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A relationship can be a push-pull affair.  On one hand, we hunger for contact.  We want the support and comfort that come from opening up, from sharing our thoughts and feelings with others.  But at the same time we seek contact, we also fear and avoid it.  We are afraid to reveal ourselves for fear of looking foolish, of being hurt.  We like the privacy that comes from keeping thoughts to ourselves and from not having to explain or justify our actions.


This lesson will help you strike a balance between the extremes of intimacy and distance.  It will describe the forces that draw people together, and will outline the stages that relationships follow.  You will learn about self-disclosure:  what it is, why we reveal ourselves to others, and how to disclose appropriately.  Finally, we will also look at non-disclosing forms of communication and discuss the role they play in relationships.


Intimacy, Distance, and Relationships


A song from the 70s said, “One is the loneliest number.”  That’s frequently right.  For most of us, the desire to connect with others is a powerful one.  With the pressures of everyday life we often forget or ignore the pursuit and maintenance of close relationships, but strong attachments with others not only make us happier, they can also make us healthier and help us live longer.


In his book Intimacy, psychotherapist C. Edward Crowther offers a reminder of just how important close relationships cam be.  As part of a study of people who were dying in hospices and hospitals in the United States and England, he asked each person individually what mattered most in life.  Fully 90 percent of these terminally ill patients put intimate relationships at the top of the list.  As a 50-year-old mother of three children who was dying of cancer put it, “You need not wait until you are in my condition to know nothing in life is as important as loving relationships.”


What does it mean to be intimate?  A scene from the musical Fiddler on the Roof raises this question:


Him:  Do you love me?

Her:  Do I love you?  For twenty years I’ve cleaned the house, raised the kids, given your dinner parties, washed your clothes.  After all these years, why ask?

Him:  But do you love me?

Her:  For twenty years I’ve lived with you, argued with you, worried with you, worried about you, fought with you, starved with you, slept with you!  What do you think love is?

Him:  Then do you love me?


This dialogue (set to music, of course) raises some good questions.  Does intimacy mean spending time together?  Sharing feelings?  Having sex?  Going through thick and thin?  Are intimacy and love identical?


Dimensions of Intimacy


The dictionary defines intimacy as arising from “close union, contact, association, or acquaintance.”  This definition suggests that the key element of intimacy is closeness, one element that “ordinary people” have reported as characterizing their intimate relationships.  However, it doesn’t explain what kinds of closeness can create a state of intimacy.  In truth, intimacy has several dimensions.  The first form is physical.  “Even before birth, the developing fetus experiences a physical closeness with its mother that will never happen again, “floating in a warm fluid, curling inside a total embrace, swaying to the undulations of the moving body and hearing the heat of the pulsing heart.  As they grow up fortunate children are continually nourished by physical intimacy:  being rocked, fed, hugged, and held.  As we grow older, the opportunities for physical intimacy are less regular, but still possible and important.  Some physical intimacy is sexual, but this category can also include affectionate hugs, kisses, and even struggles.  Companions who have endured physical challenges together—in athletics or emergencies, for example—form a bond that can last a lifetime.


In other cases intimacy comes from intellectual sharing.  Not every exchange of ideas counts as intimacy, of course.  Talking about next week’s midterm with your professor or classmates isn’t likely to forge strong relational bonds.  But when you engage another person in an exchange of important ideas, a kind of closeness develops that can be powerful and exciting.


A third type of intimacy is emotional:  exchanging important feelings. 

We’ll talk about guidelines for disclosing your thoughts and feelings to others.  If you follow these suggestions, you will probably recognize a qualitative change in your relationships.


If we define intimacy as being close to another person, then shared activities can provide another way to achieve this state.  Shared activities can include everything from working side by side at a job to meeting regularly for exercise workouts.  When partners spend time together, they can develop unique ways of relating that transform the relationship from an impersonal one to one with interpersonal qualities.  For example, both friendships and romantic relationships are often characterized by several forms of play.  Partners invent private codes, fool around by acting like other people, tease one another, and play games—everything from having punning contests to arm wrestling.


Some intimate relationships exhibit all four qualities:  physical intimacy, intellectual exchanges, emotional disclosure, and shared activities.  Other intimate relationships exhibit only one or two.  Some relationships, of course, aren’t intimate in any way.  Acquaintances, roommates, and co-workers may never become intimate.  In some cases even family members develop smooth but relatively impersonal relationships.


Not even the closest relationships always operate at the highest level of intimacy.  At times you might share all your thoughts or feelings with a friend, family member, or lover; at other times you might withdraw.  You might freely share your feelings about one topic and stay more aloof about another one.  The same principle holds for physical intimacy, which waxes and wanes in most relationships.


Intimacy and Distance:  Striking a Balance


Intimacy is certainly important, but so is distance.  It’s impossible to have a close relationship with everyone:  There simply isn’t enough time and energy.  Even if we could seek intimacy with everyone we encountered, few of us would want that much closeness.  Consider the range of everyday contacts that don’t require any sort of intimacy.  Some are based on economic exchange (for example, the people at work or the clerk at the store you visit several times a week); some are based on group membership (for example, church or school); some on physical proximity (for example, neighbors, carpooling); and some grow out of third-party connections (for example, mutual friends, child care).  Simply engaging in conversational give-and-take can be a kind of enjoyable recreation, not too different from the impromptu “jamming” of musicians who gather together to create music without revealing any personal information.


These examples suggest that intimacy isn’t essential, even with people we encounter often.  It’s possible to have a very satisfying relationship with some friends, neighbors, fellow workers, or even some family members without a high amount of closeness.  You can probably think of several quite satisfying relationships that have moderate or even low amounts of intimacy.  If you recall the characteristics of interpersonal relationships we discussed in Lesson 1, you will see that just one—disclosure—involves intimacy.  The other dimensions—uniqueness, irreplaceability, interdependence, intrinsic rewards, and scarcity—are all possible without a great amount of disclosure.  This means that it is quite possible to have a wide range of satisfying relationships without having much intimacy at all.  (This doesn’t mean that intimacy is unimportant—just that it isn’t the only measure of relational satisfaction.)


Some scholars have pointed out that an obsession with intimacy can lead to less satisfying relationships.  People who consider intimate communication as the only kind worth pursuing place little value on relationships that don’t meet this standard.  This can lead them to regard interaction with strangers and casual acquaintance as superficial, or at best as the groundwork for deeper relationships.  When you consider the pleasure that can come from polite but distant communication, the limitations of this view become clear.  Intimacy is definitely rewarding, but it isn’t the only way of relating to others.


Even the kinds of social niceties that are often polite but insincere serve an important social function.  Behaving civilly to people you don’t like provides the lubrication that keeps public life from degenerating into a series of nasty squabbles.  You may not like your landlord, your boss, or a neighbor (and they may not like you!), but good manners can help you take care of necessary business.  Even when no conflicts exist, social conventions provide a way to make contact with strangers and acquaintances without expending the energy required to build a personal relationship.  Casual remarks about the weather or current events may not create deeply personal relationships, but they can provide a satisfying way of connecting with others.


Even the strongest interpersonal relationships require some distance.  On a short-term basis, the desire for closeness waxes and wanes.  Lovers may go through periods of much sharing and times of relative withdrawal.  Likewise, they experience periods of passion and then times of little physical contact.  Friends have times of high disclosure where they share almost every feeling and idea, and then disengage for days, months, or even longer.  There is a definite fluctuation between disclosure and privacy in every stage of relationships.


The desire for both intimacy and distance create what communication scholars have called dialectical tensions (familiar to those who’ve studied communication theory)—the state that exists when two opposing or incompatible forces occur simultaneously.  The dialectical tension between intimacy and distance makes intuitive sense.  Intimacy is rather like chocolate.  We may enjoy, even crave it; but too much of a good thing can extinguish the desire for more.  Despite this fact, the tension between the opposing drives of openness and closedness can be a dilemma for many friends, family members, and lovers.  For example, many former couples report that the breakup of their relationship grew in part from their difficulty in managing the contradictions between the desires for intimacy and distance.


The opposing needs for openness and separateness operate not only within a relationship.  The same conflicting drives also exist between the relational partners—a couple, family members, friends—and the social system in which they operate.  Imagine, for instance, the consequences a couple might face when they first tell their friends and families about their growing love, or a family might experience when a member’s alcoholism becomes public knowledge.  Revelations like these have several potential payoffs for the disclosers:  Most noticeably, they can lead others to offer emotional or even material support.  On the other hand, openness can lead to disapproval.  Another reward of revealing the details of a relationship can be catharsis (no more secrets!), but disclosure can also lead to unwanted gossiping.  Openness can sometimes create bonds between the confessors and the people to whom they disclose, but it also risks forcing a wedge between them.  Research shows that, in at least some cases, marital adjustment is lower for couples who discuss their problems with outsiders.  Given the opposing risks and benefits of disclosure, it’s no surprise that the decision to go public with the details of a relationship often isn’t easy to make.


The level of intimacy that feels right can change over time.  In his book Intimate Behavior, Desmond Morris suggests that each of us repeatedly goes through three stages:  “Hold me tight,” “Put me down,” and “Leave me alone.”  This cycle becomes apparent in the first years of life when children move from the “hold me tight” phase that characterizes infancy into a new
put me down” stage of exploring the world by crawling, walking, touching, and tasting.  This move for independence isn’t all in one direction:  the same three-year-old who insists “I can do it myself” in August may cling to parents on the first day of preschool in September.  As children grow into adolescents, the “leave me alone” orientation becomes apparent.  Teenagers who used to happily spend time with their parents now may groan at the thought of a family vacation, or even the notion of sitting down to the dinner table each evening.  More time is spent with friends or alone.  Although this time can be painful for parents, most developmental experts recognize it as a necessary phase in moving from childhood to adulthood.


As the need for independence from family grows, adolescents take care of their “hold me tight” needs by associating with their peers.  Friendships during the teenage years are vital, and the level of closeness with contemporaries can be a barometer of happiness.  This is the time when physical intimacy becomes an option, and sexual exploration may provide a new way of achieving closeness.


In adult relationships, the same cycle of intimacy and distance repeats itself.  In marriages, for example, the “hold me tight” bonds of the first year are often followed by a desire for independence.  This need for autonomy can manifest itself in a number of ways, such as the desire to make friends or engage in activities that don’t include the spouse, or the need to make a career move that might disrupt the relationship.  As the discussion of relational stages later in this lesson will explain, this movement from closeness to autonomy may lead to the breakup of relationships, but it can also be part of a cycle that redefines the relationship in a new form that can recapture or even surpass the intimacy that existed in the past.


Given the equally important needs for intimacy and distance, the challenge is to communicate in a manner that provides the best possible mix of intimate and nonintimate relationships.  It’s neither possible nor desirable to become intimate with everyone you encounter, and a life with no intimacy can be empty.  The material in the rest of this lesson can help you find the optimal level of intimacy in your relationships.


Male and Female Intimacy Styles


Until recently most social scientists believed that women were better than men at developing and maintaining intimate relationships.  This view grew from the assumption that the disclosure of personal information is the most important ingredient of intimacy.  Most research does show that women (taken as a group, of course) are more willing than men to share their thoughts and feelings.  In terms of the amount and depth of information exchanged, female-female relationships are at the top of the disclosure list.  Male-female relationships come in second, while relationships between men involve less disclosure than any other type.  At every age, women disclose more than men, and the information they reveal is more personal and more likely to involve disclosure of feelings.  

Although both sexes are equally likely to reveal negative information, men are less likely to share positive feelings.


Through the mid-1980s many social scientists interpreted the relative lack of male self-disclosure as a sign that men were unwilling or even unable to develop close relationships.  Some argued that the female trait of disclosing personal information and feelings made women more “emotionally mature” and “interpersonally competent” than men.  Personal-growth programs and self-help books urged men to achieve closeness by learning to open up and share their feelings.


But scholarship conducted since then has shown that emotional expression isn’t the only way to develop close relationships.  Unlike women who value personal talk, men grow close to one another by doing things.  In one study more than 75 percent of the men surveyed said that their most meaningful experiences with friends came from activities other than talking.  They reported that, through shared activities, they “grew on one another,” developed feelings of interdependence, showed appreciation for one another, and demonstrated mutual liking.  Likewise, men regarded practical help as a measure of caring.  Research like this shows that, for many men, closeness grows from activities that don’t depend heavily on disclosure:  A friend is a person who does things with you and for you.


The difference between male and female measures of intimacy helps explain some of the stresses and misunderstandings that can arise between the sexes.  For example, a woman who looks for emotional disclosure as a measure of affection may overlook an “inexpressive” man’s efforts to show he cares by doing favors or spending time together.  Fixing a leaky faucet or taking a hike may look like ways to avoid getting close, but to the man who proposes them, they may be measures of affection and bids for intimacy. 


Likewise, differing ideas about the timing and meaning of sex can lead to misunderstandings.  Whereas many women think of sex as a way to express intimacy that has already developed, men are more likely to see it as a way to create that intimacy.  So after a couple has a fight, the woman will feel distant from her partner and resist efforts to be physically close until the partners discuss the emotional issues at hand, whereas the man will view sexual activity as a way to solve and overcome the bad feelings arising from the fight.  He cuddles up, and she says, “Don’t you dare touch me, you jerk!”  He can’t figure out why she doesn’t want to make up, and she can’t figure out how he could think of sex when they’re not even feeling close.  He’s seeing sex as a way to get closer; but she can’t imagine having sex with someone to whom she doesn’t already feel close.


In this sense, a man who encourages sex early in a relationship (not talking here about men—or women—who want to have sex with virtual strangers, but about those in a developing relationship) or after a fight may not be just a testosterone-crazed lecher:  He may view the shared activity as a way to build closeness.  By contrast, the woman who views personal talk as the pathway to intimacy may resist the idea of physical closeness before the emotional side of the relationship has been discussed.


Cultural Influences on Intimacy


Historically, the notions of public and private behavior have changed dramatically.  What would be considered intimate behavior in modern terms was quite public in some places at times in the past.  For example, in sixteenth-century Germany, the new husband and wife were expected to consummate their marriage in a room full of witnesses who could then validate the marriage!  Conversely, at the same time in England as well as in colonial America, the customary level of communication between spouses was rather formal:  not much different from the way acquaintances or neighbors spoke to one another.  In Victorian England (turn of the twentieth century), the only part of a woman that could be kissed in public, even by her husband, was her gloved hand.  Any more intimate gesture was considered grossly indecent.


Even today, the notion of intimacy varies from culture to culture.  In one study, researchers asked residents of Britain, Japan, Hong Kong, and Italy to describe their use of thirty-three rules that governed interaction in social relationships.  The rules governed a wide range of communication behaviors:  everything from the use of humor to shaking hands to the management of money.  The results showed that the greatest distance between Asian and European cultures focused on the rules for dealing with intimacy:  showing emotions, expressing affection in public, sexual activity, respecting privacy, etc.


Disclosure is especially high in mainstream North American society.  In fact, natives of the United States and Canada are more disclosing than members of any other culture studied.  They are more likely to disclose more about themselves to acquaintances, and even strangers.  By contrast, Germans and Japanese tend to disclose little about themselves except in personal relationships with a select few.  Within American culture, intimacy varies from one group to another.  For example, working-class black men are much more disclosing than their white counterparts.  By contrast, upwardly mobile black men communicate more like white men with the same social agenda, disclosing less with their male friends.


In some collectivist cultures, such as Taiwan and Japan, there is an especially great difference in the way people communicate with members of their “in-groups” (such as family and close friends) and with those they view as outsiders.  They generally do not reach out to strangers, often waiting until they are properly introduced before entering into a conversation.  Once introduced, they address outsiders with a degree of formality.  They go to extremes to hide unfavorable information about in-group members from outsiders, on the principle that one doesn’t wash “dirty laundry” in public.  By contrast, members of more individualistic cultures like the United States and Australia make less distinction between personal relationships and casual ones.  “They act more familiar with strangers and disclose more personal information, making them excellent cocktail party conversationalists.”  Social psychologist Kurt Lewin captured the difference nicely when he noted that Americans were easy to meet, but difficult to get to know, while Germans were difficult to meet, but then easy to know well.


Differences like these mean that the level of self-disclosure appropriate in one culture may seem completely inappropriate in another one.  If you were raised in the United States or Canada you might view people from other cultures as undisclosing, or even standoffish.  But the amount of information that the nonnatives share might actually be quite personal and revealing according to the standards of their culture.  The converse is also true:  To members of other cultures, North Americans probably appear like exhibitionists who spew personal information to anyone within earshot.


Prelude to Intimacy:  Interpersonal Attraction


We can’t be intimate with everyone.  What makes us want to develop personal relationships with some people and not with others?  What attracts us to one another?  This is a question social scientists have studied extensively.  Though it could be an entire course in itself, we’ll summarize a number of explanations.  As you read them, consider which ones fit you.


We like people who are similar to us—usually.  A large body of research confirms this fact.  One of the first steps in getting acquainted with a stranger is the search for common ground—interests, experiences, or other factors you share.  When we find similarities, we usually feel some sort of attraction toward the person who is like us.


This doesn’t mean the key to popularity is to agree with everyone about everything.  Research shows that attraction is greatest when we are similar to others in a high percentage of important goals.  For example, a couple who support each other’s career goals, like the same friends, and have similar beliefs about human rights can tolerate trivial disagreements about the merits of sushi or rap music.  With enough similarity in key areas, they can even survive disputes about more important subjects, such as how much time to spend with their families or whether separate vacations are acceptable.  But if the number and content of disagreements become too great, the relationship may be threatened.


Similarity turns from attraction to repulsion when we encounter people who are like us in many ways, but who behave in a strange or socially offensive manner.  For instance, you have probably disliked people others have said are “just like you” but who talked too much, were complainers, or had some other unappealing characteristic.  In fact, there is a tendency to have stronger dislike for similar but offensive people than for those who are offensive but different.  One likely reason is that such people threaten our self-esteem, causing us to fear that we may be as unappealing as they are.  In such circumstances, the reaction is often to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and this threat to our ideal self-image.


We like people who are different from us—in certain ways.  The fact that “opposites attract” seems to contradict the principle of similarity we have just discussed.  In truth, though, both are valid.  Differences strengthen a relationship when they are complementary—when each partner’s characteristics satisfy the other’s needs.  Individuals, for instance, are often likely to be attracted to each other when one partner is dominant and the other passive.  Relationships also work well when the partners agree that one will exercise control in certain areas (“You make the final decisions about money”) and the other will take the lead in different ones (“I’ll decide how we ought to decorate the place”).  Strains develop when control issues are disputed.


Studies that have examined successful and unsuccessful couples over a twenty-year period show the interaction between similarities and differences.  The research demonstrates that partners in successful marriages were similar enough to satisfy one another physically and mentally, but were different enough to meet each other’s needs and keep the relationship interesting.  The successful couples found ways to keep a balance between their similarities and differences, adjusting to the changes that occurred over the years.


We like people who like us—usually.  This source of the attraction is especially strong in the early stages of a relationship.  At that time we are attracted to people who we believe are attracted to us.  Conversely, we will probably not care for people who either attack or seem indifferent toward us.  After we get to know others, their liking becomes less of a factor.  By then we form our preferences more from the other reasons we’re discussing here.


It’s no mystery why reciprocal liking builds attractiveness.  People who approve of us bolster our feelings of self-esteem.  This approval is rewarding in its own right, and it can also confirm a presenting self-concept that says, “I’m a likeable person.”


However, you can probably think of cases where you haven’t liked people who seemed to like you.  These experiences usually fall into two categories.  Sometimes we think the other person’s supposed liking is counterfeit—an insincere device to get something from us.  The acquaintance who becomes friendly whenever he needs to borrow your car or the employee who flatters the boss to get a raise are examples.  This sort of behavior isn’t “liking” at all.  The second category occurs when the other person’s approval doesn’t fit with our own self-concept.  As you’ll recall, we cling to an existing self-concept even when it is unrealistically unfavorable.  When someone says you’re good-looking, intelligent, and kind, but you believe you are ugly, stupid, and mean, you may choose to disregard the flattering information and remain in your familiar state of unhappiness.  Groucho Marx summarized this attitude when he said he would never join any club that would consider having him as a member.


We are attracted to people who can help us.  Some relationships are based on a semieconomic model called exchange theory (talked about this in Theory too).  It suggests that we often seek out people who can give us rewards—either physical or emotional—that are greater than or equal to the costs we encounter in dealing with them.  When we operate on the basis of exchange, we decide (often unconsciously) whether dealing with another person is “a good deal” or “not worth the effort.”


At its most blatant level, an exchange approach seems cold and calculating, but in some dimensions of a relationship it can be reasonable.  A healthy business relationship is based on how well the parties help one another, and some friendships are based on an informal kind of barter:  “I don’t mind listening to the ups and downs of your love life because you rescue me when my house needs repairs.”  Even close relationships have an element of exchange.  Husbands and wives tolerate one another’s quirks because the comfort and enjoyment they get make the unhappy times worth accepting.  Most deeply satisfying relationships, however, are built on more than just the benefits that make them a good deal.


We like competent people—particularly when they’re “human.”  We like to be around talented people, probably because we hope their skills and abilities will rub off on us.  On the other hand, we are uncomfortable around those who are too competent—probably because we look bad by comparison.


Given these contrasting attitudes, it’s no surprise that people are generally attracted to those who are talented, but who have visible flaws that show they are human, just like us.  There are some qualifications to this principle.  People with especially high or low self-esteem find “perfect” people more attractive than those who are competent but flawed, and some studies suggest that women tend to be more impressed by uniformly superior people of both sexes, whereas men find desirable but “human” subjects especially attractive.  On the whole, the principle stands:  The best way to gain the liking of others is to be good at what you do but admit your mistakes.


The fact that a certain degree of imperfection is attractive drives another nail into the coffin of the perfectionistic myth we talked about in the last lesson.  We mistakenly believe that we need to appear flawless in order to gain the respect and affection of others when, in fact, acting “perfect” may drive away the people we want to draw closer.


We are attracted to people who disclose themselves to us appropriately.  Telling others important information about yourself can help build liking.  Sometimes the basis of this attraction comes from learning about how we are similar, either in experiences (“I broke off an engagement myself”) or in attitudes (“I feel nervous with strangers too”).  Another reason self-disclosure increases liking is because it is a sign of regard.  When people share private information with you, it suggests they respect and trust you—a kind of liking that we’ve already seen increases attractiveness.


Not all disclosure leads to liking.  People whose sharing is poorly timed often meet with bad results.  It’s probably unwise, for example, to talk about your sexual insecurities with a new acquaintance or to express your pet peeves to a friend at her birthday party.  In addition to bad timing, opening up too much can also be a mistake.  Research shows that people are judged as attractive when they match the amount and content of what they share with that of the other person in the relationship.


We feel strongly about people we encounter often.  As common sense suggests, we are likely to develop relationships with people we interact with frequently.  In many cases, proximity leads to liking.  We’re more likely to develop friendships with close neighbors than with distant ones, for instance; and several studies show that the chances are good that we’ll choose a mate with whom we often cross paths.  Facts like these are understandable when we consider that proximity allows us to get more information about other people and benefit from a relationship with them.


Familiarity, on the other hand, can also breed contempt.  Evidence to support this fact comes from police blotters as well as university laboratories.  Thieves frequently prey on nearby victims, even though the risk of being recognized is greater.  Spouse and child abuse is distressingly common.  Most aggravated assaults occur within the family or among close neighbors.  Within the law, the same principle holds:  You are likely to develop strong personal feelings of either like or dislike regarding others you encounter frequently.


Developmental Stages in Intimate Relationships


The process of interpersonal attraction is only the beginning of a relationship.  As attraction motivates us to seek intimacy with some people we encounter, communication passes through several stages that characterize different levels of intimacy.


Stages of Relational Communication


One of the best-known models of relational stages was developed by Mark Knapp, who broke down the rise and fall of relationships into ten stages, contained in the two broad phases of “coming together” and “coming apart.”  Other researchers have suggested that any model of relational communication should also contain an additional area of “relational maintenance”—the time when communicators act in ways that keep their relationship functioning.  Let’s look at how Knapp’s ten stages fit into this three-part view of relational communication:


The following stages are especially descriptive of intimate, romantic relationships and close friendships.  The pattern for other intimate relationships, for example, families, would follow different paths.  Some valuable associations don’t require a high level of intimacy.  They are based on other, equally important foundations:  career activities, shared political interests, and religion, to mention just a few.


Coming Together


Initiating.  The goals in the first stage are to show that you are interested in making contact and to show that you are the kind of person worth talking to.  Communication during this initiating stage is usually brief, and it generally follows conventional formulas:  handshakes, remarks about innocuous subjects like the weather, and friendly expressions.  These kinds of behavior may seem superficial and meaningless, but they are a way of signaling that we’re interested in building some kind of relationship with the other person.  They allow us to say without saying, “I’m a friendly person, and I’d like to get to know you.”


Experimenting.  Once we have made contact with a new person, the next step is to decide whether we are interested in pursuing the relationship further.  This task involves uncertainty reduction—the process of getting to know others by gaining more information about them.  The need to reduce uncertainty is especially important when we first meet others.  A usual part of uncertainty reduction is the search for common ground, and it involves the conversational basics such as “Where are you from?”  or “What’s your major?”  From there we look for other similarities:  “You’re a runner too?  How many miles do you do a week?”


The hallmark of the experimenting stage is small talk.  As Mark Knapp says, this small talk is like Listerine:  “We hate it but we take large quantities every day.”  We tolerate the ordeal of small talk because it serves several functions.  First, it is a useful way to find out what interests we share with the other person.  It also provides a way to “audition” the other person—to help us decide whether a relationship is worth pursuing.  In addition, small talk is a safe way to ease into a relationship.  You haven’t risked much as you decide whether to proceed further.  It’s often better than being alone.


The willingness to pursue relationships with strangers is partly a matter of personal style.  Some people are outgoing and others more shy, but culture also shapes behavior toward newcomers, especially ones from a different background.  Research suggests that members of high-context cultures are more cautious in their first encounters with strangers and make more assumptions about them based on their backgrounds than do members of low-context cultures.  This fact helps explain why people from certain backgrounds appear unfriendly when in fact they are simply operating by a set of rules different from those common in low-context North America.


Intensifying.  In the intensifying stage the kind of truly interpersonal relationship defined in Lesson 1 begins to develop.  Several changes in communication patterns occur during intensifying.  The expression of feelings toward the other becomes more common.  Dating couples use a wide range of communication strategies to describe their feelings of attraction.  About a quarter of the time, they express their feelings directly, using metacommunication to discuss the state of the relationship.  More often they use less direct methods of communication:  spending an increasing amount of time together, asking for support from one another, doing favors for the partner, giving tokens of affection, hinting and flirting, expressing feelings nonverbally, getting to know the partner’s friends and family, and trying to look more physically attractive.


Other changes mark the intensifying stage.  Forms of address become more familiar.  The parties begin to see themselves as “we” instead of as separate individuals.  It is during the intensifying stage that we begin to express directly feelings of commitment to one another:  “I’m sure glad we met.”  “You’re the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.”


Although commitment grows as a relationship intensifies, communication between partners shows that doubts still remain.  Romantic couples use a variety of strategies to test the commitment of one another.  These approaches include asking direct questions, “testing” the partner by presenting challenges that require proof of commitment, hinting in order to gain expressions of commitment, asking third parties for information, and attempting to make the partner jealous.  Although these behaviors are frequent in the early stages of a relationship, they decline as the partners spend more time together.


Relational Maintenance


Integrating.  As the relationship strengthens, the parties begin to take on an identity as a social unit.  Invitations begin to come addressed to the couple.  Social circles merge.  The partners begin to take on each other’s commitments:  “Sure we’ll spend Thanksgiving with your family.”  Common property may begin to be designated—our apartment, our car, our song.  Partners may even begin to speak alike, using personal idioms and sentence patterns.  In this sense, the integrating stage is a time when we give up some characteristics of our old selves and become different people.


As we become more integrated with others, our sense of obligation to them grows.  We feel obliged to provide a variety of resources such as class notes and money, whether or not the other person asks for them.  When intimates do make requests of one another, they are relatively straightforward.  Gone are the elaborate explanations, inducements, and apologies.  In short, partners in an integrated relationship expect more from one another than they do in less intimate associations.




During the bonding stage, the parties make symbolic public gestures to show the world that their relationship exists.  The most common form of bonding in romantic relationships is a wedding ceremony and the legal ties that come with it.  Bonding generates social support for the relationship.  Custom and law both impose certain obligations on partners who have officially bonded.


Bonding marks a turning point in relationships.  Up to now the relationship may have developed at a steady pace:  Experimenting gradually moved into intensifying and then into integrating.  Now, however, there is a spurt of commitment.  The public display and declaration of exclusivity make this a critical period in the relationship.


Differentiating.  Now that the two people have formed this commonality, they need to re-establish individual identities.  This differentiating stage is the point where the “hold me tight” orientation that has existed shifts, and “put me down” messages begin to occur.  Partners use a variety of strategies to gain privacy from one another.  Sometimes they confront the other party directly, explaining that they don’t want to continue a discussion.  In other cases they are less direct, offering nonverbal cues, changing the topic, or leaving the room.


Differentiation is likely to occur when a relationship begins to experience the first, inevitable stress.  This need for autonomy needn’t be a negative experience, however.  People need to be individuals as well as parts of a relationship, and differentiation is a necessary step toward autonomy.  The key to successful differentiation is maintaining a commitment to the relationship while creating the space for being an individual as well. 


Coming Apart


Circumscribing.  So far we have been looking at the growth of relationships.  Although some reach a plateau of development, going on successfully for as long as a lifetime, others pass through several stages of decline and dissolution.  In the circumscribing stage, communication between members decreases in quantity and quality.  Restrictions and restraints characterize this stage, and dynamic communication becomes static.  Rather than discuss a disagreement (which requires some degree of energy on both parts), members opt for withdrawal:  either mental (silence or daydreaming and fantasizing) or physical (where people spend less time together).  Circumscribing doesn’t involve total avoidance, which may come later.  Rather, it entails a certain shrinking of interest and commitment.


Stagnating.  If circumscribing continues, the relationship enters the stagnating stage.  Members behave toward each other in old, familiar ways without much feeling.  No growth occurs.  The relationship is a hollow shell of its former self.  We see stagnation in many workers who have lost enthusiasm for their job, yet continue to go through the motions for years.  The same sad event occurs for some couples who unenthusiastically have the same conversations, see the same people, and follow the same routines without any sense of joy or novelty.


Avoiding.  When stagnation becomes too unpleasant, parties in a relationship begin to create distance between them.  This is the avoiding stage.  Sometimes they do it under the guise of excuses (“I’ve been sick lately and can’t see you”) and sometimes directly (“Please don’t call me; I don’t want to see you now).  In either case, by this point the handwriting is on the wall about the relationship’s future.


The deterioration of a relationship from bonding through circumscribing, stagnating, and avoiding isn’t inevitable.  One of the key differences between marriages that end in separation and those that are restored to their former intimacy is the communication that occurs when the partners are unsatisfied.  Unsuccessful couples deal with their problems by avoidance, indirectness, and less involvement with one another.  By contrast, couples who “repair” their relationships communicate much more directly.  They confront one another with their concerns and spend time and effort negotiating solutions to their problems.


Terminating.  Characteristics of this final terminating stage include summary dialogues of where the relationship has gone and the desire to dissociate.  The relationship may end with a cordial dinner, a note left on the kitchen table, a phone call, or a legal document stating the dissolution.  Depending on each person’s feelings, this stage can be quite short, or it may be drawn out over time, with bitter jabs at each other.  In either case, termination doesn’t have to be totally negative.  Understanding one another’s investments in the relationship and needs for personal growth may dilute the hard feelings.


The best predictor of whether the parties will become friends is whether they were friends before their romantic involvement.  The way the couple split up also makes a difference.  It’s not a surprise to find that friendships are most possible when communication during the breakup was positive:  expressions that there were no regrets for time spent together and other attempts to minimize hard feelings.  When communication during termination was negative (manipulative, complaining to third parties), friendships were less likely.


Characteristics of Relational Development and Maintenance


The ten stages we’ve just examined offer insights about relational development, but they need further explanation to paint an accurate picture of how communicators operate as they define and shape their relationships.


Not all relationships move through all ten steps.  At first glance, Knapp’s ten steps of relational communication seem to suggest that all relationships follow the same trajectory from initiation through termination.  Your own experience almost certainly shows that this isn’t necessarily the case.  Some never make it past the early stages of initiating and experimenting.  Others (with fellow workers or neighbors, for example) develop as far as integrating or even intensifying without ever reaching the stage of bonding.  The ten-step model illustrates the range of possibilities, but it doesn’t describe a guaranteed pathway for every relationship.


Intimacy is not the only goal of relationships.  Stages like intensifying and bonding can suggest that the high point of every relationship is intimacy.  This certainly isn’t the case.  Many important and satisfying relationships are not interpersonal in the qualitative sense described in Lesson 1.  Fellow workers, neighbors, and community members often meet their needs without ever achieving any real degree of intimacy.  Even some family members get along well by deliberately keeping their physical and emotional distance from one another.  Relationships of this sort might achieve a modest degree of integration, but never go further.


Movement occurs within stages.  According to Knapp, a relationship can exist in only one stage at a time.  At any moment it will exhibit the most predominant traits of just one of the ten levels.  Despite this fact, elements of other levels are usually present.  For example, two lovers deep in the throes of integrating may still do their share of experimenting and have differentiating disagreements.  Likewise, family members who spend most of their energy avoiding one another may have an occasional good spell in which their former closeness briefly intensifies.  Even though there may be overtones of several stages, one will predominate.


No relationship is stable, so it is reasonable to expect that from day to day the interaction between people will change.  Nonetheless, if you take a step back from any relationship, you will probably be able to recognize a common theme that characterizes one of the ten stages.


Movement between steps is generally sequential.  Typically relationships move from one stage to another in a step-by-step manner as they develop and deteriorate.  This doesn’t mean that every relationship will move through all ten stages.  Some reach a certain point and then go no further.  When this occurs, movement would generally be to a corresponding point of deterioration.  For example, two people who have just met at a party may move from initiating to avoiding, whereas a couple that has progressed to intensifying is likely to begin circumscribing the relationship before it decays into stagnation and avoidance.


There are exceptions to the rule of sequential development.  Occasionally partners may skip a stage:  Sudden elopements and desertions are an example.  Nonetheless, most of the time sequential, one-step-at-a-time progression allows the relationship to unfold at a pace that is manageable for the partners.


Relationships are constantly changing.  Relationships are certainly not doomed to deteriorate.  But even the strongest ones are rarely stable for long periods of time.  In fairy tales, a couple may live “happily ever after,” but in real life this sort of equilibrium is less common.  Consider a husband and wife who have been married for some time.  Although they have formally bonded, their relationship will probably shift forward and backward along the spectrum of stages.  Sometimes the partners may feel the need to differentiate from one another.  The relationship may become more circumscribed or even stagnant.  From this point the marriage may fail, but this fate isn’t certain.  With effort, the partners may move across from stagnating to experimenting or from circumscribing to intensifying.


Communication theorist Richard Conville describes the constantly changing, evolving nature of relationships as a cycle in which partners move through a series of stages, returning to ones they previously encountered . . . although at a new level.  In this cycle, partners move from what he calls security (integration, in Knapp’s terminology) to disintegration (differentiating) to alienation (circumscribing) to resynthesis (intensifying, integrating) to a new level of security.  This process repeats itself again and again.


This back-and-forth movement reflects three dialectical tensions that tug at the parties in every relationship.  The first centers on the alternating desires for connection and autonomy.  Each of us wants—even needs—to have associations with others, yet we also begin to feel suffocated if we lose complete freedom to operate independently.  Another pull is between the needs for both openness and privacy.  Self-disclosure and mutual understanding are characteristics of interpersonal relationships, but too much openness leaves us feeling invaded.  The third tug is between the desires for predictability and novelty.  Too much predictability leaves us feeling bored, but too much novelty leaves us feeling uncertain about the relationship.  Given these tensions, it’s not surprising that relationships are constantly in flux.


Movement is always to a new place.  Even though a relationship may move back to a stage it has experienced before, it will never be the same.  For example, most healthy long-term relationships will go through several phases of experimenting, when the partners try out new ways of behaving with one another.  Though each phase is characterized by the same general features, the specifics will feel different each time.  As you learned in Lesson 1, communication is irreversible.  Partners can never go back to “the way things were.”  Sometimes this fact may lead to regrets:  It’s impossible to take back a cruel comment or forget a crisis.  On the other hand, the irreversibility of communication can make relationships exciting, since it lessens the chance for boredom.


Self-Disclosure in Relationships


One way we judge the strength of relationships is by the amount of information we share with others.  “We don’t have any secrets,” some people proudly claim.  Opening up certainly is important.  As Lesson 1 explained, one ingredient in qualitatively interpersonal relationships is disclosure.  Lesson 4 showed that we find others attractive when they share certain private information with us.  Given the obvious importance of self-disclosure, we need to take a closer look at the subject.  Just what is it?  How can it best be done?


The best place to begin is with a definition.  Self-disclosure is the process of deliberately revealing information about oneself that is significant and that would not normally be known by others.  Let’s take a closer look at some parts of this definition.  Self-disclosure must be deliberate.  If you accidentally mention to a friend that you’re thinking about quitting a job or proposing marriage, that information doesn’t qualify as self-disclosure.  Besides being intentional, the information must also be significant.  Volunteering trivial facts, opinions, or feelings—that you like fudge, for example—hardly counts as disclosure.  The third requirement is that the information being disclosed is not known by others.  There’s nothing noteworthy about telling others that you are depressed or elated if they already know that.


Degrees of Self-Disclosure


Although our definition of self-disclosure is helpful, it doesn’t reveal the important fact that not all self-disclosure is equally revealing—that some disclosing messages tell more about us than others.


Social psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor describe two ways in which communication can be more or less disclosing.  Their model of social penetration shows two dimensions of self-disclosure.  One is breadth of information volunteered—the range of subjects being discussed.  For example, the breadth of disclosure in your relationship with a fellow worker will expand as you begin revealing information about your life away from the job as well as on-the-job details.  The second dimension of disclosure is the depth of the information offered, the shift from relatively nonrevealing messages to more personal ones.


Depending on the breadth and depth of information shared, a relationship can be defined as casual or intimate.  In a casual relationship, the breadth may be great, but not the depth.  A more intimate relationship is likely to have high depth in at least one area.  The most intimate relationships are those in which disclosure is great in both breadth and depth.  Altman and Taylor see the development of a relationship as a progression from the periphery of their model to its center, a process that typically occurs over time.  Each of your personal relationships probably has a different combination of breadth of subjects and depth of disclosure.


What makes the disclosure in some messages deeper than others?  One way to measure depth is by how far it goes on two of the dimensions that define self-disclosure.  Some revelations are certainly more significant than others.  Consider the difference between saying “I love my family” and “I love you.”  Other statements qualify as deep disclosure because they are private.  Sharing a secret that you’ve only told a few close friends is certainly an act of self-disclosure, but it’s even more revealing to divulge information that you’ve never told anyone.


Another way to classify the depth of disclosure is to look at the types of information we share:


Cliches.  Cliches are ritualized, stock responses to social situations—virtually the opposite of self-disclosure:  “How are you doing?”  “Fine!”  “We’ll have to get together soon.”


Remarks such as these usually aren’t meant to be taken literally, in fact, the other person would be surprised if you responded to a casual, “How are you?” with a lengthy speech on your health, state of mind, love life, or finances.  Yet it’s a mistake to consider clichés meaningless, for they serve several useful functions.  For instance, they can give two speakers time to size each other up and decide whether it’s desirable to carry their conversation any further.  Our first impressions are generally based more on the nonverbal characteristics of the other person than on the words we hear spoken.  Things like eye contact, vocal tone, facial expression, posture, and so on can often tell us more about another person than can the initial sentences in a conversation.  Given the value of these nonverbal cues and the awkwardness of actually saying, “I want to take a few minutes to look you over before I commit myself to getting acquainted,” the exchange of a few stock phrases can be just the thing to get you through this initial period comfortably.


Cliches can also serve as codes for other messages we don’t usually express directly, such as “I want to acknowledge your presence” (for instance, when two acquaintances walk past each other).  Additional unstated messages often contained in cliches are “I’m, interested in talking to you if you feel like it” or “Let’s keep the conversation light and impersonal; I don’t feel like disclosing much about myself right now.”  Accompanied by a different set of nonverbal cues, a cliché can say, “I don’t want to be impolite, but you’d better stay away from me for now.”  In all these cases clichés serve as a valuable kind of shorthand that makes it easy to keep the social heels greased and indicates the potential for further, possibly more profound conversation.


Facts.  Not all factual statements qualify as self-disclosure.  They must fit the criteria of being intentional, significant, and not otherwise known:


“This isn’t my first try at college.  I dropped out a year ago with terrible grades.”

“I’m practically engaged.”  (On meeting a stranger while away from home.)

“That idea everyone thought was so clever wasn’t really mine.  I read it in a book last year.”


Facts like these can be meaningful in themselves, but they also have a greater significance in a relationship.  Disclosing important information suggests a level of trust and commitment to the other person that signals a desire to move the relationship to a new level.


Opinions.  Still more revealing is the level of opinions:


“I used to think abortion was no big deal, but lately I’ve changed my mind.”

“I really like Karen.”

“I don’t think you’re telling me what’s on your mind.”


Opinions like these usually reveal more about a person than facts alone.  If you know where the speaker stands on a subject, you can get a clearer picture of how your relationship might develop.  Likewise, every time you offer a personal opinion, you are giving others valuable information about yourself.


Feelings.  The fourth level of self-disclosure—and usually most revealing one—is the realm of feelings.  At first glance, feelings might appear to be the same as opinions, but there is a big difference.  As we saw, “I don’t think you’re telling me what’s on your mind” is an opinion.  Now notice how much more we learn about the speaker by looking at three different feelings that might accompany this statement:


“I don’t think you’re telling me what’s on your mind, and I’m suspicious.”

 “I don’t think you’re telling me what’s on your mind, and I’m angry.”

“I don’t think you’re telling me what’s on your mind, and I’m hurt.”


The difference between these four levels of communication suggests why relationships can be frustrating.  One reason has to do with the depth of disclosure, which may not lead to the kind of relationship one or both parties are seeking.  Sometimes the communicators might remain exclusively on the level of facts.  This might be suitable for a business relationship, but wouldn’t be very likely in most other circumstances.  Even worse, other communicators never get off the level of clichés.  And just as a diet of rich foods can become unappealing if carried to excess, the overuse of feelings and opinions can become disagreeable.  In most cases, the successful conversation is one in which the participants move from one level to another, depending on the circumstances.


Another common problem occurs when two communicators want to relate to one another on different levels.  If one is willing to deal only with facts and perhaps an occasional opinion and the other insists on revealing personal feelings, the results are likely to be uncomfortable for both.  Consider the following meeting between Jack and Roger at a party.


J:  Hi.  My name’s Jack.  I don’t think we’ve met before. (cliché)

R:  I’m Roger.  Nice to meet you.  (cliché)

J:  Do you know anybody here?  I’ve just moved in next door and don’t know a soul except for the host.  What’s his name . . . Lou?  (fact)

R:  Lou’s right.  Well, I’m here with my wife—that’s her over there—and we know a few other people.  (fact; both speakers are comfortable so far)

J:  Well, I used to have a wife, but she split.  She really did me in.  (fact and opinion)

R:  Oh?  (cliché; he doesn’t know how to reply to this comment)

J:  Yeah.  Everything was going along great—I thought.  Then one day she told me she was in love with her gynecologist and that she wanted a divorce.  I still haven’t gotten over it.  (feeling and fact)

R:  Well, uh, that’s too bad. (cliché; Roger is now very uncomfortable)

J:  I don’t think I’ll ever trust another woman.  I’m still in love with my wife, and it’s killing me.  She really broke my heart.  (feeling and fact)

R:  I’m sorry.  Listen, I’ve got to go.  (cliché)


Clearly, Jack moved to the level of disclosing feelings long before Roger was prepared to accept this kind of communication.  Though that type of discussion might have helped a friendship if it had come at a later time, Jack only succeeded in driving Roger away by coming on too fast.  Remember the hazards of moving too quickly to a level your partner is likely to find uncomfortable.


Characteristics of Self-Disclosure


By now it’s clear that self-disclosure isn’t a common type of communication, even in close relationships.  The following characteristics show the place of self-disclosure in interpersonal affairs.


Self-disclosure usually occurs in dyads.  Although it is possible for people to disclose a great deal about themselves in groups, such communication usually occurs in one-to-one settings.  Since revealing significant information about yourself involves a certain amount of risk, limiting the disclosure to one person at a time minimizes the chance that your revelations will lead to unhappy consequences.


Self-disclosure occurs incrementally.  Although occasions do occur in which partners start their relationship by telling everything about themselves to each other, such instances are rare.  In most cases the amount of disclosure increases over time.  We begin relationships by revealing relatively little about ourselves; then if our first bits of self-disclosure are well received and bring on similar responses from the other person, we’re willing to reveal more.  This principle is important to remember.  It would usually be a mistake to assume that the way to build a strong relationship would be to reveal the most private details about yourself when first making contact with another person.  Unless the circumstances are unique, such baring of your soul would be likely to scare potential partners away rather than bring them closer.


Relatively few transactions involve high levels of self-disclosure.  Just as it’s unwise to seek great self-disclosure too soon, it’s also unproductive to reveal yourself too often.  Except for unique settings—such as in therapy—there’s usually no need to disclose frequently or steadily.  When used properly, self-disclosure may strengthen relationships, but like most medicines, large amounts of self-disclosure are not necessary to produce good results.


Self-disclosure is relatively scarce.  What is the optimal amount of self-disclosure?  You might suspect that the correct answer is “the more the better,” at least in personal relationships.  Research has shown that the matter isn’t this simple, however.  For example, there seems to be a curvilinear relationship between openness and satisfaction in marriage, so that a moderate amount of openness produces better results than either extreme disclosure or withholding.  Most conversations—even among friends—focus on everyday, mundane topics and disclose little or no personal information.  Even partners in intimate relationships rarely talk about personal information.  One good measure of happiness is how well the level of disclosure matches the expectations of communicators:  If we get what we believe is a reasonable amount of candor from others, we are happy.  If they tell us too little—or too much—we become less satisfied.


Self-disclosure usually occurs in the context of positive relationships.  This principle makes sense.  We’re generally more willing to reveal information about ourselves when we feel accepted by the other person.  This doesn’t mean that you should avoid making disclosing statements that contain negative messages (for example, “I feel uncomfortable about what happened last night”).  Such explanations are likely to be successful if they’re designed to be constructive, to help your relationship grow.  On the other hand, disclosure that has the effect of attacking the other person (“You sure aren’t very bright”) is almost guaranteed to be destructive.  For this reason, it’s especially important to phrase negative messages in the supportive, assertive ways we’ll discuss in the next lesson.


Reasons for Self-Disclosure


Self-disclosure has the potential to improve and expand interpersonal relationships, but it serves other functions as well.  As you read each of the following reasons why people reveal themselves, see which apply to you.


Catharsis.  Sometimes you might disclose information in an effort to “get it off your chest.”  In a moment of candor you might, for instance, reveal your regrets about having behaved badly in the past.


Self-Clarification.  Sometimes you can clarify your beliefs, opinions, thoughts, attitudes, and feelings by talking about them with another person.  this sort of “talking the problem out” occur with psychotherapists, but it also goes on with others, all the way from good friends to bartenders or hairdressers.


Self-Validation.  If you disclose information (“I think I did the right thing . . .”) with the hope of obtaining the listener’s agreement, you are seeking validation of your behavior—confirmation of a belief you have about yourself.  On a deeper level, this sort of self-validating disclosure seeks confirmation of important parts of your self-concept.


Reciprocity.  A well-documented conclusion from research is that one act of self-disclosure begets another.  Thus, in some situations you may choose to disclose information about yourself to encourage another person to do so also.


Impression Formation.  Sometimes we reveal personal information to make ourselves more attractive.  Some observers have made this point bluntly, asserting that self-disclosure has become another way of “marketing” ourselves.  Consider a couple on their first date.  It’s not hard to imagine how one or both partners might share personal information to appear more sincere, interesting, sensitive, or interested in the other person.  The same principle applies in other situations.  A salesperson might say “I’ll be honest with you . . .” primarily to show that she is on your side, and a new acquaintance might talk about the details of his past to seem more friendly and likeable.


Relationship Maintenance and Enhancement.  A large body of research supports the role of self-disclosure in relational success.  For example, there is a strong relationship between the quality of self-disclosure and marital satisfaction.  The same principle applies in other interpersonal relationships.  The bond between grandparents and grandchildren, for example, grows stronger when the honesty and depth of sharing between them is high.


Social Control.  Revealing personal information may increase your control over the other person, and sometimes over the situation in which you and the other person find yourselves.  For example, an employee who tells the boss that another firm has made overtures probably will have an increased chance of getting raises and improvements in working conditions.


Manipulation.  Although most of the preceding reasons might strike you as being manipulative, they often aren’t premeditated strategies.  There are cases, however, when an act of self-disclosure is calculated in advance to achieve a desired result.  Of course, if a discloser’s hidden motive ever becomes clear to the receiver, the results will most likely be quite unlike those intended.


The reasons for disclosing vary from one situation to another, depending on several factors.  The strongest influence on why people disclose seems to be how well we know the other person.  When the target of disclosure is a friend, the most frequent reason people give for volunteering personal information is relationship maintenance and enhancement.  In other words, we disclose to friends in order to strengthen the relationship.  The second important reason is self-clarification—to sort out confusion or to understand ourselves better.


With strangers, reciprocity becomes the most common reason for disclosing.  We offer information about ourselves to strangers to learn more about them, so we can decide whether and how to continue the relationship.  The second most important reason is impression formation.  In other words, we often reveal information about ourselves to strangers in order to make ourselves look good.  This information, of course, is usually positive—at least in the early stages of a relationship.


Alternatives to Self-Disclosure


Although self-disclosure plays an important role in interpersonal relationships, it isn’t the only type of communication available.  To understand why complete honesty isn’t always an easy or ideal choice, consider some familiar dilemmas:


A new acquaintance is much more interested in becoming friends than you are.  She invites you to a party this weekend.  You aren’t busy, but you don’t want to go.  What would you say?


You’re attracted to your best friend’s mate, who has confessed that he feels the same way about you.  You both agreed that you won’t act on your feelings, and that even bringing up the subject would make your friend feel terribly insecure.  Now your friend has asked whether you’re attracted at all to the mate.  Would you tell the truth?


You’ve just been given a large extremely ugly painting as a gift by a relative who visits your home often.  How would you respond to the question, “Where will you hang it?”


Situations like these highlight some of the issues that surround deceptive communication.  On one hand, our moral education and common sense lead us to abhor anything less than the truth.  Ethicists point out that the very existence of a society seems based on a foundation of truthfulness.  Although isolated cultures do exist where deceit is the norm, they are dysfunctional and on the verge of breakdown.


Although honesty is desirable in principle, it often has risky, potentially unpleasant consequences.  It’s tempting to avoid situations where self-disclosure would be difficult, but examples like the ones you just read show that evasion isn’t always possible.  Research and personal experience show that communicators—even those with the best intentions—aren’t always completely honest when they find themselves in situations in which honesty would be uncomfortable.  Three common alternatives to self-disclosure are lying, equivocating, and hinting.  We will take a closer look at each one.




A lie is a deliberate attempt to hide or misrepresent the truth.  To most of us, lying appears as a breach of ethics.  At first glance it appears that the very possibility of a society depends on the acceptance of truthfulness as a social norm.  Although lying to gain unfair advantage over an unknowing victim seems clearly wrong, another kind of mistruth—the “white lie”—isn’t so easy to dismiss as completely unethical.  Some are defined (at least by the people who tell them) as being unmalicious, or even helpful to the person to whom they are told.  Whether or not they are innocent, white lies are certainly common.  In one study, 130 subjects were asked to keep track of the truthfulness of their everyday conversational statements.  Only 38.5 percent of these statements—slightly more than a third—proved to be totally honest.


Reasons for Lying.  What reasons do people give for being so deceitful? 

When subjects in the study were asked to give a lie-by-lie account of their motives for concealing or distorting the truth, five major reasons emerged.


  1. To save face.  Over half the lies were justified as a way to prevent embarrassment.  Such lying is often given the approving label “tact,” and is used “when it would be unkind to be honest, but dishonest to be kind.”  Sometimes a face-saving lie saves face for the recipient, as when you pretend to remember someone at a party in order to save them from the embarrassment of being forgotten.  In other cases, a lie protects the teller from humiliation.  You might, for instance, cover up your mistakes by blaming them on outside forces:  “You didn’t receive the check?  It must have been delayed in the mail.”


  1. To avoid tension or conflict.  Sometimes it seems worthwhile to tell a small lie to prevent a large conflict.  You might, for example, say you’re not upset at a friend’s teasing in order to prevent the hassle that would result if you expressed your annoyance.  It’s often easier to explain your behavior in dishonest terms than to make matters worse.  You might explain your apparent irritation by saying “I’m not mad at you; it’s just been a tough day.”


  1. To guide a social interaction.  Sometimes we lie to make everyday relationships run smoothly.  You might, for instance, pretend to be glad to see someone you actually dislike or fake interest in a dinner companion’s boring stories to make a social event pass quickly.  Children who aren’t skilled or interested in these social lies are often a source of embarrassment for their parents.


  1. To expand or reduce relationships.  Some lies are designed to make the relationship grow:  “You’re going downtown?  I’m headed that way.  Can I give you a ride?”  “I like science fiction, too.  What have you read lately?”  Lies that make the teller look good also fit into this category.  You might try to impress a potential employer by calling yourself a management student when you’ve only taken a course or two in business.  Sometimes we tell lies to reduce interaction with others.  Lies in this category often allow the teller to escape unpleasant situations:  “I really have to go.  I should be studying for a test tomorrow.”  In other cases people lie to end a relationship entirely:  “You’re really great, but I’m just not ready to settle down yet.”


  1. To gain power.  Sometimes we tell lies to show we’re in control of a situation.  Turning down a last-minute request for a date by claiming you’re busy can be one way to put yourself in a one-up position, saying in effect, “Don’t expect me to sit around waiting for you to call.”  Lying to get confidential information—even for a good cause—also falls into the category of achieving power.


There are other ways to classify lies, some much more complicated than the simple five-part scheme above.  These cover some types of lies that don’t fit into the five categories.  Exaggerations, for example, are lies told to boost the effect of a story.  In exaggerated tales the fish grow larger, hikes grow longer and more strenuous, and so on.  The stories may be less truthful, but they become more interesting—at least to the teller.


Most people think white lies are told for the benefit of the recipient.  In one study, the majority of subjects claimed such lying was “the right thing to do.”  Other research paints a less flattering picture of who benefits most from lying.  One study found that two out of every three lies are told for “selfish reasons.”  And another study of 322 lies recorded found 75.8 percent were for the benefit of the liar.  Less than 22 percent were for the benefit of the person hearing the lie, while a mere 2.5 percent were intended to aid a third party. 


Before we become totally cynical, however, the researchers urge a charitable interpretation.  After all, most intentional communication behavior—truthful or not—is designed to help the speaker achieve a goal.  Therefore, it’s unfair to judge white lies more harshly than other types of messages.  If we define selfishness as the extent to which some desired resource or interaction is denied to the person hearing the lie or to a third party, then only 111 lies (34.5 percent) can be considered truly selfish.  This figure may be no worse than the degree of selfishness in honest messages.


Effects of Lies.  What are the consequences of learning that you’ve been lied to?  In an interpersonal relationship, the discovery can be traumatic.  As we grow closer to others, our expectations about their honesty grow stronger.  After all, discovering that you’ve been deceived requires you to redefine not only the lie you just uncovered, but also many of the messages you previously took for granted.  Was last week’s compliment really sincere?  Was your joke really funny, or was the other person’s laughter a put-on?  Does the other person care about you as much as he or she claimed?


Research has shown that deception does, in fact, threaten relationships.  Not all lies are equally devastating, however.  Feelings like dismay and betrayal are greatest when the relationship is most intense, the importance of the subject is high, and when there was previous suspicion that the other person wasn’t being completely honest.  Of these three factors, the importance of the information lied about proved to be the key factor in provoking a relational crisis.  We may be able to cope with “misdemeanor” lying, but “felonies” are a grave threat.


The lesson here is clear:  Lying about major parts of your relationship can have the most grave consequences.  If preserving a relationship is important, honesty—at least about important things—really does appear to be the best policy.




Lying isn’t the only alternative to self-disclosure.  When faced with the choice between lying and telling an unpleasant truth, communicators can—and often do—equivocate.  As we discussed in Lesson 3, equivocal language has two or more equally plausible meanings.  Sometimes people end equivocal messages without meaning to, resulting in confusion.  “I’ll meet you at the apartment,” could refer to more than one place.  But other times we are deliberately vague.  For instance, when a friend asks what you think of an awful outfit, you could say “It’s really unusual—one of a kind!”  Likewise, if you are too angry to accept a friend’s apology but don’t want to appear petty, you might say, “Don’t mention it.”


How does a business person provide a positive reference for an incompetent friend?  Lehigh University professor Robert Thorton suggests that equivocation provides a middle ground between the brutal truth and a misleading lie.  A few examples:


For a lazy worker:

“You’ll be lucky to get this person to work for you.”


For someone with no talent:

“I recommend this candidate with no qualifications.”


For a candidate who should not be hired under any circumstances:

“I can assure you that no person will be better for the job” or “Waste no time hiring this person.”

from Mixed Blessings


The value of equivocation becomes clear when you consider the alternatives.  Consider the dilemma of what to say when you’ve been given an unwanted present—the ugly painting mentioned earlier, for example—and the giver asks what you think of it.  How can you respond?  On one hand, you need to choose between telling the truth and lying.  At the same time, you have a choice of whether to make your response clear or vague.  After considering the alternatives, it’s clear that an equivocal, true response is far preferable to your other choices.  First, it spares the receiver from embarrassment.  For example, rather than flatly saying “No” to a unappealing invitation, it may be kinder to say “I have other plans”—even if those plans are to stay home and watch TV.


Besides saving face for the recipient, honest equivocation can be less stressful for the sender than either telling the truth bluntly or lying.  Because equivocation is often easier to take than the cold, hard truth, it spares the teller from feeling guilty.  It’s less taxing on the conscience to say, “I’ve never tasted anything like this” than to say “This meal tastes terrible,” even though the latter comment is more precise.  Few people want to lie, and equivocation provides an alternative to deceit.


A study by communication researcher Sandra Metts and her colleagues shows how equivocation can save face in difficult situations.  Several hundred college students were asked how they would turn down unwanted sexual overtures from a person whose feelings were important to them:  either a close friend, a prospective date, or a dating partner.  The majority of students chose a diplomatic reaction (“I just don’t think I’m ready for this right now”) as being more face-saving and comfortable than a direct statement like “I just don’t feel sexually attracted to you.”  The diplomatic reaction seemed sufficiently clear to get the message across, but not so blunt as to embarrass or even humiliate the other person.  (Interestingly, men said they would be better able to handle a direct rejection more comfortably than women.  The researchers suggest that one reason for the difference is that men stereotypically initiate sexual behaviors, and thus are more likely to expect rejection.)


Besides preventing embarrassment, equivocal language can also save the speaker from being caught lying.  If a potential employer asks about your grades during an interview, you would be safe saying, “I had a B average last semester,” even though your overall grade average is closer to a C.  The statement isn’t a complete answer, but it is honest as far as it goes.  As one team of researchers put it, equivocation is neither a false message nor a clear truth, but rather an alternative used precisely when both of these are to be avoided.


Given these advantages, it’s not surprising that most people will usually choose to equivocate rather than tell a lie.  In a series of experiments, subjects chose among telling a face-saving lie, the truth, and equivocating.  Only 6 percent chose the lie, and between 3 and 4 percent chose the hurtful truth.  By contrast, over 90 percent chose the equivocal response.




Hints are more direct than equivocal statements.  Whereas an equivocal message isn’t necessarily aimed at changing others’ behavior, a hint seeks to get a desired response from the other person.  Some hints are designed to save the receiver from embarrassment:


Direct Statement

“You’re too overweight to be ordering dessert.”

“I’m too busy to continue with this conversation.  I wish you would let me go.”


Face-Saving Hint

“These desserts are terribly overpriced.”

“”I know you’re busy; I’d better let you go.”


Other hints are less concerned with protecting the receiver than with saving the sender from embarrassment:


Direct Statement

“Please don’t smoke in here because it bothers me.”

“I’d like to invite you out for lunch, but I don’t want to risk a ‘no’ answer to my invitation.”



“I’m pretty sure that smoking isn’t permitted here.”

“Gee, it’s almost lunchtime.  Have you ever eaten at that new Italian restaurant around the corner?”


The face-saving value of hints explains why communicators are more likely to be indirect than fully disclosing when they deliver a potentially embarrassing message.  The success of a hint depends on the other person’s ability to pick up the unexpressed message.  Your subtle remarks might go right over the head of an insensitive receiver . . . or one who chooses not to respond.  If this happens, you may decide to be more direct.  On the other hand, if the costs of a straightforward message may seem too high, you can withdraw without risk.


The Ethics of Evasion


It’s easy to see why people choose hints, equivocations, and white lies instead of complete self-disclosure.  These strategies provide a way to manage difficult situations that is easier than the alternatives for both the speaker and the receiver of the message.  In this sense, successful liars, equivocators, and hinters can be said to possess a certain kind of communication competence.  On the other hand, there are certainly times when honesty is the right approach, even if it’s painful.  At times like these, evaders could be viewed as lacking the competence or the integrity to handle a situation most effectively.


Are hints, benign lies, and equivocation ethical alternatives to self-disclosure?  Some of the examples in this lesson suggest the answer is a qualified “yes.”  Many social scientists and philosophers agree.  Some argue that the morality of a speaker’s motives for lying ought to be judged, not the deceptive act itself.  Others ask whether the effects of a lie will be worth the deception.  Ethicist Sissela Bok offers some circumstances in which deception may be justified:  doing good, avoiding harm, and protecting a larger truth.  Perhaps the right questions to ask, then, are whether an indirect message is truly in the interest of the receiver and whether this sort of evasion is the only effective way to behave.  Bok suggests another way to check whether a lie is justifiable:  Imagine how others would respond if they knew what you were really thinking or feeling.  Would they accept your reasons for not self-disclosing?


Guidelines for Self-Disclosure


By now it should be clear that deciding when and how much personal information to disclose is not a simple matter.  The following guidelines can help you choose the level of self-disclosure that is appropriate in a given situation.


Is the other person important to you?  There are several ways in which someone might be important.  Perhaps you have an ongoing relationship deep enough so that sharing significant parts of yourself justifies keeping your present level of togetherness intact.  Or perhaps the person to whom you’re considering disclosing is someone with whom you’ve previously related on a less personal level.  But now you see a chance to grow closer, and disclosure may be the path toward developing that personal relationship.


Is the risk of disclosing reasonable?  Take a realistic look at the potential risks of self-disclosure.  Even if the probable benefits are great, opening yourself up to almost certain rejection may be asking for trouble.  For instance, you know it might be foolhardy to share your important feelings with someone you know is likely to betray your confidences or ridicule them.  On the other hand, knowing that your partner is trustworthy and supportive makes the prospect of speaking out more reasonable.


Revealing personal thoughts and feelings can be especially risky on the job.  The politics of the workplace sometimes require communicators to keep feelings to themselves in order to accomplish both personal and organizational goals.  You might, for example, find the opinions of a boss or customer personally offensive but decide to bite your tongue rather than risk your job or lose goodwill for the company.


In anticipating risks, be sure that you are realistic.  It’s sometimes easy to indulge in catastrophic expectations and imagine all sorts of disastrous consequences when, in fact, such horrors are quite unlikely to occur.


Are the amount and type of disclosure appropriate?  It is usually a mistake to share too much information too soon.  Research shows that in most relationships the process of disclosure is gradual.  At first most of the information that is exchanged is relatively nonintimate.  As the parties move into the intensifying, integrating, and bonding stages of the relationship, the rate of disclosure begins to grow.


As we’ve already seen, even in relationships in which disclosure is an important feature, the amount of personal information is relatively small when compared to nonintimate information.  Most long-term relationships aren’t characterized by a constant exchange of intimate details. 

Rather, they are a mixture of much everyday, nonintimate information and less frequent but more personal messages.


Besides being moderate in amount, self-disclosure should consist of positive information as well as negative details.  Hearing nothing but a string of dismal confessions or complaints can be discouraging.  In fact, people who disclose an excess of negative information are often considered poorly adjusted.


Finally, when considering the appropriateness of a disclosure in any relationship, timing is also important.  If the other person is tired, preoccupied, or in a bad mood it may be best to postpone an important conversation.


Is the disclosure relevant to the discussion at hand?  The kind of disclosure that is often a characteristic of highly personal relationships usually isn’t appropriate in less personal setting.  For instance a study of classroom communication revealed that all sharing of feelings—both positive and negative—and being completely honest resulted in less cohesiveness than a “relatively” honest climate in which pleasant but superficial relationships were the norm.


Is the disclosure reciprocated?  The amount of personal information you share will usually depend on how much the other person reveals.  As a rule, disclosure is a two-way street.  For example, couples are happiest when their levels of openness are roughly equal.


There are a few times when one-way disclosure is acceptable.  Most of them involve formal, therapeutic relationships in which a client approaches a trained professional with the goal of resolving a problem.  For instance, you wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear about a physician’s personal ailments during a visit to a medical office.  Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note that one frequently recognized characteristic of effective psychotherapists, counselors, and teachers is a willingness to reveal their feelings about a relationship to their clients.


Will the effect be constructive?  Self-disclosure can be a vicious tool if it’s not used carefully.  Psychologists suggest that every person has a psychological “beltline.”  Below that beltline are areas about which the person is extremely sensitive.  Bach says that jabbing at a “below-the-belt” area is a sure-fire way to disable another person, though usually at great cost to the relationship.  It’s important to consider the effects of your candor before opening up to others.  Comments such as “I’ve always thought you were pretty unintelligent” or “Last year I made love to your best friend” may sometimes resolve old business and thus be constructive, but they also can be devastating—to the listener, to the relationship, and to your self-esteem.


Is the self-disclosure clear and understandable?  When you are expressing yourself to others, it’s important that you reveal yourself in a way that’s intelligible.  This means describing the sources of your message clearly.  For instance, it’s far better to describe another’s behavior by saying, “When you don’t answer my phone calls or drop by to visit anymore . . .” than to complain vaguely, “When you avoid me . . .”


Remember that there can be a variety of reasons to disclose information to another person, some of them not so laudable.  Examine your reasons before you decide to disclose, and decide who it is you hope to help with your disclosure.  Be cautious when you self-disclose, and do it well when you decide to do it.  Properly used, disclosure is a help to building stronger relationships.