Fordham University: Michael D. High's Communications and Media Studies Course: "Social Penetration Theory"

Read this overview of the Social Penetration Theory. This website provides summaries of numerous common human communication theories that will be applied throughout this course. Theories like this one help us understand how communication contributes to the development of interpersonal relationships. Read the page in its entirety to better understand the theory and common applications of the theory. Be sure to review the examples.

Social Penetration Theory

The "Social Penetration Theory" is the process of relational bonding in which people move from a superficial relationship to a deeper relationship. This theory states that relationships have an organized process of development, meaning that a relationship's progression follows a general pattern.

Some assumptions of the "Social Penetration Theory" include:
- relationships progress from non intimate to intimate
- relational development is generally systematic and predictable
- relational development includes depenetration and dissolution
- self-disclosure is at the core of relationship development

These assumptions mean that relationships follow a predictable pattern in moving from non intimate to intimate and can follow the same type of organized path from intimate to non intimate (i.e. the falling out of a relationship). One of main aspects of an intimate relationship is self-disclosure, or the revealing of meaningful personal information. The disclosure of this information is what makes a relationship intimate. Only through trust will disclosure occur.

An aspect of self-disclosure is reciprocity of openness, in which one person reveals what is beyond their public image to someone and that person reciprocates with revealing information of the same intimacy.

There are THREE stages of Social Penetration in which a relationship progresses from acquaintance-like communication to stable, intimate communication:

Orientation: superficial and formal revealing of bits of information about ourselves to others that occurs at the public level
Exploratory Affective Exchange: emergence of an individual's personality that often includes spontaneity and non-verbal warmth (i.e. this is how you might treat your neighbors or familiar acquaintances
Affective Exchange: spontaneous communication that includes the use of personal idioms (i.e. close friendships and intimate partners)


Important definitions:

intimacy: element of exclusivity that can be physical, emotional, or intellectual
depenetration: slow deterioration of a relationship
self-disclosure: the revealing of meaningful, personal information

public image: outer, surface layer of a person available to others (think back to the onion analogy!)

reciprocity of openness: the process whereby one person's openness leads to another person's openness

breadth: number of topics discussed in a relationship

breadth time: the amount of time partners spend communicating with each other about various topics

depth: degree of intimacy guiding a topic

personal idioms: private, intimate expressions stated in a relationship

stable exchange: efficient communication that includes the establishment of a personal system of communication

Reward/Cost ratio: The balance between positive and negative relationship experiences


Last modified: Monday, October 14, 2019, 3:24 PM