You are on page 1of 5

Interpersonal Communication Theories and

Social Penetration Theory, Self-Disclosure,
Uncertainty Reduction Theory, and Relational
Dialectics Theory
Social Penetration Theory (SPT)

Key Points

• SPT is a theory about the development of “relational closeness.”

• Relational closeness can progress from superficial to intimate.
• Closeness develops through self-disclosure.

Closeness varies according to the following factors:

• Rewards/benefits
• Costs/vulnerability
• Satisfaction
• Stability and security


“Please listen carefully and try to hear what I am not saying . . .

What I'd like to be able to say . . .
What for survival I need to say . . .
But what I can't say." - Unknown

Self-disclosure is sharing with someone information which helps him or her understand you.
Self-disclosure is most revealing when the sharing is in the present and least revealing when
the sharing is about the past. -- D. Johnson, Reaching Out:Interpersonal Effectiveness and
Self-Actualization (Boston: Allyn and Bacon) 1997 ,p.33.

Self-Disclosure Characteristics

• The story always represents the storyteller (the person disclosing).

• SD stimulates feedback. The quality of the feedback is related to the amount and
relevance of self-disclosure we receive and share with others.
• Self-disclosure can be most revealing or least revealing.

Self-Disclosure Definitions

** S. Jourard (in The Transparent Self) defines self-disclosure as making ourselves

"transparent" to others through our communication--i.e., when we tell others things about
ourselves which help them to see our uniqueness as a human being.

** Culpert distinguishes between self-description vs. self-disclosure. Self-description involves
communication that levels "public layers" whereas self-disclosure involves communication
that reveals more private, sensitive, and confidential information.

** Pearce & Sharp make an interesting distinction among three related terms: Self-discloure,
confession, and revelation.

• Self-disclosure -- voluntarily communication of information about one's self to

• Confession -- forced or coerced communication of information about one's self to
• Revelation -- unintentional or inadvertent communication of information about one's
self to another.

Findings of Self Disclosure Research

• Disclosure increases with increased relational intimacy.

• Disclosure increases with the need to reduce uncertainty in a relationship.
• Disclosure tends to be reciprocal.
• Disclosure tends to be incremental.
• Disclosure tends to be symmetrical.
• Liking is related to positive disclosure, but not to negative ones.
• Positive disclosure does not necessarily increase with the intimacy of the
relationship; but negative disclosure is directly related to the intimacy of the
• Relational satisfaction and disclosure have a curvilinear relationship -- satisfaction is
highest with moderate levels of disclosure.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT)

Key Points

• Presumes that “the beginning of personal relationships are fraught with

uncertainities” (C. Berger).
• Presumes that people want to reduce uncertainty in relationships through knowledge
and understanding.

Three ways we learn about others:

• Passive strategies -- we observe the person, either in situations where the other
person is likely to be self-monitoring (a reactivity search) as in a classroom, or where
the other person is likely to act more naturally (a disinhibition search) as in the
stands at a football game.
• Active strategies -- we ask others about the person we're interested in or try to set up
a situation where we can observe that person (e.g., taking the same class, sitting a
table away at dinner). Once the situation is set up we sometime observe (a passive
strategy) or talk with the person (an interactive strategy).
• Interactive strategies -- we communicate directly with the person.

Relational Dialectics Theory (RDT)

Key Points

• Relationships reflect tensions (conflicts, contradictions) that are played out in

communication interaction (dialectical tensions).
• Relationships are “organized around the dynamic interplay of opposing tendencies”
(L. Baxter & B. Montgomery)


Connectedness/Separateness Inclusion/Seclusion
Certainty/Uncertainty Conventionality/Uniqueness
Openness/Closedness Revelation/Concealment

RDT: Connectedness-Separateness

• The tension between connectedness and separateness is if one person wins the
relationship as a whole loses.
• No relationship can exist by definition unless the parties sacrifice some individual
autonomy. However, too much connection paradoxically destroys the relationship
because individuals’ identities become lost. (Baxter & Montgomery)

RDT: Certainty and Uncertainty

• Uncertainty reduction theory (Berger) proposes that people want predictability in

their relationships.
• In RD theory, Baxter and Montgomery claim that people want a certain amount of
mystery and spontaneity in relationships to "spice things up." Without variety, the
relationship will become dull and too predictable, therefore, "emotionally dead."

RDT: Openness and Closedness

• Social penetration theorist Altman asserts that self-disclosure and privacy operate in
a cyclical fashion over time.
• Baxter and Montgomery concur, claiming that relationships aren’t on a straight-line
path to intimacy, either.
• They argue that a person has an urge to "tell all" but at the same time, vies for
secrecy in a never-ending cycle that constantly changes.

A Self-Disclosure Test

Step One: Identify a relationship:

Employer or Supervisor
Intimate Partner
Family member (sibling, parent, child)

Member of this class

Step Two: Rate the items that follow using the following scale:

1- would definitely self-disclose

2- would probably self-disclose
3- uncertain if I would self-disclose
4- would probably not self-disclose
5- would definitely not self-disclose

The Items:

• My religious beliefs
• My attitudes toward other religions, nationalities, ethnic groups
• My economic status
• My parents’ attitudes toward other religions, nationalities, ethnic groups
• My feelings about my parents
• My past intimate relationships
• My ideal mate
• My sexual fantasies
• My doubts about myself
• My hopes and fears
• My drinking and/or drug-taking behavior
• My political beliefs
• My job satisfaction or dissatisfaction
• My relationship satisfaction or dissatisfaction
• My feelings about the people in the relevant group (e.g., classmates, workmates,
family members)

Theory into Practice: Guidelines for Self-Disclosure

• Is the time, place, and information appropriate and/or relevant?

• Is the audience appropriate for your self-disclosure?
• Might the information you are about to disclose reflect badly on others known to the
• Will your self-disclosure demonstrate respect for another individual's or group's
• Is the situation one in which you trust the other person(s) to listen and show courtesy
toward you?
• How much personal detail do you need to go into? Might you embarrass yourself or
• Do you have a relationship with the other person(s) which allows for mutual
disclosure? How close are you to the other person?
• Have you developed adequate rapport with the other person? Do you feel pressured
to self-disclose? Is this something you really want to do?
• Theory into Practice: Guidelines for Self-Disclosure
• Can you trust the other person(s) to maintain confidentiality if necessary?
• Do you feel comfortable self-disclosing in the situation you are in?
• What impact will your self-disclosure have on the other person?

Some Case Study Questions

How would you characterize the relationships in the video case?

What are the key events or focus points?
What theories apply, if any, to the case (what concepts, what ideas)?
What communication insights or lessons are revealed (if any)?