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I recently heard about Social Penetration Theory where the basic principle is that "in relationships, as people disclose more about themselves over time, those relationships develop layer by layer, with increased amounts of intimacy including through breadth, depth, and the norm of reciprocity" and thought that it was interesting and since I have a few relationships where I want to increase exactly these things I decided to try and apply this concept to my life.

Unfortunately it did not work as planned, I believe this is because there were existing assumed personal boundaries and my sudden self-disclosure breached this boundary which is not something I want to do, and resulted in the persons being caught off guard. More specifically I disclosed some very personal worries with my brother; and I disclosed how I felt/was impacted by a specific movie with my 6 month new friend. Contrary to my hope of increasing our closeness and making a step forwards in normalising the reciprocation of self-disclosure, each of them reacted quite awkwardly, continuing to respond but clearly avoiding the focus of my disclosed feelings, until they found a good chance to change the subject. Reciprocating their own feelings will possibly happen in my brother/friends own due time and forcing them or manipulating them is clearly out of the question, I was hoping to use Social Penetration Theory to mutually help each of us with our relationships together (which is what it is all about).

One of the characteristics of self-disclosure is that it "stimulates feedback" which would help towards my goal of increasing the "norm of reciprocity" however it seemed to have the opposite effect in my scenario because self-disclosure breached a boundary in our relationship. I would say that there are lots of relationships like this; relationships where it is assumed that the people involved do not talk about their personal feelings.

So my question is:

How can I apply Social Penetration Theory to increase the closeness of my relationship with someone who has already categorised our relationship as one where self-disclosure is not normal?

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    Important question: Did you disclose out of the blue? Or as a response to something? – Tinkeringbell Mar 21 '18 at 7:25
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    @Tinkeringbell In both cases I disclosed during a long conversation with plenty of context, however the introduction of talking about my feelings on it was out of the blue. (with my friend, we were talking about movies for a little while and then I transitioned from talking about the mediocre CGI or great dialogue of one movie, to another movie and this time I talked about how much of an impact on me it had and what it made me feel) - so i'm not sure if you would call that "out of the blue" or not – Jesse Mar 21 '18 at 7:38
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    Meh, that's somewhere in between indeed ;-) But that provides enough context, thanks! – Tinkeringbell Mar 21 '18 at 7:44
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    Your purpose is to make better relationships or to make experiments on people? – user3406 Mar 22 '18 at 9:26
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    @9ilsdx9rvj0lon "hoping to use Social Penetration Theory to mutually help each of us with our relationships together" - most certainly the former of your two. I am quite shocked you even had to ask – Jesse Mar 22 '18 at 12:12
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First off, I think you misunderstood the 'theory' part of social penetration theory. It's a theory researchers use to describe the development of friendships, instead of a method to follow for making friendships:

Social Penetration Theory explains these differences in communication in relation to the depth of interpersonal relationships. Developed in 1973 by psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, the theory states that relationships begin and deepen through self-disclosure.

So, be advised that SPT is no fail-safe way of making friends, but rather a theory that theorizes on how friendships are formed. That, in my opinion, doesn't rule out the fact that you can consciously use self-disclosure in an attempt to deepen your relationships with people though.

Now, from your comment:

however the introduction of talking about my feelings on it was out of the blue. (with my friend, we were talking about movies for a little while and then I transitioned from talking about the mediocre CGI or great dialogue of one movie, to another movie and this time I talked about how much of an impact on me it had and what it made me feel)

Combined with the fact that you've just been friends for six months, I think you've been doing the self-disclosure thing 'wrong', and that might have resulted from a misinterpretation of the 'sharing your feelings' part. You just barged full steam ahead, while these things are supposed to take time. From wikipedia:

Reciprocity must be gradual and match the intimacy of the other's disclosures.

Too rapid, too personal disclosure creates an imbalance in a relationship that can be discomfiting.

Now, how much time it will take will differ from person to person, there's some evidence that gender does play a role as well in how often and when people decide to self-disclose.

Self-disclosure can be a very useful skill, but only if employed properly. According to this source self-disclosure is seemingly more of a tool to tell people 'I relate to what you're going through right now', instead of making it about yourself:

Counselors must be very careful when using self-disclosure. Otherwise the session can become more about the counselor than the client, and that does not serve the clients’ needs.

If your friends aren't used to have you sharing your feelings with them, doing so out of the blue might very well throw them off. Your own source mentions this as well:

Is the time, place, and information appropriate and/or relevant? (emphasis mine)

From the first source again, a great example on how to disclose effectively:

For example, if a client is upset over their divorce, the therapist may disclose that they, too, have survived a divorce.

I know this is focused on therapists, but the same goes for friendships. Let's have a little disclosure, because I have seen this happening in real life.

Remember Alice? She is on the autism spectrum. Which means, Alice has problems 'relating' to me. If I was talking about a problem or my feelings, Alice wouldn't disclose, because she couldn't relate. If Alice did any self-disclosure, it was at the most random times. Which, after a while, becomes pretty tiring and upsetting: You're trying to be there for someone when they're going through a rough patch, but once a patch hits you, there's never any reciprocity.

One of the other girls from the same group I mentioned in that question is what I'd call my best friend now. Why? Because if I told her I was struggling with personal stuff, she'd be there for me. She'd be able to disclose she had gone through the same thing, or something similar, and be able to reassure me I'd survive. She'd share her feelings on my problems, and not make it about her feelings on her problems. Of course, the same goes otherwise, if she was telling me she felt like crap because she'd had a bad day, I'd ask her why and share my feelings or insights, but focused on her problems. Over the course of about 8 years, our friendship has become more and more intimate, to the point where she's recently felt comfortable enough to disclose some problems with a sexual relationship to me.

Long story short, it seems like you went full steam ahead and started disclosing your own feelings, while, if you want to reach this kind of intimacy with your friends, it might be better to focus on relating to them and thus getting them to talk about their feelings. Ask them non-invasive questions about themselves, you could start with simple stuff like 'how are you'. If they reciprocitate, you can slowly ramp up the invasiveness of your questions over time, like 'You told me you had a date, how did it go'? You can use them talking about themselves to reveal things about yourself by finding analogies and bringing up something similar in your own life (like the therapist-divorce example above). Make it about them, not you.

  • ""These things are supposed to take a lot of time"". In my experience it differs from individual to individual, and within certain subgroups. People are far more open in queer communities than in cishet communities, etc. One thing I would append to 'getting them to talk about their feelings' is ask them (non-invasive) questions about themselves, and slowly ramp up the invasiveness over time; you can use them talking about themselves to reveal things about yourself by finding analogies and bringing up something similar in your own life, etc. – Finn O'leary Mar 22 '18 at 0:07
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    @FinnO'leary This is actually one of the topics I was hoping to cover in my question, the variations that need to be accounted for when applying this theory to different types of people. In my case I specified that they were on the far "don't usually talk about feelings" side and saying it "takes time" is an answer to that. However, providing an answer that compares between types of people and what adaptions need to be made to the theory between individuals and subgroups. An answer like this would also be great! – Jesse Mar 22 '18 at 4:31
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    @FinnO'leary Do you have any hard data on the subgroups? I think me telling people that from experience I know a few LGBT+ people that are prone to oversharing in an answer won't go well... – Tinkeringbell Mar 22 '18 at 7:30
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    But for an answer about the varied levels of closeness in friendships I don't think they need to reference the groups specifically. Just assume there is a difference and then prove why the different actions work best depending on where that group falls in on the scale. Not what the group actually is. – Jesse Mar 22 '18 at 7:56
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    @Jesse, I've made an edit, but digging up reliable information that proves there is a difference and especially on what different actions work best will require more time then I have right now. I'll get back to it, I promise ;) – Tinkeringbell Mar 22 '18 at 9:51
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How can I use Social Penetration Theory to increase the closeness of my relationship with someone who has already categorised our relationship as one where self-disclosure is not normal?

Even if it's well intentioned, putting pressure on someone when they are not ready for it is going to make them disinclined to open up to you.

The way to get anyone to open up to you is to be their genuine friend and give them time and space to open up to you organically. And even then, they may never. There is no magical formula for trust. It is earned, and not by everyone.

Edit:

I have family members who have been through deep, painful experiences in the past. They have things that they struggle with emotionally on a daily basis, and they are incredibly guarded people.

Sometimes it can be incredibly painful for a person to re-visit these things. I have relationships with family that have taken years to develop to the point where I am trusted by them. It was an organic, slow process where I respected their boundaries and gave them the time and space to be able to progress things at the pace they felt comfortable. I can count on one hand the number of people that they have opened up to.

Please remember that your friends/relations may not be in the place where they are anywhere near comfortable to open up to you. By pushing the issue you may be causing them even more discomfort.

Please be careful to not put pressure on them. You may want to feel closer to them, but remember that they may not be in the place to let you in right now.

My (above) answer was my initial reaction to this question in light of my experience with family and friends who have deep and painful hurts in their lives. While these techniques have been known to work and studied, remember that encouraging people to open up when they aren't ready for it can be damaging to the relationship and painful for them.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Catija Mar 22 '18 at 23:13
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EDIT: This post contains my personal opinions only, formed over the course of my life on how to approach your problem. This is in no way to be viewed as a professional or scientific work and I have no research ready to back it up

I think you have to consider three things:

  1. Does the other person even want to get any closer? This is simply not always the case. If they don´t, they won´t reciprocate and any move from you in that direction will become awkward.

  2. Timing where, when, how do you start going deeper? Naturally when you are both relaxed and comfortable, possibly already engaged in conversation. Also, when the other person tells you something that is troubling them - this is your chance to reciprocate.

  3. Increment. Don´t jump from casual acquaintance to best-friend-ever. It just takes time to grow trust and friendship.

I think the best is to generally (not limited to self disclosure) go forward in baby steps and watch for the reaction. If you overstep the others boundaries just a little, you can easily recover and go back to normal.

You can also just volunteer to share and see if the other person wants to go further by asking about it.

Example:

You: Funny how some movie can impact your life.

Him: Oh yea? what do you mean by that? (1)

You Don´t you have that sometimes, ideas from books and movies cause you to change thing in your life

Him Yes, I think know what you mean. What was your most influential movie, if I may ask? (2)

Now you have hinted two times that you may have something more profound to tell, and he took you up on it. You can go further.

Imagine he answered in (1)

I don´t know man, just want to see a good story and have a good time.

Or at (2)

Sure, but that´s kind of personal.

You just drop it and go back to the level you where before. Don´t overdo it - if your offer to go deeper was rejected, that´s probably it for the evening. Just stay on the level you are both comfortable with for some time.

4

Even if you have the best intent in the world, using social strategies from theories could cause blowback, as people may be aware of what you're doing. Think criticism sandwich. People who know what this is (manipulation) don't fall for it. Same is true for Social Penetration Theory. We're always better off by gauging the relationship and the person and treating them as an individual, not a "game" or "technique" which both do. Your OP came off that way, even though we all know you didn't intend it to.

Let's take one of your points:

One of the characteristics of self-disclosure is that it "stimulates feedback" which would help towards my goal of increasing the "norm of reciprocity" however it seemed to have the opposite effect in my scenario because self-disclosure breached a boundary in our relationship. I would say that there are lots of relationships like this; relationships where it is assumed that the people involved do not talk about their personal feelings.

Assume the person is unaware of what you're doing (if they are, this "technique" may fail). Self-disclosure could be a sign of trouble because:

  • It means you have loose lips.
  • You may not be trustworthy if you're violating your own privacy by disclosing something you shouldn't.
  • Maybe the person didn't want to know, which means you violated their space by telling them something they didn't want to hear.
  • If two people are not close, maybe they're not close because one doesn't already trust the other. It could be that this only confirmed a suspicion which made them distance.

Again, theories sound nice. But you will always run into people who don't fit that mold. Learning to adapt to the person is much better.

  • There are countless examples of positive use of IPS theories online... I really suggest you research to get a better perspective on what these theories are. They are not manipulative "games" or "techniques", they are insights into humans inter-personal behaviour – Jesse Mar 21 '18 at 22:40
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    @Jesse there are also countless accounts of it backfiring terribly. Statistics don't apply to specific people. – Erik Mar 22 '18 at 6:10
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    @Jesse there is also a same kind of theory that people will like you more if you say their name a lot. It works in theory, but when people try to apply that theory to me, I usually see through it, and it will have a major negative impact on the relationship I have with that person. It comes across as highly disingenuous because that person is acting from a theory instead of from the heart and many people will sense it. – Erik Mar 22 '18 at 13:23
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    @Jesse there is a theory that the gimmick helps. In practice, it doesn't. Your SPT can backfire in the same way once people realize you are not engaging with them in a natural manner. The specific theory doesn't matter; what matters is that you aren't being authentic. That's the whole thing that's causing all the negative comments you've been getting on this question, whether you like it or not. – Erik Mar 22 '18 at 13:26
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    @Jesse the more likely answer would be that trying to make people like you by being disingenuous isn't a good idea. The theory is fine. The lack of authenticity in the interaction is going to be an issue. – Erik Mar 22 '18 at 13:29
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I think I can see one reason why your approach didn't work:

It marked a significant change from your normal behavior towards that person

Anyone is going to become skeptical if a friend's attitude suddenly and drastically changes. They might feel they're being played with, irrespective of your true intentions. This is liable to undo any positive effect your new approach might have had.

Now, I'm not accusing you of trying to manipulate your friend. I'm also not saying you shouldn't use an academic theory to try and improve yourself and your interaction with others.

But the point of the matter here is that in this case, your intentions don't matter, the perception of your friend does.

I can say this from a long and painful history of experience, if you're trying to better your social interaction, it's very easy and possible to come across as manipulative. You don't have to be, you just appear to be, which already elicits a often times strong negative reaction (Just look at the comments and other answers to this question!)

So my recommendation to you is to more gradually introduce these changes in your interactions with your friend. Make it feel natural, take the time, and above all don't police yourself around them. You need to be yourself or the other person is likely to catch on, and if that happens, irrespective of your intention, the reaction is likely going to be negative.

  • These are not things I have to worry about, and not things I asked about. My interactions with my brother and friend are comfortable and natural and I seriously doubt they feel skeptical of my intentions or manipulated if I decide to try and share my feelings – Jesse Mar 22 '18 at 12:55
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How can I use Social Penetration Theory to increase the closeness of my relationship with someone who has already categorised our relationship as one where self-disclosure is not normal?

According to the theory, you can increase in intimacy by expressing more of your true self with someone. But this is not guaranteed.

Sorry to say, if you share vulnerability with a person who's not open with you, that person is not obligated to reciprocate. In fact, I can think of scenarios in which they have obligations not to reciprocate. For instance, suppose you were becoming vulnerable with a manager, client, or government official, and too much closeness was prohibited by conflict-of-interest policy.

Rather than increasing intimacy or closeness, focus on increasing in friendship. Aristotle said that in true friendship, you do stuff for your friend for their own sake rather than to receive any reciprocation.

Under this theory, on some days or with some people, you become a better friend by not sharing your feelings, if that's what your friend needs.

An Alternate Situation: Your New Friend is Looking Sad Today

Let's say that your friend's face reveals something that he or she is bottling up, and you are convinced that the best thing for your friend's own interests would be to share this burden with you (because you are willing to help in some real way: emotionally, financially, or by doing something). Then go ahead and ask what's going on!

But just because you asked, that doesn't make him or her obligated to open up to you. On the contrary, if he or she doesn't want to talk about it, it's your job to change the subject so the rest of your conversation isn't awkward; and most importantly: don't be angry about it!

If you get angry with your friend for not becoming open with you, you miss an opportunity to establish trust that you are the kind of person who will support your friend's decisions. And trust is more important for growing your friendship than whatever this thing is that they won't share. Besides, you might be wrong: maybe it truly isn't in your friend's best interests to tell you what's going on... or maybe it's not in your best interests to hear about it!

Be prepared, though: Your friend may share something that's hard to hear, like, "I can't afford this dinner" or "I need a place to live after next week". But think of how close he or she will feel if you come through and help!


Some references on Friendship:

Medical journal The Lancet has identified loneliness as a condition with a 26% risk of premature mortality, which affects a third of people in industrialized nations and one in 12 severely. (read more here - The Lancet and also here - Harvard Business Review)

Aristotle wrote that friendship is where you do your friend good for his or her own sake, not because you think you can benefit somehow. (read more here - Medium.com)

Jesus said that "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13, NASB)

Wasn't Snape a true friend to Harry, after all? (2017 article at telegraph.co.uk)

  • Vote-to-delete: any words on why you want this? – elliot svensson Jan 7 at 15:41
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The answer to your question is that you can't use the theory, in your situation. In fact, I think that your own social experiment exposes the limitations of Social Penetration Theory. Indeed, there is a heavy emphasis on the usage of self-disclosure, when in the general case you may not have such disclosure-reciprocity. Moreover, the model for SPT is linear - it describes relational development in an incremental, continuous manner, using mutual self-disclosure as the main tool. But in real life, relational development is hardly ever incremental and linear over time.

Instead, I recommend that you try and study a revised model for SPT [1] . Such a model should account for the fact that there is a push and pull effect of self-disclosure. That is, over time, as a relationship progresses, there could be moments of self-disclosure and moments when there is a need for privacy and withdrawal. Using a revised model for SPT, try to validate it with your own experiments; if you have access to a university library, see whether there are published papers that test revised models for SPT - if there are such papers, see what their main results were. Also see what unfinished aspects there are (if any).

[1] Altman, Vinsel, & Brown, 1981

  • I did not realise when asking my question but my explanation of SPT was quite limited. It actually covers all of the revised suggestions in this answer. Upon research you realise some of the main focuses of SPT is that push pull effect, and how it happens layer at a time with need for reciprocation. – Jesse Mar 23 '18 at 0:36
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Ask for permission. It's truly that simple. If you preface something you're going to say and the person's not in a state of mind to hear it, don't go there.

Say - Hey, I know we usually just talk about snowboarding pipes, but I'd kinda like to talk about what you thought about the way we grew up (or whatever it is).

I know you have a lot of answers, but they seem to miss the mark. No matter who you're audience is, or what they are about, you should always look for their buy in.

  • I am confident that both my brother and friend gave their permission through natural conversation. This permission was even continually checked and updated, until it was revoked through them attempting to change the conversation. – Jesse Mar 22 '18 at 5:26
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How can I use Social Penetration Theory to increase the closeness of my relationship with someone who has already categorised our relationship as one where self-disclosure is not normal?

You don't (at least, nor right now). You grow your circle of friends instead.

With some, you'll be able to share a lot. With others, you won't be able to share that much.

This is especially true if you're trying out new behavioral traits, not consistent with your prior personality. You'll find you'll have an easier time experimenting socially with people who don't know you very well yet.

And once you feel you've integrated the new behavior into your personality and it has become second nature to you, you may want to give it another try with your older friends and your own family members. And you may even have better luck then, but there is no guarantee.

Ultimately, there will always be people that are easier to connect with than others.

  • Yes, I already knew that. It doesn't change my advice. If your brother is not the type to want to share things, it will be difficult to change him. In my own family, my own relationship with each member varies to different degrees. It doesn't mean that I don't enjoy spending time with them. It just means that I am selective in what I share with each of them. – Stephan Branczyk Mar 23 '18 at 0:41

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