Self-Disclosure: Social Penetration
Self-disclosure can be defined as the intentional sharing of personal information about oneself. Disclosure may include sharing both high-risk and low-risk information as well as personal experiences, ideas and attitudes, feelings and values, past facts and life stories, and even future hopes, dreams, ambitions, and goals. In sharing information about yourself, you make choices about what to share and with whom to share it.
Competent communicators use self-disclosure selectively. They make choices about disclosing information judiciously, with awareness of the positive and negative consequences of doing so. They may weigh the impact that disclosing information might have on the growth and well-being of a relationship. In addition, they may consider how learning personal information about themselves may affect another person, especially in light of that person's receptivity and trustworthiness to respond well to what has been disclosed.
Altman and Taylor (1987) developed the social penetration theory to describe self-disclosure as the gradual sharing of information about oneself. Drawing on social exchange theory, Altman and Taylor sought to explain some of the decisions people make about whether to share information about themselves.
Rewards and Costs of Self-Disclosure
What motivates you to self-disclose? As we have already seen, the kinds of low-level self-disclosures that occur as part of the strategy of uncertainty reduction invite others to reciprocate and share their own information. So, one great payoff of self-disclosing is the reduction of uncertainty and the stress that it creates. And later in a relationship, when a deeper level of self-disclosure occurs, we experience the rewards of having greater intimacy with people we like. We may also self-disclose information in order to gain the help and support of others or to achieve the catharsis that comes from unburdening ourselves from carrying difficult and painful emotional experiences by ourselves. Support, empathy, compassion, and understanding are all powerful rewards that motivate self-disclosure.
At the same time, costs and risks may be incurred as a result of self-disclosure. We may lose face with another or risk a breach of confidence. Sometimes, the cost of disclosure is a burden to the relationship itself, especially when disclosure is associated with demands or expectations that a relational partner does not feel comfortable assuming. In deciding whether to self-disclosure, we must weigh these actual and perceived costs against the anticipated rewards.
Disclosure of Breadth and Depth
Altman and Taylor (1987) describe the process of self-disclosure as social penetration. By this, they mean that self-disclosing and learning about others is the process of penetrating deeper into the selves of those peopleand enabling others to penetrate ourselves and gain a deeper understanding of us. This process of penetration is a gradual one, in which each communicator reveals layers of personal depth.
As a way of visualizing this process, Altman and Taylor use the metaphor of an onion and its layers of rings. Disclosure begins on the outer layer and proceeds to the core of the onion. These authors also suggest that there are two levels of disclosure (see Figure 5.4
). The first level is called the breadth dimension. This is the skin of the onion and its most outer layers. In terms of self-disclosure, this layer is largely made up of superficial information about ourselves that we commonly share with a number of different people. On this superficial level, there is a great deal of information that will likely cost little to disclose. This peripheral information will likely be exchanged early in a relationship. Moreover, Altman and Taylor observe that when we share superficial informationthat is, from the breadth dimension of ourselvesthe process of penetration is fairly quick.
Later, in a relationship, communicators gradually share depth of information. Again, using the onion metaphor, these are the inner layers and the core of the onion. Information at the depth level is more significant and more central to who we are. Thus, sharing information from our depth may incur greater risk taking. The information from this dimension of self is typically known by and held in confidence by only a few people. Sometimes, it includes very strong feelings, beliefs, and concerns. It may also include secrets, regrets or hurtful experiences, and painful memories. Information from the depth dimension, which is more private and significant, will likely be exchanged later in a relationship.
Disclosure and Relational Development
When Altman and Taylor (1987) developed their model, they hypothesized that self-disclosure and relational development followed a linear path. According to this view of the theory, relationships grow as communicators become more willing to self-disclose information. Relationships may also go through a process of depenetration, as partners stop sharing information. This view of relational development and self-disclosure was also incorporated into models by communication theorists, especially in DeVito's (1986) stages of relational development (see Figure 5.5
) and Knapp's (1984) relational stages model (which is also sometimes referred to as the "staircase" model of relational development). Both of these models conceptualize relational growth in terms of the process of sharing information as relationships develop and withholding information as relationships decline.
Disclosure as a Dialectical Process
In more recent work on the model, Brown, Werner, and Altman (1996) have explained self-disclosure as a dialectical process. From this perspective relationships don't always follow a straight line from distance to closeness but rather go back and forth between the two. Periods of social penetration may be followed by periods of depenetration. We may move forward in a relationship, becoming closer, but then pull back before becoming closer again. This dialectical view reflects a kind of inner struggle that also arises in the tension between our desire to reveal information about ourselves and our tendency to want to conceal. It also recognizes that alongside the values of disclosing information, there are good reasons in some situations and relationships for not revealing information.
In the next section of this module, we will examine this concept of dialectical tensions further. Before we go ahead, however, we will consider one more aspect about self-disclosure: how it is interpreted from a relational point of view.
Interpreting Self-Disclosureas a Significant Relational Event
When self-disclosure is considered from a relational perspective, the actual sharing of information may not be as important as how the process of sharing information is perceived by the listener. Relate this distinction to the contrast made in Module One in comparing the transmission view of communication with the relational view of communication.
The transmission view of communication examines how information is exchanged between communicators. With reference to self-disclosure, this is a matter of recognizing what kind of content has been communicated. Suppose, for instance, that in the course of their relationship, Laverne decided to share with Vivien stories about a sexual experience that Laverne had had prior to meeting Vivien. From the perspective of the transmission view of communication, Vivien would know more about Laverne's past. This information would further contribute to the kind of psychological knowledge that Vivien possesses about Laverne. Vivien would thus be able to make better predictions about Laverne and how Laverne feels about things.
If we looked at the same self-disclosure using the relational view of communication, we would examine how Vivien interprets the significance of Laverne's decision to share information about the earlier sexual experience. In that regard, Vivien might perceive that Laverne thinks their relationship is very important or that Laverne really trusts Vivien to be willing to make such a significant disclosure.
Perhaps you have had a similar experience, in which it wasn't the content of what your friend or loved one disclosed that brought you closer, but the implicit message about the relationship that was communicated through the act of disclosure. You may have thought, "Wow, we are so close that we can communicate really meaningfully with one another!" It's also possible that you may have wondered why he or she had previously concealed that information. "Hasn't this person trusted me or felt comfortable enough in our relationship?" you may think to yourself.
Reflecting from his perspective as a gay man, John observes that he faces a quandary in deciding when and with whom to disclose that he is gay. Moreover, it's clear that sharing information about one's sexual orientation and relational status is a matter of breadth for most heterosexuals but an issue of disclosing depth for him:
Most straight people that I know don't hesitate to announce to the world if they are married or dating someone. Many of the other teachers at my school have photos of their husbands and kids on their desks that anyone can see. For them, sexual orientation is one of the "outer layers of the onion" for self-disclosure.
I don't think it is the same for a lot of gay people. I have to gauge carefully whether to tell someone that I am gay or whether to talk about my partner. That is a matter of disclosing from my depth when you consider the kinds of risks that are involved and the vastly different comfort levels of potential listeners.
Sharing what most people consider to be basic facts of life becomes a struggle. I have to weigh the costs against the benefits. There is the fear of being rejected or retaliated against professionally if I am open. On the other hand, if I am not totally honest or open, there is the personal cost of not being authentic or of appearing two -dimensional to friends or co-workers who never hear the day-to-day details of my life or hear them only in guarded or sanitized versions.