According to a 2015 study by researchers Amanda Carpenter and Kathryn Greene at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA, “Social penetration theory describes the role of disclosure in relationship development, focusing specifically on how self‐disclosure functions in developing relationships.” The study also mentions that the onion model of self-disclosure is used as a framework to explain penetration or closeness. “In developing relationships, people use self‐disclosure to increase intimacy including through breadth, depth, and the norm of reciprocity,” add Carpenter and Greene. It is also believed that penetration occurs through various stages and also involves rewards and costs.
The Onion Analogy
Self-disclosure was initially described as peeling the layers of an onion according to the social penetration theory by Altman and Taylor. This means self-disclosure includes both breadth and depth like we can find in an onion. In this context, breadth means the different aspects of ourselves and our lives, like our work, family, passions, dreams, goals and community. Depth, on the other hand, deals with the intricate details related to these aspects of the self.
The Onion Analogy explains that human personality is like the multilayered onion. We have a superficial outer self, which we reveal to the public, like our jobs, gender, height, weight; and we have a deeper, more personal self, like our values, deep emotions and concept of self, which we reveal only to our closest loved ones. As we choose to self-disclose to our partner or a close friend, we peel our outer layers and expose our core, inner layers which often makes us feel vulnerable.
This notion was developed in relation to the Social Penetration Theory to understand how much information we choose to reveal to someone. This also shows what role interpersonal communication and exchanging information plays in the growth and dissolution of relationships.
Along with breadth and depth, there are 3 separate layers in self-disclosure:
- Peripheral layer: Information related to age, education, career, hometown
- Intermediate layer: Information related to political & religious beliefs, taste in music, movies, books, extracurricular activities and leisure interests
- Central layer: Information related to personal values, fears, dreams, personality traits, self-awareness, self esteem, concept of self
The more we move closer towards the core, the deeper and more personal information we share which makes the relationship more intimate.
Stages of Self-Disclosure
The Social Penetration Theory by Altman and Taylor comprises different stages which occur due to the self-disclosure process. These stages include:
- Orientation stage
- Exploratory affective stage
- Affective stage
- Stable stage
Now let us take a closer look at each of these stages as it can help us understand how to implement the social penetration theory in our lives:
1. Orientation stage
This is the first stage when two people meet for the first time, introduce each other and engage mostly in small talk and create good first impressions. Here, we only reveal our most outer superficial layer. Communication largely revolves around observing body language, mannerisms, physical appearance and the exchange of non-intimate information.
In a study, Amanda Carpenter and Kathryn Greene explain “In this initial stage, people are cautious and careful when disclosing information.” They add “people reveal bits of themselves at the public level and act in socially desirable and polite ways.”
2. Exploratory affective stage
As the relationship develops, more layers are exposed which allows our personality to show. This is done mostly through nonverbal and verbal communication. As we start disclosing more about ourselves, the relationship starts to become intimate. However, deep and personal information is mostly avoided and withheld. This is the level where most casual friendships form.
Carpenter and Greene write that in this stage people use less caution while communicating. “There may be an increase in the breadth of topics discussed, but these topics still generally reveal the public self. In this stage, the personality begins to emerge,” they add.