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How Technology Has Infiltrated Social Penetration Theory

Since the world is in an unprecedented era of technology, social penetration theory through the field of communications has yet to cover the shift in relationship bonding whereby individuals move from superficial communication to more intimate connections via computer-mediated communication or CMC. Considering individuals can establish online relationships equal to or greater than the intimacy achieved in face-to-face (FtF) relationships, the levels of intimacy move along a continuum differently. To investigate this theory to a greater extent, focusing on the variable of self-disclosure through online communication allows for a deeper understanding of the diversity of breadth and depth in the stages of social penetration theory.

Considering self-disclosure is at the core of relational development, it is crucial to understand the significance of this process in a face-to-face scenario before understanding the complexities of revealing information via the Internet. The social penetration process credits verbal, nonverbal, and environmentally-oriented behaviors when focusing on the views of interpersonal relationships. 

First, verbal communication means the use of words. Expressing specific thoughts during self-disclosure can be strategic because individuals may plan what they say to another person. In other situations, self-disclosure may be spontaneous. In either scenario, healthy expression opens up a channel of communication that allows an individual's words to be respected. Next, nonverbal communication is an aspect of face-to-face communication that computer-mediated communication needs to improve. Nonverbal cues refer to people's body posture, facial cues, and eye contact. Nonverbal communication immediately directs the conversation topics and establishes whether a relationship is headed toward failure or success. However, online connections are not as strong because nonverbal cues are not essential to developing such relationships. Self-disclosure also focuses on the space between communicators or environmentally oriented behavior. Intimacy involves more than physical presence; however, the setting in which a relationship exists can alter the trajectory a relationship is riding.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to examine self-disclosure as a positive and negative variable within computer-mediated communication efforts, considering that most millennial relationships begin online today. Revealing information about oneself is typically purposeful, and hiding behind a screen can make such vulnerability easier. Individuals have the control, time, and space to dictate the direction of a conversation. For example, the typical pressure of a first date is alleviated because said individual has complete autonomy over every aspect of the situation. Since those participating in virtual communication explicitly disclose more information, reciprocity is bound to follow. In simpler terms, divulging sensitive information leads the other person to reciprocate similar levels of openness.

On the contrary, it is inevitable for certain online relationships to fall apart or de-penetrate. The more an individual reveals about oneself opens up room for disagreement and indicates the possibility of not being compatible. If communication is continuously conflictual and cannot be resolved, the relationship may take a step back. Also, people are cowards when it comes to face-to-face confrontation. So, online messaging allows individuals to troll others and be ruthless without the consequence of an uncomfortable situation. It is always easier to fall into difficult conversations online and automatically send a hurtful message without thinking. This leads people to close their emotions and take a step backward or de-penetrate.

Along the same lines, social penetration theory follows a process of four stages in which relationship development can occur systematically through computer-mediated communication. The first stage, the orientation stage, is surface-level based, where individuals only disclose small parts of their identity, and communication begins as superficial and non-interpersonal. During this stage, individuals will not risk going past these basic facts because they are cautious about revealing too much. Next, the exploratory affective exchange stage expands the public area of the orientation stage and is where aspects of an individual's personality are revealed. Since individuals tend to be more relaxed in this stage, there may be more of an initiative to reach out first via a messaging platform. Individuals want to expand further from what needs to be presented in their partner's Facebook biography. The next stage, affective exchange, is characterized by intimacy and spontaneity. Personal idioms, words, phrases, and gestures with unique meanings within a specific relationship also occur during this stage. Solidifying one's romantic relationship over the Internet by writing the words "taken" in a biography and using pet nicknames via text is a solidifying step. Nevertheless, this stage is more substantial with the use of gestures. The fourth and final stage, stable exchange, applies to an open expression of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, producing honesty, intimacy, and a high degree of spontaneity. Considering distance is a negative factor when trying to become close to another individual, instant messaging allows the stable exchange stage to develop quicker and may even lead each party to be more dependent on the other. As a result of this final stage, constantly checking one's phone for a message becomes a consuming habit when wondering what the other person is doing or where they are. However, when arguments arise, texting should never be the first option considering words and tone can be misinterpreted

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