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Eddie Saylor

Dr. Rachel E. Williams

CO 330: Communication Theory

16 April 2008

Social Penetration Theory

One of the most profound examples of interpersonal relations, human closeness, intimacy, and

emotional bonding that can be seen, evaluated, and used is in a new born and its mother

bonding minutes after birth. Babies that are born in a hospital are typically returned to their

mothers shortly after birth to strengthen their connection. This alone can attest to the weighty

substance of the need for interaction. Communication is innate within every human being; and

intimacy is a fundamental characteristic of many interpersonal relationships. Within the new

relationship the mother discloses herself to her new born in soft gentle calming words and

sounds of affection as well passionate caresses to woo the child, soon after the child usually

responds or learn to respond and recognize the intentions, meanings, and verbal cues of the

mother. This communication with the child demonstrates the essence self disclosure undiluted

and unrestrained, it is self disclosure in its purest and absolute condition. Interpersonal

communication is inescapable, we cannot not communicate. The new born child communicates

with its mother as the mother communicates through sound and tone of voice, gesture, and

facial expression. In this paper I present the mother and child as a model of interpersonal

relationships to demonstrate the necessity of interpersonal relations and communication.

Social Penetration is basically the study of the development of relationships and how

they penetrate deeper and deeper into private and personal matters. The first assumption of this

theory is relationships progress from nonintimate to intimate. This assumption explains that

interpersonal communication at first is initially superficial and as communication continues it


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becomes intimate based on the persons involved and their intentions. Another assumption

states that the development of relationships are generally systematic. This systematic

development the second assumption of SPT according to Altman and Taylor exposes

susceptibilities and apprehensions, so trust has to be developed along the way just as the child

develops trust in the mother in the new intimate and interpersonal relationships so do we have

to develop trust in order to move from non intimate to intimate. This assumption alludes to the

idea that relationships must follow some kind of path or theme. The third assumptions states

that relational development includes depenetration and dissolution as well meaning that it will

not remain idle or inactive, it will either progress into something or noting. The Fourth is that

self disclosure is the core of relationship development.

Interpersonal relationships are also based on need just as the mother need the child and

the child its mother. It is safe to say that a relationship is a reciprocated filling of needs, the

child fills the mother’s need to nurture and the child’s need is filled by being nurtured.

Remembering as stated before this relationship between mother and child demonstrates

interpersonal relations in its plainest form because of the two are in essence make plain their

communication and the intention is clear. When we parallel this to the relationship of a man

and women we have much more to consider. The stages of the social penetration process are

the orientation, exploratory affective exchange, affective exchange, and stable exchange. Dr.

Mark Knapp author of Interpersonal Communication and Human Relationships has what is

considered one of the most popular models of relationship development and is explained in five

stages; Initiation, Experimenting, Intensifying, Integrating, and Bonding. According to Dr.

Knapp the Initiation stage is usually very short and the persons involved demonstrates concern

with making good impressions, similar to the first orientation stage of Altman an Taylor’s first
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stage that states the interactions are superficial and only bits of information are revealed. His

Experimenting stage the individuals ask questions about each other parallel to the Exploratory

Affective Exchange, the stage of social penetration that results in the emergence f our

personality to others. Interestingly this stage in Altman and Taylor’s SPT and Dr. Knapp’s

Experimenting stage compliments each other because asking questions about each other may

result in the emergence of our true self. In Dr. Knapp’s third stage Intensifying, self disclosure

becomes more evident and when compared to SPT’s process Affective Exchange the

interactions are more free and casual and it represents a further commitment and they

understand each other’s non verbal communication better. This Affective Exchange can only

happen when they understand each other on a somewhat intimate level. A mother can

understand a her child’s cry because of her care and constant involvement with the her child.

So again the stages from Dr. Knapp and of the SPT work with each other. His Integrating stage

is when the individuals become a pair and are recognized as a couple compared to SPT’s Stable

exchange is honesty, intimacy, and open expression of thought. Dr. Knapp goes a step further

by including marriage in his final stage the Bonding Stage.

Social Penetration Theorist believe that although self disclosure can lead to more

intimate relationships, it can leave one or more persons vulnerable as well and most at this

stage would prefer to avoid embarrassment and vulnerability it is termed as face saving in the

Face Negotiating Theory by Stella Ting-Toomey a theory we will get into later.

Richard West and Lynn Turner stated on page 3 in their book Introduction to

Communication Theory that communication depends on our ability to understand each other, in

other words communication is useless if the message is not understood by the receiver or

recipient. A relevant question would be if communication relies on our ability to understand each
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other than how significant is self disclosure? Based on the research of Irvin Altman and Dalmas

Taylor they state that self disclosure is the foundation of relationship development and is defined

as purposeful progression of revealing yourself. In the example of the mother and child

relationship there is an expression of self disclosure in the mother to her child in the form of

sounds, reassuring words, and touching. Research by Jeremy Frase on SPT states that self

disclosure cannot truly be if we don’t share psychological information with another which

includes individual traits, feelings, attitudes, and more personal information, in other words there

is a psychological context in interpersonal communication and in self disclosure.

According to Altman and Taylor epistimologically, this theory makes the statement that if

self disclosure is high, then the relationship will develop. Which makes the theory a scientific

one based on the “if then =>” statement. For example if Mary shares personal significant

information with Joey than Joey will be drawn closer to Mary. The fourth assumption of SPT

states that self-disclosure is at the core of relationship development and in Mary sharing personal

information with Joey it will most likely influence the evolution of their relationship.

Interpersonal communication is contextual, for example talking to a significant other who is from

a different background or country in a counseling session about marriage. In that there are four

contexts that are to be considered. The first was the psychological context the second is the

Relational context which attends to your reactions to the other person; in the previous example

the couple is in a relationship considering marriage. The third is Situational context and this

focuses on the situation in which they are exchanging, and they are in a counseling session. The

fourth is the Environmental context similar to the preceding context but centers on the actual

environment which in their situation the setting most likely will be an air-conditioned room with

comfortable seating. The last is the Cultural context which relates to the learned behaviors and
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rules from a culture. Within each context is positioned a great unending amount of complexity

that has been the root and inspiration of many books such as How to Be an Adult in

Relationships : The Five Keys to Mindful Loving by David Richo, Kathlyn Hendricks; Journey

from Abandonment to Healing : Turn the End of a Relationship into the Beginning of a New Life

by Susan Anderson; Relationship Rescue : A Seven-Step Strategy for Reconnecting with Your

Partner by Phillip C. McGraw; and The Five Love Languages : How to Express Heartfelt

Commitment to Your Mate by Gary Chapman. Movies and television talk shows such as Hitch

starring Will Smith, and Dr. Phil’s TV show have great influence on how we view relationships

and these media permeates our lives fixes our perceptions even in relationships.

The way men perceive differs from the way women do, new research has even confirmed

that the way men and women cope with and suffer from pain is different due to biological

differences. We are raised differently and are expected to think and act differently. Boys are dealt

with differently, communicated to differently with a different language while girls are dealt with

in a completely different way as well. Dr. Lillian Glass one of the world’s foremost authorities on

improving communication skills states in her book He Says She Says Closing the

Communication Gap Between the Sexes on page 66, that studies confirm that our brains develop

at different rates and based on that it creates a considerable amount of differences between the

sexes. She states that research shows that the left side of a girl’s brain develops faster than a

boy’s causing an increase in the development in verbal functioning and may be the reason why

girls learn to talk sooner than little boys, have better vocabulary, read earlier, and excel in

memory at a younger age. She also says that boys develop the right side of their brain faster than

girls and have earlier visual-spacial, logical, and perceptual development and may be the reason

why boys tend to be better in mathematics, problem solving, building, and at figuring out puzzles
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earlier than girls. Dr. Glass further explain these neurological differences saying that several

studies have shown that girls as they develop are more interested in playing with toys with faces

while boys prefer toy blocks or toys that can be manipulated. Dr. Roger Gorski of UCLA

confirms the structural differences between men’s and women’s brains stating that the corpus

callosum which is the band of fibers uniting the right and left side of the brain is bigger and

wider in women than in men. The differences are clear and evident that men and women are

quite different and communication is often challenging and difficult. Men have different body

language, different gestures; consider how a mother talks to her child and how a father talks to

the child imagine the huge differences.

In addition to these differences we have to consider self image or our face which is a

communication theory researched by Stella Ting Toomey. It is a metaphor for the public image

people display. One of the assumptions of Face Negotiation Theory state that self-identity is

important in interpersonal interactions, with individuals negotiating their identities differently

across cultures. It is an image of what they want people to see and accept. SPT’s onion analogy

explains the importance of revealing yourself. The layers of the onion represent the assortments

of a person’s personality; the outer layer serves as the public image.

The assumptions of Social Penetration are relationships progress from nonintimate to

intimate, which we have dealt with earlier, relational development is generally systematic and

predictable which refers to the notion that relationship development follows some pattern or

acceptable standard but relationships do not always go in the direction we would like them to.

Communication can also cause relationships to move from intimacy to nonintimacy. For

example if the communication is unhealthy or conflictual, the intimacy will deteriorate. If the

mother severs her communication with her child it will cause a loss of trust and intimacy and
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their relationship will suffer and may eventually end. With depenetration it doesn’t always

mean that the relationship will end completely it just experiences the author of the text book

calls transgressions, violations of relational rules, practices, and expectations.

In the field of communication specifically Journalism


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