COMM Theoretical Application Paper

COMM Theoretical Application Paper

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COMM Theoretical Application Paper

Introduction of Chosen Concept

The social penetration theory came about in the early 1970s as two psychologists sought to comprehend how relationships develop between individuals through information sharing and intimacy of interpersonal relationships (Kays, Miles, & Koch, 2016; Mangus et al., 2020). In particular, Dalmas Taylor and Irwin Altman coined this theory in 1973 to describe the nature of the progression of relationships between individuals and how communication enriches such relationships. This theory posits that relationships develop principally through self-disclosure (Kromka, 2020). Self-disclosure refers to the intentional revelation of personal thoughts, desires, motives, experiences, and feelings (Beich-Forkner, 2013; Carpenter & Greene, 2015). In other words, the theory postulates that as self-disclosure increases in both depth and breadth, interpersonal communication becomes deeper and more intimate, strengthening relationships. In the beginning, individuals establish relationships by engaging in small talk and disclosing simple and harmless information. As these relationships grow, the degree of self-disclosure slows, and the information disclosed becomes progressively intimate. In other words, adequate interactions generated through social penetration and relational closeness as communication deepens produce favorable, intimate, and firm relationships. The growth in intimate self-disclosure enables other people to penetrate an individual’s public persona to discover their innermost self (Panos, 2014).

The social penetration theory has five stages that define self-disclosure explained using the onion metaphor, which advocates that personality is multi-layered. The onion’s outer layers represent people’s public selves. Peeling away these outer layers by engaging in interpersonal conversations unveils the core, which represents their personal selves. Taylor and Altman established that these five stages depict different degrees of social penetration or intimacy of exchange (Beich-Forkner, 2013; Kays, Miles, & Koch, 2016; Kromka, 2020). Unit 3 learnings identify the first stage of self-disclosure as the orientation stage. Here, communicators get each other’s first impression as they engage in small talk while adhering to social norms in their interactions. They also become acquainted by noticing each other’s behaviors and mannerisms and exchanging only non-intimate or superficial information (outer layer) about themselves cautiously and carefully (Carpenter & Greene, 2015; Manning, 2019). The second phase is the explanatory affective, where individuals start to share information beyond superficial details less cautiously. They self‐disclose their thoughts around topics such as politics, increasing the breadth of topics conversed, but still withhold deeply personal information. The stage tells individuals’ public selves only shallowly, and their personality begins to emerge as casual friendships develop (Carpenter & Greene, 2015). The third stage is the affective phase, where individuals become more comfortable sharing private matters and personal details, with interpersonal relationships becoming more important to them. Personal communication changes from formal to casual, and individuals adopt spontaneous and unconventional language involving jokes, sarcastic remarks, criticisms, or arguments (Carpenter & Greene, 2015).

The fourth stage is the stable phase. Here, relationships become more robust, and profound, and individuals disclose the deepest information, beliefs, personal thoughts, and values more openly and comfortably. They engage intimately and honestly in open expressions of feelings, behaviors, and thoughts, and greater spontaneity (Carpenter & Greene, 2015). The last state is social de-penetration. As an optional phase, it occurs when individuals withdraw from self-disclosure and undo the interpersonal relationship if they perceive that the self-disclosure costs outweigh its benefits (Kromka, 2020). This phase, also termed dissolution, is characterized by the emergence of relational stressors and interpersonal conflict that necessitate relationship renegotiation or relationship disintegration. Progressing through these stages assumes a linear variation initially but nonlinear patterns later depending on the relationship’s stage (Carpenter & Greene, 2015). This means that intimate relationships can switch these stages at different times under the influence of insecurities and reservations between self-disclosing individuals.

Research of Peer-Reviewed Articles

Five scholarly peer-reviewed articles from the UCONN Library database use the social penetration theory as their theoretical framework. Chen and Nakazawa (2012) adopt a survey questionnaire method to explore how cultural backgrounds, friendship types, and friendship levels influence individuals’ self-disclosure. They use the social penetration theory to offer the essential theoretical connection between self-disclosure and relationship development among participants. The researchers’ findings confirmed that cultural factors greatly drive socialization practice development and social penetration processes in intercultural friendships, hence patterns of self-disclosure in intercultural relationships. The article raises the question of the dyadic nature of self-disclosure and its role in maintaining intercultural friendships, necessitating further research.

Mangus et al. (2020) that adopt a qualitative research method involving semi-structured interviews to investigate the effects of customer-felt relationship empathy and mutual information sharing on relationship outcomes. They use the social penetration theory as the fundamental basis for examining both personal disclosure and business disclosure and empathy in customer-felt relationships. Building on this theory, the authors suggest an integrative framework of these disclosures. The article’s primary finding affirms that the content of disclosure developed through customer-felt relationship empathy and information sharing shape the establishment of advanced buyer-seller relationships, trust, and relational performance.

Tang and Wang (2012) utilize online questionnaire methods to examine the themes that bloggers disclose on their blogs and in real-world circumstances. Here, they adopt the social penetration theory in online relationship contexts to show bloggers’ expressions of feelings, experiences, and thoughts. This study generates two key findings. The first is that bloggers disclose an extensive range of topics. The second is that bloggers’ depth of self-disclosure to three target audiences (online audience, best friends, and parents) varies according to the target audiences. Here, bloggers express themselves the most to best friends, followed by parents, and the least to online audiences. The authors indicate the need for future researchers to explore the interplay between disclosures by online friends and real-world friends.

Mısır, Demir, and Koydemir (2019) use a questionnaire-based survey to explore self-disclosure levels in online communication and the linkages between self-disclosure and perceived interpersonal competence. The social penetration theory provided the theoretical backing of the assumption that self-disclosure brings about some psychological benefits. The article’s findings are that higher shyness levels lead to weaker connections between perceived interpersonal competence and online self-disclosure. The article alludes to the need for examining other variables beyond shyness.

Lastly, Rains, Brunner, and Oman (2016) employ a questionnaire-based social support survey to delve into the implications of superficial self-disclosures received from friends who use communication technologies. Some of the themes they address include relationship satisfaction, willingness to offer social support, and liking. Here, the social penetration theory helps to conceptualize superficial disclosures’ costs and rewards. The results show that significant interactions exist between the number of superficial disclosures and that of received self-disclosures for both liking and relationship satisfaction.

Theory Application to Real-Life Communication Context

The first four social penetration theory stages play out in one of my friend’s current social media communications, processes, and interactions. I observed that he does not self-disclose personal information to people in his social media circle until he knows them better, indicating that he progresses through these four stages. When we became friends on Facebook and Snapchat, he only engaged in occasional and non-sensitive small talk. Here, he kept all social media interactions formal, observed some implied social rules, and shared shallow details about himself cautiously and sketchily. These are generally the characteristics of the orientation stage of self-disclosure.

As we became more acquainted with engaging in online interpersonal interactions, he began to express his thoughts less cautiously about several topics ranging from entertainment, sports, and fitness to travel. Our friendship became stronger, but he still withheld what he felt was profoundly personal information. Even so, the information he shared enabled me to understand his personality slowly. This indicated his depiction of explanatory affective stage features.

With time, our online interpersonal relationship strengthened, and my friend could now share private details more comfortably and casually. We could joke and criticize each other freely, a reflection that he was now at the affective phase of self-disclosure. Today, our online relationship is robust, and he shares with me the deepest feelings and experiences about himself openly, honestly, confidentially, and spontaneously. This shows that he has reached the theory’s stable stage. Thus, self‐disclosure functions influence the development of online interpersonal relationships between him and different online audiences.

Theory’s Creative Application

Within the family unit, interpersonal relationships depend on the family’s nature and structure. Irrespective of nature and structure, family interpersonal relationships matter because they determine the levels of family cohesiveness, adaptability, fulfillment, and effectiveness of siblings’ decisions. The quality of interpersonal relationships in the family system is a predictor of family members’ commitment, intimacy, faithfulness, and involvement in family roles and processes (Fourie, 2010). When interpersonal stressors emerge, family relationships may disintegrate to levels beyond restoration, damaging interpersonal parent-child communication patterns. Overcoming such stressors make family relationship interventions important. Such family relationship interventions foster better-quality family functioning through therapy that enhances communication, relationship quality, collaboration, and conflict resolution (Scharlach, Li, & Dalvi, 2006).

The application of this theory justifies a creative project involving designing and formulating such family relationship interventions. Specifically, the social penetration theory provides a viable conceptual framework for creating, championing, and implementing feasible family therapy interventions. These interventions focus on safeguarding robust interactions, collaboration, emotional expression, and streamlined interpersonal communication among family members to sustain relationships. It offers the best framework for comprehending the breadth and depth of sibling self-disclosures. Consequently, this can help predict sibling-sibling associations, children-parent relationships, relational uncertainties, and the degree of social penetration in family relationships that mediated between family communication patterns (Schrodt & Phillips, 2016). Designing family relationship intervention based on this theory is relevant to my interests because familial interpersonal relationships are needed not only for psychological and physical wellbeing but also for ongoing growth.


Beich-Forkner, K. (2013). “And do you take this stranger to be your lawfully wedded wife?”: The usefulness of social penetration theory within premarital counseling. (Master’s Thesis, Liberty University).

Carpenter, A., & Greene, K. (2015). Social penetration theory. The International Encyclopedia of Interpersonal Communication, 1-4. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Doi:10.1002/9781118540190.wbeic0160.

Chen, Y. W., & Nakazawa, M. (2012). Measuring patterns of self-disclosure in intercultural friendship: Adjusting differential item functioning using multiple-indicators, multiple-causes models. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 41(2), 131-151. Doi: 10.1080/17475759.2012.670862.

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Mangus, S. M., Bock, D. E., Jones, E., & Folse, J. A. G. (2020). Examining the effects of mutual information sharing and relationship empathy: A social penetration theory perspective. Journal of Business Research, 109, 375-384. Doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2019.12.019.

Manning, J. (2019). Thinking about interpersonal relationships and social penetration theory: Is it the same for lesbian, gay, or bisexual people. Casing Communication Theory, 293-303.

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Panos, D. (2014). “I” on the web: Social penetration theory revisited. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 5(19), 185-185. Doi: 10.5901/mjss.2014.v5n19p185.

Rains, S. A., Brunner, S. R., & Oman, K. (2016). Self-disclosure and new communication technologies: The implications of receiving superficial self-disclosures from friends. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(1), 42-61. Doi: 10.1177/0265407514562561.

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Tang, J. H., & Wang, C. C. (2012). Self-disclosure among bloggers: Re-examination of social penetration theory. Cyber-psychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(5), 245-250. Doi: 10.1089/cyber.2011.0403.