COM 270
Introduction to Theories of Human Communication

Lecture 17: Social Penetration Theory

I. Introduction

A. Social Penetration Theory (SPT) is the brainchild of two social psychologists -- Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor.

B. SPT maintains that relationships develop gradually over time as a function of the degree of self-disclosure that occurs between the relational partners.

C. SPT begins with the notion that people are like onions -- a person's personality is multi-layered with public layers accessible to all; semi-private layers accessible to only a few; and private layers rarely accessible to anyone.



1. At the beginning of a relationship, those features that make up our public layers (e.g., age, likes/dislikes, hobbies, etc.) serve as the primary "attractors" that draw us closer together.

2. However, there is a limit as to how close these superficial properties can bring us together. At some point, further intimacy requires us to penetrate the semi-private, and eventually the private layers of our relational partners.

D. Accessing the semi-private and private layers of our partner's personality can only be accomplished if s/he engaged in self-disclosive communication with us. (We will talk about self-disclosive communication in our next lecture.)

E. According to SPT, the process of increasing intimacy through self-disclosive communication is gradual and orderly, and it is characterized by certain predictable aspects:

1. Participants must have healthy self-concepts-- they must basically like themselves and think highly enough of themselves not to be ashamed to reveal aspects of themselves to others.

2. Participants must be willing to take relational risks they must not be afraid of what might happen if they reveal certain things about them to the other.

3. Participants must have trust in the unconditional positive regard of their partners -- they must believe that the other will not, or cannot, do anything with what s/he is told to injuire or hurt the revealer.

F. If these facets are absent, SPT maintains that the relational partners will likely engage in DEPENETRATION -- the systematic closing off of some portions of a person's individual life and personality to the other.

G. Social depenetration usually signals the start of :

1. Relational disintegration or "breaking up" -- the couple begins the process of uncoupling themselves by systematically distancing themselves form each other by closing off inner layers of themselves.

2. Relational renegotiation -- the couple begins the process of redefining the nature of their relationship

Ex: They start talking about each other as friends or buddies, rather than boyfriend or girlfriend.

Relational renegotiation seeks to redefine the relationship in such a way that the individuals can still maintain a relationship in which shutting of off inner layers is acceptable.





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