Social Penetration Theory

The Social Penetration Theory was originally created by Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor. The theory deals with the ways in which relationships develop and progress. It explains how communication enriches the relationship of two or more individuals. The theory states that closeness (penetration) develops if communication begins at relatively shallow non-intimate levels and moves in gradual and orderly fashion to deeper more personal levels. The theory proposes that relationships get more intimate over time when people disclose more information about themselves. The Onion Analogy is used to explain the Social Penetration Theory. Personality is like a multilayered onion, having the public self (height, weight, gender) on the outer and the private self (values, self-concept, deep emotions) on the core.

Social penetration refers to the open interpersonal behaviours which take place through social interaction and the subjective internal process which occurs before, during and after the social exchange. It can be verbal, nonverbal or environmental. Verbal behaviour includes the exchanging of information while non-verbal behaviour includes body language (posture, facial expressions, eye gaze etc.). -Environmental behaviours include the personal distance between people and the use of physical objects and areas.

As one communicates with another, a series of behaviours occur internally which causes an individual to create a subjective picture of what a person is like ie: how they feel about the person both positive and negative etc. In effect when one communicates with another either verbally, non-verbally or environmentally they are setting off a system of behaviours that help us to create social bonds based on the “whole person” rather than individual behaviours taken one at a time.

Social penetration is an orderly process which goes through different stages over time. As interpersonal exchange gradually progresses from the superficial to the more intimate our real selves are revealed, like peeling back the layers of an onion. The four stages to this process are Orientation Stage, Exploratory Affective Stage, Affective Stage and Stable Stage.

Orientation phase:When people first meet, they are revealing their outer superficial shell. Conversations revolve around hobbies, likes, and dislikes.

Exploratory Effective phase: The relationship develops as a few layers of the personality are “peeled off” allowing the personality to show through in verbal and nonverbal communication. The relationship becomes more intimate.

Affective phase: More layers are peeled away until almost the entire personality is revealed. Participants develop and understanding for one another and begin to discuss personal topics.

Stable phase: This is the final stage in the relationship where all layers have been peeled away, exposing the core of the individual’s personality.

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Critiques of Theory

Social Penetration Theory is an established and familiar explanation of how closeness develops in friendships and romantic relationships but it has many critics:

Petronio thinks that it is simplistic to equate self-disclosure with relational closeness and also challenges the theorists’ view of disclosure boundaries as being fixed and increasingly less permeable. She questions if a complex blend of advantages and disadvantages van be reliably reduced to a single index? Are people so consistently selfish that they always opt to act strictly in their own best interests?

Paul Wright believes that friendships often reach a point of such closeness that self-centered concerns are no longer salient.