Altman & Taylor’s Social Penetration Theory:
Important People In Our Lives

R. Smith Spring 2002


Many people come into and go out of our lives; some have a larger impact than others. As humans we interact with each other on a daily basis and relationships are developed, some you may refer to as acquaintances, some friends, and others as intimate friends. This is a very complex process that we go through every day of our lives, repeating it over and over, encountering people that we may end up either knowing or not until the day we die.  There are also people that you go so as far as to love them, which for me is the highest level of human communication and involvement. Using the word love is the highest honor that I can give someone because it puts him/her at the same level as the woman that gave me life, my mother. My research topic is based on the Altman & Taylor’s social penetration theory, “The idea that relationships become more intimate over time when partners disclose more and more information about themselves.”(Littlejohn250). This may sound like common sense but it is a large part of how the world works with social and interpersonal communication.


Altman & Taylor looked at the way that the social penetration was not just a part of social psychology, but how it is a matter of interpersonal dissonance. This looked at how an individual develops a personal bond with another person. The research led to the development of ‘privacy regulation theory’ (Berkowitz112). Tests were done to demonstrate the effect of “personal space, territory, crowding, and privacy”(Berkomitz112). This theory was used to better understand the framework of developing a relationship. The research took a scientific look at how a relationship develops, looking at it from the beginning (first sight) to the development of relationships and put them at different levels. 


Altman & Taylor developed a pattern that is broken into “four stages of relational development”(Littlejohn250). The first is described as ‘orientation of interaction’ and is postulated to occur at the periphery of personality in ‘public’ areas. “During these initial encounters, individuals make only a small part of themselves accessible to others.” (Roloff259). An example of this is the way an individual interacts with others at a party. If the person is outgoing, he/she is perceived as a laugh-out-loud, fun-loving guy/girl with a positive attitude. The behavior of a person says a lot more than is consciously portrayed to others. The way you portray yourself in a public setting is very important. There are many different ways within a social stigma to do this. One example is, you are what you wear, this can be from a bad boy look to a country boy look. Another, is what people can tell about you when they first see you, also known as the ‘orientation of intervention’ effect. That is why they say your first impression is the most important impression.    


The second stage is known as the “exploratory affective exchange.” This is when you are just starting to get a feel of a person’s personality. At this point you let down your guard and begin to explore each other. Michel E. Roloff stated it as the, “Expansion of richness of communication in public areas; aspects of personality that were guarded earlier are now revealed in more detail, and less emphasis is placed on caution.” (Roloff259). What this means is that the ice has been broken, and now they can start on a new level of communicating, where people begin to share certain attributes. If both parties find this stage rewarding they are more willing to move on to the next stage of building a relationship.


‘Exploratory affective exchange’ is simply that, exploring and learning more information about each other on a personal level. The, “Initial expansion of information and movement to a deeper level of disclosure take place.”(Littlejohn250).  Roloff explains this as, “Relationships at this stage are generally more friendly and relaxed, and movement toward intermediate areas of intimacy is begun.”(Roloff259). The movement that they mention is the same as expansion of personal information because it would be hard not to be friends with someone that knows a lot about you. With intimate knowledge comes caring. When you have passed through the first stage of orientation you begin to develop a deeper sense of trust and a willingness to communicate. With this willingness to communicate you begin to share details about your life. You talk about family and friends, who are an important part in your life.  With this openness you begin to share more of your feelings and soon become comfortable enough to let the other person in. This is the beginning of a new friendship.  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language says that a friend is defined as, “A person whom one knows, likes and trusts.”

This new friendship that comes from the rewards of developing ‘exploratory affective exchange’ can be further developed into the next stage, ‘affective exchange.’ This stage is very similar to the previous one but is more in depth.  It’s described as,

Close friendships and romantic relationships characterize the next stage (affective exchange) of social interaction.  Here, interactive engagements are more free willing and casual.  Interaction at outer layers of personality is open, and there is heightened activity at intermediate layers of personality.  Although some cautions are employed here, generally there is little resistance to open explorations of intimacy. The importance of this stage is that barriers are being broken down and dyad members are learning a great deal about each other (Roloff259). 

In my opinion, close friendships that are described in the above stated quote refer to the friends that you tend to share more intimate details about your life and your future aspirations with these are the people that you tend to keep close so that the relationship will develop further and last a lifetime.  Romantic relationships, such as dating and boyfriend/girlfriend are defined in this stage.  This is the stage where two people begin to let their guard down so that the other person can begin to fully understand how they relate to situations and experiences.  This is a process in which you interview and dissect your boyfriend/girlfriend so that you can see if you both are ready to move to the next stage of intimacy.


The ‘affective exchange’ is considered a transitional stage to the highest level of intimacy possible (Roloff259). It consists of the process one uses to separate the people in which they wish to stay close with and further develop a relationship with versus the ones that they do not.


The final stage or the stage that is known as the ‘stable exchange’ is the highest level that one can achieve as far as relationships are concerned. The stable stage consists of development in growing relationships and is characterized by continuous openness, as well as richness across all layers of personality. (Roloff259). You know the other at the deepest level possible, there are no secrets that the two of you cannot and do not share.  The ‘stable exchange’ is the stage that I consider to be the most meaningful stage since this is where two separate people become intertwined as one.  Two individuals bear their souls and risk all to have complete closeness with one another. When two people have achieved this stage they tend to be able to reliably interpret and predict the feelings and probable behavior of the other (Roloff259).  People in these situations tend to be able to communicate with each other without the use of verbal language.  At this level of intimacy, two people have completed the process of peeling away the outer layers that are used to protect themselves from the world. 


            One must really take a look at and examine the Social Penetration Theory to be able to understand the interactions people face everyday.  We all begin, and usually desire to have the stable exchange, which is the final stage with selected people.  In order to obtain the intimacy of the final stage we must learn to break down the barriers that we have built up as our safeguards to protect us from being hurt or damaged.  We all must go through the social penetration steps in order to achieve the desired relationship and/or friendship.  We meet different people in our lifetime, yet we choose only a handful that we truly let into our soul. 


Works Cited

 Altman, Irwin. “Dialectics, Physical Environments, and Personal Relationships.” Communication Monographs 60 (March 1993): 26-29.

 Berkowitz, Leonard. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. New York:  Academic Press, Inc.1981.

 Littlejohn, W. Stephen. Theories of Human Communication. Albuquerque: Wadsworth Group, 2002.

 Roloff, Michael, and Gerald R. Miller.  Interpersonal Processes. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, Inc. 1987.