Every interaction we have with another person means something. Sometimes it will be a one-time greeting and you will never see the person again, and other times you will meet someone and never forget them again. They could become a lifelong friend. What social psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor describe this to be is the Social Penetration Theory. According to this theory, it is the way you represent, introduce, and portray relational closeness. Relational closeness develops only if the individual can proceed in a steady but orderly fashion from trivial to intimate levels of interaction as a function of both immediate and future outcomes.
This means, that if an individual approaches another one with confidence in the conversation then the interactions seem seamless and they start from the first step of peeling the multi-layered onion. Altman and Taylor describe the onion as layers to your personality. The outer layer is the public self. The inner layer is one’s private self.
In all, the only way to develop closeness with another person is through self-disclosure. Everyone has their own pace and conformity with disclosing things to others. Peeling the layers of the onion is what ultimately leads to the development of a relationship.
Each layer has a meaning as time passes and you reveal each layer. Layer number 1 reveals the basics like your name, age, and gender. Layer number 2 reveals characteristics like your preference for clothes, food, and music. Layer number 3 reveals things that only you would share including, goals and aspirations.
Layer number 4 gets more serious about maybe revealing your religious convictions. Layer number 5 is only for the intimate relationships where you reveal things to get advice or possibly help, this is where the depth of self-disclosure becomes personal, and deeply held fears and fantasies come out. Last but not least the last layer is one of the most important because the concept of oneself is where this comes to play. Once you are self-aware and you can think before you talk or act the most self-disclosure comes from that.
With that said, I have my own experience with social penetration theory. I, have had to peel layers to get the reward which is what Altman and Taylor describe as “regulating closeness based on rewards and costs.” For me, being in a relationship is scary, interesting, and exciting at the same time. A while back I got into my first relationship ever. I’m not completely sure what to make of dating because everyone identifies it differently. This theory, however, has applied very well to my past relationship. I’m not sure if I can even call it that but it was a learning lesson for myself no doubt. If I start by comparing it with the onion, it was the way I revealed my personality layer by layer. Three important concepts related to this theory to which I will relate my relationship to are: relational outcome, relational satisfaction, and relational stability. Thibaut and Kelley explained that during these relationships people usually try to predict the outcome of interaction before it takes place.
, With breadth and depth, 4 stages applied to my past relationship. The first stage describes how peripheral items are exchanged quicker than private information. When we would first start talking and engaging in activities together, there was more of a basic getting to know each other conversation than disclosing the private things so quickly. The next stage is reciprocal where each person feels the same in the early stages of a developing relationship. As interactions continued we would both start to feel like we were feeling the same way. This is where each person is aware that things should move to another level. It’s good to note that penetration is fast in the beginning but starts to slow down as each layer unfolds. When the process moves on from this it goes into depression which is a gradual layer process of layer-by-layer withdrawal. I felt like in this stage where we were both getting closer to each other and emotions started becoming deeper, it was dangerous and frightening. Looking at these feelings I was having towards developing a deeper relationship stemmed from the idea of the comparison level of alternatives (CLalt). As time progressed, so did the number of times where we would argue and disagree. This ultimately led me to a decision to consider rewards minus costs. I chose the reward instead of the cost because usually, we seek to maximize the benefits and minimize the cost.
It was not until social penetration theory I realized the influence of self-disclosure. We know that the more you disclose the more intimate you become but after analyzing my relationship in contrast to this theory, it makes me question if should have disclosed so much so quickly considering I got manipulated in the end. I tried to use social exchange theory to assume that I could accurately measure the benefits of his actions and make sensible choices based on my predictions. This didn’t work because I believe I started to stay in an unsatisfying relationship which I couldn’t predict anymore. I now understand that it takes time to develop a relationship because there has to be enough time to allow the layers of the onion to be peeled. The layers shouldn’t be rushed even if after a few you feel comfortable. The ‘law of reciprocity’ displays how there has to be an order to the exposure of the self in a relationship in this theory. This guy which whom I was pursuing a relationship knew nothing about self-disclosure and patience because everything felt so rushed at a certain point. In short, regardless of the understanding and intimacy in relationships, the multi-layered onion is a good image of how to go about getting to know someone and asking questions. The way you conduct yourself in the first layer and first impression stages with a new person sets the motion for the remainder of the relationship.