Self-disclosure and Relationships

I am a communication studies major because I want to examine and research interpersonal communications. Through understanding interpersonal communication processes and the basic principals I will be well prepared to take on challenges in my professional and personal life. The majority of my research to prepare me for this has been on self-disclosure. I am specifically interested in the self-disclosure process and how relationships are built through it. My research on self-disclosure has been tied to two theories. The first is the social penetration theory; it is a theory of relational development. It likens the development of personal relationships to layers, starting on the outside layers moving progressively toward the center. The second theory is the social exchange theory, it carries the view point that in relationships people try to minimize costs, maximize rewards, and ensure equity. It basically explains how and why people try to maintain a safe communication balance in many different relationships. In my research there are two areas of interest, the first is to examine and ultimately conclude if excessive unreciprocated self-disclosure in non-intimate relationships leads to negative perceptions and if so why. The second part of my research is to study why this unbalanced communication occurs.

P.E. King and J.J. Weisel did a study of one hundred twenty two undergraduate students that range in age from eighteen to twenty seven. The study was almost an even split on gender, sixty males and sixty two females. Their study examined low, moderate and high levels of self-disclosure in initial interactions between friends, acquaintances’ and strangers. They found that reciprocity norms vary according to the degree of acquaintance of the relationship. In friendships low and high levels of self-disclosure were generally reciprocated. With regard to stranger interactions, they found that “strangers used the disclosure input- particularly in high-intimacy input conditions- as a cue to govern their own response” (King and Weisel 2007). If these findings are true, then I must ask myself why individuals continue to excessively self-disclose in certain situations when it is obvious the self-disclosure is not reciprocating evenly. It could be that the imbalance is not obvious to the discloser. King and Weisel tested two possible explanations as to why individuals reciprocate self-disclosure in interactions.

The first explanation has been referred to as the “trust” theory and is based on principals of social exchange (Hosman and Tardy 1980). This explanation is based on the assumption that self-disclosure is perceived as occurring between friends, and the recipient of the disclosure therefore believes that he or she is liked and trusted by the discloser (Hosman and Tardy 1980). The “trust” theory makes sense about disclosure between friends and explains why there could be an imbalance in self-disclosure techniques between stranger interactions. My own research leaves me two conclusions; first, a sense of false trust could take place in the dyadic process when it comes to strangers reciprocating self-disclosure. It can sometimes be very difficult to understand and read people, especially people that you have no prior history with. Secondly, when people with no history together are self-disclosing there could be a disregard for norms because the communication is known to possibly be only for that singular occasion. If an individual knows there is a high probability that the meeting is never to happen again then the norms for balanced self-disclosure could be looked passed.

The second explanation as to why people reciprocate self-disclosure is referred to as the “modeling” theory, maintaining that reciprocity occurs because one person looks to the other person for cues as to how to respond (Hosman and Tardy 1980). When it comes to stranger interaction I have two conclusions, first, sometimes people look past those cues in the “modeling” theory in attempt to get what ever it is off their chest. I would call this type of behavior unloading, it occurs when people feel so burdened by an issue or a problem that they simply look passed the norms in balance self-disclosure to rid them selves of the weight of the issue. Secondly when strangers are self-disclosing they could possibly miss the cues because there is no relational foundation built to work from. There are a lot of variables that can lead to these unbalanced dyadic interactions, like a persons stress level, recent life changing events, good or bad, and certain occasions or situations. To examine these variables would be to examine communication situations that often take place on a daily basis. A personal example of this situation has occurs at my place of employment. A young lady that I know but have no friendship with disclosed some very personal information about her relationship. She went on to disclose how her boyfriend had been miss-treating her and how subsequently their relationship had ended. I had nothing to really say, I merely consoled her and tried to relate her experience back to a personal experience I had. It was an uncomfortable situation for me because we had little history together and I barley knew her.  I remember asking myself why she disclosed this very personal information; after all we were not friends, merely acquaintances. I later found out that they had just broken up that day and she was still very distraught. This is a case that includes the variables for unbalanced self-disclosure stated above.

Within these interpersonal interactions it is widely assumed that unbalanced levels of self-disclosure naturally lead to negative reactions (king and Weisel 2007). One would expect that very high levels of unreciprocated self-disclosure generally lead to negative attributions and less liking because of the unbalanced exchange of personal information. One potential mediator suggested that interpretation of the “reciprocity breakdown” experiment in which individuals observed in field studies failed to reciprocate high levels of self-disclosure from strangers because of the timing of the disclosure within the communication experience (Hosman and Tardy 1980). Although it may seem completely inappropriate for a stranger to describe a debilitating disease immediately upon initiation of a conversation, it may be much more appropriate for the topic to be broached after a few minutes of mannerly conversation. When two individuals are communicating some of the excessive self-disclosure would not feel so drastic if there was a foundation established between both parties prior to the high levels of disclosure taking place. To further this point King and Weisel point out that the social exchange theory is often cited to demonstrate that relationships must be mature prior to intimate self-disclosure, a condition achieved primarily through a history of reciprocal disclosure.

In the foregoing research I have first established the theoretical expectations concerning self-disclosure and reciprocity between friends, acquaintances and strangers. I argued that unreciprocated self-disclosure is often perceived as inappropriate. I examined two explanations as to why people reciprocate self-disclosure, the first explanation was the “trust” theory and the second explanation was the “modeling” theory. My research then examined why these theories can sometimes be flawed in certain communication situations. The literature examined is of importance because it established and reinforced my findings that perceptions of unreciprocated high levels of self-disclosure in non-intimate relationships lead to negative attributions and reduced liking.


Hosman, L. A., & Tardy, C. H. (1980). Self-disclosure and the reciprocity in short- and long-term relationships: An experimental study of evaluation and attributional consequences.Communication Quarterly, (28), 20-30.

Weisel, J. J., & King, P. E. (2007, October-December). Involvement in a Conversation and Attributions Concerning Excessive Self-Disclosure. Southern Communication Journal, 72(4), 345-354.


One Response to “Self-disclosure and Relationships”

  1. […] content of their messages. Communication studies as a whole is a rather large field, it ranges from interpersonal, intrapersonal, mass communication, small group communication, computer mediated, and nonverbal […]

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