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Hannah Glass

Communication 2050
Final Paper

Social Penetration Theory


Social penetration theory is the evolution of relationships. As a one person
becomes closer to someone else than the relationship a deeper relationship becomes.
Social penetration theory is more comely known as the stage theory. The simple
definition of the social penetration theory is that, as relationships develop, interpersonal
communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to deeper, more
intimate ones (1973 p. 169). This theory could include a romantic relationship or a
platonic relationship. When explaining the social penetration theory Irwin Altman and
Dalmas Taylor use the onion metaphor. This theory is still applicable today for the world
around us. Social media and many other things play a significant role in self-discloser,
and social penetration theory still applies to us now. In this paper, this paper will be
discussing the new applications to this theory, new approaches and new modifications
that were made since the publication of the Introducing communication theory. This
paper will be discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the social penetration theory
by using the seven theory evaluation criteria.
The social penetration theory is also known as the "stage" theory. There are five
stages Orientation stage, Exploratory stage, Affective stage, Stable stage and
Depenetration stage. In the orientation stage, this is when things like social norms and
appropriateness happen as well as small talk. The exploratory stage starts to express a
persons attitude on more moderate topics. This is in the "stage" of casual friendship,
and many relationships do not go past this juncture. This stage would be an example
for. The affective stage is when the conversations start to get more personal. Criticism
and arguments may happen at this juncture. Stable stage in the social penetration
theory is where a lot of personal beliefs and thoughts are expressed, and a person is
able to reach a stable ground for the relationship. Depenetration stage may happen in a
relationship when there is no equal reciprocity and a withdrawal of disclosure which
leads to termination of the relationship (Altman and Taylor; 1973).

Social penetration theory is used in most everyones lives if they are aware of it
or not. The DreamWorks movie Shrek using the social penetration theory, but he
describes it like an onion. Shrek explains that he and everyone has layers and by an
increasing the level of intimacy or in Shrek's case getting to get to know someone, the
layers of the onion start to peel away and can get to the core of the person. The layers
can be basic small talk to more intense and meaningful. When meeting someone new
for the first time a person is in the begging stages of this theory, the person starts out on
a superficial level and then work towards having a more intimated relationship with that
other person. Most interactions with someone do not go past the introductory level. It is
not that as people we do not want to get to know them, in many cases, people are
interacting with someone at work, or there is not connection to move the relationship
forward. When there is a new colleague at work that relationships may be no more, then
walk past their desk and say hi or have small talk with them at the water fountain. Other
times someone could meet someone at a bar, and start to hit things off and the breadth,
the number of topics discussed in a relationship (p.173), of the conversations increases.
A subject which may enhance the breadth of a relationship would include politics,
religion, or what is right or wrong to a person. Conversation topics can increase the
amount of understanding two people may have for each other. In some cases, these
subjects can be tricky if two people have opposing views, some of those topics might
not be brought up again or even go past small talk. Within each of these categories will
be a general tendency or beliefs, as well as specific aspects or facets of those beliefs
(Lewin, 1951; Altem and Taylor, 1973). In different situations, the social interactions will
sometimes vary. At a party, someone might run into an old friend as well as meet a few
new people. Each of those interactions may be different depending on the stage of the
social penetration theory that relationship is in at the moment.
Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor are the two most famous for their work on the
social penetration theory in 1973. There has been other social psychologist that has
used and or disagree with some of the things in the Altman and Taylors theory. Some
writers and or phycologist contends that self-disclosure, in particular, may be too
narrowly interpreted with all instances for the social penetration theory. Sandra Metts,
believe that self-disclosure depends on some factors like, "growing knowledge of what
makes relationships succeed or fail. Since we all have friendships, romances, and
family ties, the relevance of my work is broad and does all fit into these stages (Sandra
Metts, July 8, 2005). Some authors like Sandra Metts argue that "what is considered to
be self-disclosure often depends on the attitudes of a relational partner." Valerian
Derlega said, "self-disclosure and close relationships do not necessarily develop over
time in a parallel, incremental, and continuous fashion" (1993, p. 26).
There has been some research done about the social penetration theory and
social media. One study done by Amanda Olsen, 2012 for Gonzaga University, most of

the research was done on Facebook given it is the biggest social media network that
people use today. As well as researchers Collins and Miller, (1994, Walther and
Burgoon 1992) studied the relationships between self-disclosure in social media. With
social media, there are no verbal cues like there are when there is a face to face
interactions. Interacting via a computer screen is hard to pick up on the diction of a
persons words. Facebook allows people to rely on their preformed opinions of others to
build future relationships. Altman and Taylor explain how mutual trust and close
relationships are developed by using self-disclosure. With having some social media
outlets like Facebook, Instagram, snapchat, Tinder and many others. People are more
willing to reach out and communicate with others on these social networks because it is
not a face to face conversation. People will also say hurtful things on these social
networks. The constant banter and social interaction on Facebook walls leads to
building relationships or to hurt another person. People are more willing to disclose
more information about themselves or their views on a topic over the internet rather
than in a conversation with someone. In the orientation stage of the relationship.
Another study was done by Pavica Sheldon, a student at Louisiana State University.
The main motive for Facebook use in studies by Ellison, (2008) is relationship
maintenance or social contact with people we know in real life. Two different groups of
theorists have suggested that self-disclosure is related to interpersonal attraction.
The movie Step Brothers is used a lot as an example of the social penetration
theory in a rather funny way. Two people around the same age have similar interest
meet. The orientation stage does not go well, and the two now step brothers have to live
together. The brothers are forced to interact with each other on a daily basis. Living with
someone and being around a person start to get to know that person if the intention was
to or not. Later the two brothers find out that they have a lot more in common than they
thought, and their relationship changed and started to grow closer. The status of a
relationship can evolve it may take awhile, or things could move very quickly. Different
circumstances can speed up the process of getting to know someone on a more
personal level, and the opposite can happen as well.
Evaluation of the social penetration theory. In this theory, it gives steps in how
relationships normally go. A weakness of this theory is there are so many other
variables that can change the outcome. Not everyone's relationships follow the
sequential order. There are times where someone is forced to have a close connection
in a short amount of time. In a pop culture, reference thinks about the T.V. Show the
Bachelor and Bachelorette, one person in trying to connect with 25 other people. The
contestants have a very quick orientation stage, and they all have sometimes to skip the
other steps because the contestants only have six weeks to make one person fall in
love. Understandably not everyone is in the situation, but the social penetration theory
does not always apply to every situation. For this theory to better apply to more

situations having more layers of the onion. Not having stages and more so a pathway of
options for social interactions. There are situations in which distance affects the
relationship and not so much anything else. The distance becomes such a difficult
situation in the relationship that there is never a chance to work up to the stable stage in
a relationship. Which happens a lot in life, for example, when students leave high
school, sure some people still stay in contact with each other, but many people go to
different schools and various parts of the world.
The social penetration theory is something we have in our lives even dont realize
it. Interacting with people is a common thing we do every day. There are different status
of relationships in various parts of our life and understanding how it work can increase a
person's ability to create more meaningful relationships. With the social penetration
theory, not much has changed significantly since psychologists Irwin Altman and
Dalmas Taylor in 1973. The social penetration theory is not just in the world around us it
is used in social media movies and television. Social media is a network that helps
break down the walls and enables people to say or do things that they would consider
out of their norm. All things do not come without their flaws, and the social penetration
theory does not fit every relationship scenario. The most important aspect to take away
from this theory is how relationships develop. Some are going to be slower, and we
need to be understanding with that, and others move at a much more rapid pace.

Work cited page


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Olsen, Amanda M. "Facebook and Social Penetration Theory." (2012): 4-44.
Gonzaga University.
2 Dec. 2012. Web. 3 Aug. 2016.
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