Social Penetration Theory: Definition & Examples

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  • 1:23 Orientation
  • 2:04 Exploratory Affective
  • 2:40 Affective Stage
  • 3:25 Stable Stage
  • 4:31 Depenetration Stage
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

Getting to really know someone is often tricky business. According to the social penetration theory, people are like onions that need to be peeled in stages. This lesson discusses these stages as they pertain to interpersonal communication.

Social Penetration Theory

My grandma always said people are like onions: you gotta peel them back to see what you're really getting. Unbeknownst to all of us at the time, her words had some science behind them. In fact, they were actually the core of what sociologists call the social penetration theory, which asserts that, as relationships develop, communication moves from somewhat superficial thoughts and topics to intimate and personal ones.

In today's lesson, we'll delve into the social penetration theory and how it plays out in interpersonal communication. For starters, the psychology team of Altman and Taylor authored the social penetration theory. As a duo, they're credited with the famous onion metaphor, the idea that personality is multi-layered. That our public selves are the outside layer, and our personal selves are the core. According to Altman and Taylor, penetrating someone's inner self takes lots of work. In short, they agree with my Grandma. In both friendship and romance, you have to peel someone back to get to really know 'em. According to the social penetration theory, this peeling of sorts goes through many stages, or layers. Deep, intimate relationships don't just happen. They develop as the participants disclose information about themselves.


Keeping this in mind, the first stage, or layer, in the social penetration theory is the orientation stage. Like the name implies, the orientation stage is the introductory stage. It's where we first begin to gather impressions of one another. It's the, 'Hello, nice to meet you' phase and the 'My name is. . .' phase. In the orientation phase, we show only our public selves and things are kept light. When someone asks, 'How are you?', we smile and say, 'Fine,' no matter if our dog just died, we follow the social norm of trading niceties. To do otherwise would seem awkward and out of place.

Exploratory Affective

Now, if we seem to hit it off with someone during the orientation phase, we might decide to peel back the layer into the exploratory affective stage. In this next stage, casual friendships are born. We begin to reveal ourselves and our opinions, while also exploring those of our new acquaintance. No, we're not crying on each other's shoulders, discussing how our parents wounded us; that would be weird. Instead, we still stick to rather shallow waters, exploring safe topics like movies, sports or, perhaps, politics.

Affective Stage

If both parties find enough to like in the exploratory affective stage, another layer is peeled, and the affective stage is entered. In the affective stage, relationships wade into the deep waters of self-disclosure and intimacy. Gone are plastic smiles and trite sayings. Whether the relationship is platonic or romantic, this is the stage where we sort of declare we're all in. We're willing to peel back our layers. Acquaintance is replaced by friendship and casual dating often moves to couplehood. Now when we have a bad day, we call each other and complain or cry. Simple 'I'm fine's are supplanted by 'I need you, and bring ice cream!'

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