Social Penetration Theory: Connecting Communication

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Communication and developing social relationships are dynamically connected to each other because communication affects the growth of relationships while the growth of relationships affects communication behavior of people. In this regard, the social penetration theory proposes that the development and deterioration of interpersonal relationships can be achieved through the exchange of “intimate” information. As interpersonal exchanges move from superficial and non-intimate information, communication can be effectively achieved as it is transferred to more intimate information exchanges through the process of revealing personal information.

This is why, people are more open to communicate with family and friends and we reveal more information about our thoughts and feelings to them as compared to communicating with ordinary strangers. As we get to know a person better, people can be comfortable revealing vital information without fear or hesitation that make us feel vulnerable. Thus, the social penetration theory purports that the amount of interaction increases as the relationship develops and the cost-benefit considerations determine how quickly or slowly relationships develop.

In a meso-level of everyday life, the Social Penetration Theory can be well exhibited. For example, Dick and Jane, who are complete strangers, sit beside each other in a bus on their way to work. Dick initiates a conversation about Jane’s nice red dress. Of course, Jane would not instantly react to Dick’s effort for a small talk, so she just smiles at him. In this example, initiating a conversation is the first stage of the Social Penetration Theory where people tend to depend on first impressions, the sizing up of the other person, and attempting to find commonality (Pearson et al. 2003).

In another instance, Jane meets Dick again in a concert. Jane realizes they have met before so she agrees when Dick asks her if he could sit beside her. Before the concert started, Dick tries to converse with Jane. Since Jane is now comfortable about Dick, she agrees to engage in small talk. In this scenario, the second stage of the Social Penetration Theory – experimenting — can be exemplified because they now agree to know more about each other. This stage includes sharing personal information at a safe level: what music, people, sports and food they both like or dislike.

After the concert, Dick invited Jane to dinner the next night and she agreed. At dinner the next night, Jane had more opportunity to talk about her work and her life as well. This is the third stage of the Social Penetration Theory that is known as intensifying, as it already involves active participation, mutual concern, and an awareness that the relationship is developing because neither party has quit and both people are encouraging its development. The information exchanges become more personal and more intimate.

So let’s say Dick and Jane became so close after dating for quite some time. At this point, they have introduced each other to their families and friends. This is the fourth stage known as integrating because the two started to merge their social circles. At this stage, they may also designate common property and share interests and values. Finally, if Dick and Jane decide to take their relationship to the next level, they should eliminate all barriers that prevent them to communicate openly to each other.

This is called bonding, the final stage of the Social Penetration Theory, where the people in the relationship commit to each other at its most intimate level. They may exchange personal items as a symbol of commitment; they may participate in a public ritual that bonds them, as in the case of marriage; or they may vow to be friends for life and demonstrate that commitment by always being present at important points in each other’s life. Living together, marrying, having children, buying a home, or moving together to another place can be examples of bonding.

My opinion about the Social Penetration Theory is that the effectiveness of communication relies greatly on people’s intimacy. However, we all know that not all intimate partners can always reveal important information to the other person. For example, if Dick likes Jane to become his wife, he will have a tendency not to reveal that he had been rehabilitated because of a drug problem. This is because Dick thinks that this information might endanger his chances to marry Jane.

In other words, the Social Penetration Theory only views relationship formation as a process of constructing compatible identities rather than revealing one’s “true self”. In viewing the communication process, people tend to shift “the perspective from the individual to the interaction between perspectives from the individual to the interaction between the parties” (Svennevig 2000, p. 21). This is the reason why the Social Penetration Theory cannot entirely assure an effective and open communication at all. However, we can learn from it because it connects the aspect of social relations to communication.

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