Theories of Communication and Interpersonal Relationships
Updated: Nov 1, 2019
By Ian Ségal
15 September 2019
In academic terms, the word theory is defined as a set of organized and learned thoughts regarding the nature of how something functions. Principally, this is a framework of ideas, although not entirely proven but established through the methodical approach of observation, data correlation, and interpretation while guided by scholarly knowledge. And inside this context, viewpoints are framed from different angles, each considering another facet of understanding. Some reflect views from the position of psychology and sociology while others deliberate from the mechanical, systemic, and critical considerations regarding the exchange of discourse. But with different understandings, one belief remains consistent between them all—living things have the inherent need to communicate with others and themselves, and this need is essential for survival. In the examination of this intellection in regard to the study of interpersonal relationships, we will explore three theories of communication that share an underlying connecting thread along with their application to “real world” social environments.
The first part of our journey focuses on the work of Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor and their social penetration theory described as a process of establishing a stronger closeness between people through disclosure and transparency of personal information. In their approach to developing this theory, Altman and Dalmas made the comparison of people to onions, in which the latter is known to have multiple layers that can be peeled away towards reaching its center. The wisdom behind this association helped Altman and Dalmas cultivate their concept of the personality structure of a person; defined as layers, similar to an onion, in which each represents beliefs and feelings regarding oneself, others, and the world—the deeper the layers, the greater the susceptibility (Griffin, 2015). The outermost layers represent biographical data, general preferences, and goals, while the innermost layers contain one’s religious convictions, fears, and fantasies. At its core exists the most safeguarded of all vulnerable convictions which are sustained as the concept of self (Griffin, 2015). This, simply put, is the center of one’s self-image.
In addition to the basis of the social penetration theory, Altman and Dalmas described the functionality behind how one’s personality structure is exposed. Commonly referred to as self-disclosure, this is defined as the intended offering of personal backstory, particularities, beliefs, values, confidences, and more with another person—categorized as one’s transparency (Griffin, 2015). Inside every relationship, regardless if they are friends or professionals in the corporate world, the foundation of nurturing a relationship weighs heavily on trust and honesty along with devices for manifesting personal feelings among each other. And throughout the journey of peeling back the onion of one’s personality, a road to revealing what is behind each layer is the compass direction of building a mutually cohesive relationship between people. This can be described as a flightpath followed in affecting an openness between people (Busch, 2015). And as each layer of the proverbial onion is peeled back, another step advancing intimacy is established; referred to as the depth of penetration. This self-disclosure is both mutual, and more evident earlier in the relationship; as more is shared or revealed between people, the degree of trust and confidence is augmented—almost similar to bartering. And the penetration is horizontal, not just vertical, sharing information across a spectrum covering an expansiveness within topic areas. The depth of these disclosures regulates the comprehensiveness of detail of what is being reciprocally exchanged. Within this systematic unveiling of information between people, the tempo of revealing information back and forth is known as the law of reciprocity (Griffin, 2015).
But what is discerning here is that the social penetration theory suggests that all developing relationships have unique triggers that can influence a reversal of social penetration or what is referred to as depenetration (Busch, 2015). To elaborate, relationships have the exposure to ending which can be impacted through a variety of factors. Such reasons for depenetration include but are not limited to the compromising of trust, lying, harvesting contention, realizing incompatibility during the journey of exposure, and categorizing the other person as a threat. What can sometimes be gradually paced or accelerated depending on the influencing circumstances, is a process of retreating back to the outer layers.
We have seen the most popular example of this theory demonstrated in dating. In the early stages of a relationship between two people, there is a gradual unveiling of information that coincides with building mutual trust, respect, and safety. As that trust grows, more layers are peeled back revealing additional information at greater depths of the personality structure. Additionally, as openness increases, which encourages more physical and emotional intimacy between the two people. In time, it will either result in a relationship that is hardened in the divulging of sensitive information or it could result in a breakup triggered by the sabotaging of trust or unauthorized sharing of personal information.
During the process of social penetration, as depicted in dating, the effect is nurtured by the willful intent of people to disclose and draw closer, while each is assessing the cost in revealing information against their evaluation from what they receive from the other party. As aforementioned, this bartering is based on the currency of information with the most confidential being the most valuable. This monetization of perceived rewards (outcomes) and costs during the reciprocal transfer of information is referred to as the social exchange (Griffin, 2015). In terms of socioeconomics, there is also the minimax principle in which people desire to reduce their investment of information against maximizing their benefits (information received)—which seems to be throttled by levels of trust and confidence in the other party. To go further, sometimes people establish a threshold for gauging the worth of the effort in developing a relationship; anything achieved above the baseline is regarded as a desirable outcome. Psychologists John Thibaut and Harold Kelley labeled this concept as the comparison level which measures the award yielded against the amount of information shared, with anything above the established threshold as being deemed attractive (Griffin, 2015).
While the dynamics of social penetration move through reciprocal disclosure, motivations beyond the desire for achieving intimacy can also be at play. Such impetuses may include the need to release stress on a personal matter, express oneself for social positioning, or even for the purpose of obtaining a stronger foothold or authority within a relationship. Additionally, the social penetration theory is used throughout society with an in-depth focus on studying how electronic interactions, predominantly through social media, are cultivated. And although the landscape has expanded from the physical ecosystem to the virtual domain, we have seen challenges that people suffer in determining the reaction to informational exposure as well as calculating the cost of that self-disclosure. In parallel, it has also become apparent that the cost of offering openness can be easily modulated, thus reducing its expense against the unpredictability of rewards through online reciprocal communications. But as studies and deliberations ensue, and with the viral growth of social media, we will most likely witness new outcomes of the social penetration theory in this realm.
As our world begins to migrate with the comfort and convenience of communications inside the environment of social media, additional areas harvesting this cultivation have spawned through electronic social platforms. Whether it be robust sites such as Facebook or the less intricate apparatus of Twitter, the gamut of communication podiums share one paramount thing in common—the creation and dissemination of information across both open public and closed virtual conversations, forums, posts, and more. And inside the cyber vestibules of the Internet, regardless of the devices used in such interactivity, additional studies have grown out from this phenomenon regarding the nurturing of interpersonal relationships. More specifically, Joseph Walther of the University of California, Santa Barbara, authored the social information processing theory (SIP) to learn how online interactions can develop relationships between people and groups that can lead to valuable and meaningful connections (Griffin, 2015).
Similar to the social penetration theory in that information is shared and revealed depending on the voluntary commitment of its creator, SIP is aligned in its theory by suggesting that as online information is acquired about another person or party, the recipient’s attraction to the communicator is augmented. But, SIP explores another mechanism described as a chain or linkage of events that impact how an impression of another is formed and how that affects the nurturing of the relationship. For the most part, SIP focuses its theory on how online communications directly impacts the fostering of interpersonal relationships through distinct phases. At a high level, social information begets impression formation which leads to relationship development. Following the creation and distribution of social information, recipients will form an impression based on their mental assessment of what was shared; this is measured in the reaction from the evaluated information which is typically offered to sway a positive response from the target.
However, it was before the introduction of SIP, theorists who studied online communications were concerned with cues filtered out—the belief that the absence of nonverbal signals could obstruct the process of attaining the information needed in forming an impression (Griffin, 2015). Along the lines of forming impressions and affecting one’s affinity for someone else, such computer-mediated communications (CMC) have been attributed to social judgment based on verbal cues received following the processing of received electronic information (Deshpande, 2018). In turn, participants inside the social community of virtually exchanging communications have, over time, gradually developed the cohesiveness of interpersonal connections that have been as effective as those created in the physical world of face-to-face communications.
An example of such an interpersonal bond based on SIP includes online dating which has resulted in not only marriages but fruitful long-lasting relationships absent of breakup. And although there is evidence that the warmth of building an interpersonal relationship online is possible, so too are the possibilities of creating a toxic relationship by fanning the flames of hostile online language. Better known as flaming, such aggressive discourse can be the result of anything from insecurities to arguing an opinion or even defending one’s actions; these have been seen in online discussion forums (Griffin, 2015). Regardless of the communications are being conducted in the physical or virtual environment, both outcomes of either warmth or aggression are achievable with or without intent. But, a variety of factors play into differentiating online communications from the face-to-face dialogue which offers the validation for SIP theory.
The first of these is represented by verbal cues which can offset the absence of nonverbal cues that are typically exchanged in a physical environment. The next is that online communications, at times, require an extended time for influencing the formation of an impression and building a relationship that can be more quickly achieved through the discourse in a physical environment. Beyond these factors, other aspects such as inconsistent messages can impede the fluidity of interpretation, processing, and relationship building. However, Walther feels that disconnected messages are not as problematic while the mainstream of human behavior gravitates toward building connections at the expense of deciphering enigmatic communications. With this said, people harness the ability to discover creative methods for supplanting nonverbal information to communicate meaning. In many ways, this concept has been facilitated by expanding language and deviating from common vernacular to create a resonance that influences a reaction by a recipient. It has been evidenced that through adapting to such virtual confines, people can offer meaning through the limitations of cues across electronic media (Griffin, 2015).
And just as time is used for the development, dissemination, interpretation, and gradual relationship building through computer-mediated communications, the same effort can also be used to regulate the outcomes by manipulating the time in creation, release, and reaction. With the ever-changing landscape of technology and tools available in the virtual world of social media and online communications, people are not relegated to verbal cues alone. Innovations have traversed a myriad of devices, offering video chatting which can expose a person’s facial expressions categorized as a nonverbal cue to a recipient or audience. Additionally, people are no longer limited to text-based only communications and have the breadth of conflating emoticons (which represent facial expressions), graphical images known as memes (which offer both sarcasm and acerbic wit), and actual images and videos to validate or support previously texted messages. With such a variety of communication components available, it can be very easy to unintentionally harvest a negative perception resulting in the deficient interpretation of the recipient which leads to our final theory.
With so many moving parts that impact and affect both the fluidity and outcomes in harnessing an interpersonal relationship, there are always forces that drive both positive and negative consequences. To this point, we need to explore the theory of relational dialectics which is an interpersonal communication philosophy that delineates the personal connections and relationships focused on tension, struggle, and an interchange of conflicting predispositions (Griffin, 2015). Whereas a relationship is defined as a union between two people representing differences in cultures and more, the room for compromise becomes a viable option in bringing different individuals together. But during such efforts, people are commonly exposed to tensions while immersed in a developing relationship. And over time, these strains are inclined to recur in various forms, spiking in extremes. Within such contentious communication patterns, this kind of volatility will act contrary to sustaining a relationship.
Several concepts are interwoven in relational dialectics and include contradictions, totality, processes, and praxis. The concept of a contradiction in relational dialectics offers the notion that extreme differences are displayed with characteristics of its opposite. Totality is achieved when such opposites meld to seek a balance in the relationship. Social processes happen in parallel to each other and recur, almost cyclic, inside the relationship. And praxis offers the foundation for reaching decisions in a relationship regardless of the opposing desires and needs. These perceptions provide a segue to what are the most common sources of tension within a relationship.
The first of these dialectics focuses on openness and closeness required by both individuals for reliance on maintaining a healthy interpersonal relationship. The second looks at certainty and uncertainty which provide the commitment between people to ensure comfort and harmony; but contrary to this, such predictability can also cause a relationship to wane in the absence of surprises. The last is connectedness and separateness emphasizing the need for both a mental and physical bond as well as an equal and opposite necessity for separation to preclude the obscuring of one or both identities resulting from blending. With these focal areas, it is evident that there are many fronts exposed to becoming sources of tension and controversy. But, this does not exist without methods for managing relational dialectics to a successful outcome.
An example of a relational dialectic within a personal relationship can be observed in the festering marriage between two people—a wife remains home all day locked into a routine, drowning in the boredom of predictability of daily activities. The husband also acclimates to his routine, never departing from his daily procedures, and in time retreats to his own privacy within the marital home, separated from his wife who has also found her own solitude. The breakdown and source of the forming dialectic here is the monotony of their lives which begins to consume them both individually, physically, and spiritually to the point in which communications are delivered with either argument or need for help from the other party. And although such tension can be managed through addressing each other’s needs to spice up their lives, acceptance of the new status quo will result in deterioration which can lead to a breakup.
One of the popular techniques for managing relational dialectics is through cooperatively alternating which problems are prioritized for resolution. Another practice enlists segmenting an issue by facing it from within another circumstance. The third offers an equilibrium in which balance is achieved between the parties while addressing the problem in parallel. The next is the acceptance of a problem as necessary to the survival of the relationship—a necessary evil. A fifth method works toward satisfying both parties by building amenable solutions for solving problems. And lastly, there is always the intentional avoidance of the problem which ultimately brings the relationship to an end.
The discussion of all the theories shared herein are valuable in not only learning about interpersonal relationships but the behavioral modifications that partners make which impact outcomes. Insofar as this thread suggests, it is evident that a pattern exists that connects all three of the above-mentioned theories of interpersonal communications. These theories investigate similar themes of why people build relationships; for some, it is based on similarities while others are looking for social exchange. And regardless if they are relationships based on friendship, work, romance, or family, each is exposed to their own challenges of competing objectives, connection versus independence, transparency versus privacy, and certainty versus novelty. Nourishing interpersonal relationships requires the investment of reciprocal self-disclosure; some afforded physically, others intellectually, emotionally, and most through shared activities. And as layers are peeled back exposing both the breadth of the disclosure along with the depth of personal unhiding, there exists an exposure to sources of dialectics that can be unearthed in the process. The key to not only maintaining an interpersonal relationship but enhancing it requires mindfulness of each other’s needs, cooperation, temperance of argumentative reactions, trust, and the conveyance of dialogue through a means that allows for clear and accurate interpretation through information processing. It remains evident that these three theories work best in concert with one another as each stands on the vanguard of affecting either a negative or positive outcome based on different scenarios of conscious methods for creating, sharing, distributing, processing, and reacting to communications which are paramount in sustaining a relationship.
However, we would be remiss if we did not entertain any criticisms for the validity of this thread. One such cause for pause highlights my mention regarding the monetization of perceived rewards (outcomes) and the attributed costs during the reciprocal transfer of information, also known as the social exchange. It was within this principal that Altman and Taylor suggested that it can be foretold when a person in an interpersonal relationship will become more vulnerable during the communication of their self-disclosure. It was suggested that the greater the reward (calculated by benefits minus costs), the more divulging that person will be. However, the social penetration theory is offered with a limited scope that focuses predominantly on the early phases of a relationship but does little to unveil relationships between co-workers, neighbors, and acquaintances. It also offers little in describing the dynamics of established relationships such as lifelong friends and family relatives enjoying scores of years together. And lastly, the entire theory is based on the efficacy of data which can be both corruptible and influenced to display the desired result of those harming its integrity.
Another criticism that also calls out for a cause for pause is reflected in my revisiting of the social information processing theory (SIP). One study has considered a deeper dive into the behavioral outcomes found in the parent-child relationship. Through such research, it was demonstrated that a host of deficiencies in this type of relationship is offered in the example of children who have been physically abused; apparently, such children become more responsive to aggressive cues and less concerned with social signals. This speaks to insufficient indoctrination during information delivery and processing. Equally, as seen in children who are emotionally attached to their parents, these kids own the dysfunction of social information processing that is not visible in children who are not insecure. Overall, such social information processing shortfalls establish that there is a correlation between environmental hazards that trigger skewed behavioral outcomes. With this said, SIP is lacking in addressing the skewed nature of writhed social information processing in socially impacted children.
Busch, Kimberly. “Altman And Taylor: Social Penetration Theory.” Odyssey, Odyssey Media Group, 23 November 2015, https://www.theodysseyonline.com/altman-taylor-social-penetration-theory.
Deshpande, Neha. “Explanation of Social Information Processing (SIP) Theory with Examples.” SocialMettle, Buzzle.com Inc., 22 March 2018, https://socialmettle.com/explanation-of-social-information-processing-sip-theory-with-examples.
Griffin, Em. “Chapter 8: Social Penetration Theory of Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor.” A First Look at Communication Theory, 10th ed., McGraw-Hill Education, 2015,
Griffin, Em. “Chapter 10: Social Information Processing Theory of Joseph Walther.” A First Look at Communication Theory, 10th ed., McGraw-Hill Education, 2015,
Griffin, Em. “Chapter 11: Relational Dialectics Theory of Leslie Baxter and Mikhail Bakhtin.” A First Look at Communication Theory, 10th ed., McGraw-Hill Education, 2015,
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