyclical and dialectical. Thus, at some time a person might self-disclose more than at some other time. By the same logic, a person may fail to disclose at some time when the communication even with the private person is unpleasant. Therefore, one should understand that according to the Social Penetration Theory the relationships do not automatically get better and better each day/time of communication, providing people with more opportunities to learn about each other (Littlejohn, 1999). On the contrary, participants in the communication need to greatly contribute to the communication to provide the communication partners with the emotional reward that in turn would cause them to engage in more self-disclosure. A participant needs to engage in the resolution of dialectic tensions, and learn about the ways to keep the communication flowing smoothly with that particular communication partner. The Social Penetration Theory assumes that the communication becomes less open when a communication partner gets the need for personal space and time, or when she/he is obsessed with some concerns. Typically, when the individual participant already is in the good mood he/she develops the need to share his/her inner layers with the others, thus engaging in self-disclosure. The Social Penetration Theory states that each individual thus should seek a perfect balance in communication which makes the process of self-disclosing rather cyclical as based on the need for privacy and open communication with the other communication participant.

In order to better understand the Social Penetration Theory let’s get to a real life example. For instance, Mark and Bill became friends since their freshman year. Their friendship was typical for people of their age and gender and thus comprised handing out with each other and making fun of each other and their other friends. A few months ago, Bill met Cathy and started to date her. Bill enjoyed his time with Cathy and after a while understood that he was falling in love with Cathy. As noted above Mark and Bill are good friends, so at some point of time Bill decided to tell Mark about his feelings towards Cathy yet hesitated to do so, since they had never talked about personal love matters yet rather made fun of it. Now we need to understand that should Bill admit his feelings and disclose himself to Mark, he opens up a lot and might possibly gets exposed to kidding, joking and some emotional blackmail from Mark. Yet, should that wedge gets penetrated, the topic would be easily brought up between the two friends. As a result, Bill might fail to maintain his privacy in the future. Realizing the costs of communication as caused by possible joking, lack of privacy and control, Bill might become cautious about exposing his true feelings. Most likely Bill will place an emotional fence around that topic of love making it a taboo for the whole time he communicated with Mark. The Social Penetration Theory states that such emotional guard that Bill places on communication is likely to limit the closeness that the two friends can achieve in their communication.

Altman, I., & Taylor, D. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press. N/A
Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. N/A
Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. pp. 126-35.
Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. pp. 266-7.
West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. pp. 147-62.

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