Self-disclosure is one of the most researched behaviours in the communication discipline. Most interpersonal; communication scholars believe self-disclosure is a critically important communication skill because it helps relationships develop and contributes to our self-concept (West & Turner 2010; Farber 2006). Ample evidence shows that greater disclosure is related to greater emotional involvement in a relationship, and that “disclosure is central to how people define what constitutes intimacy.” Self-disclosure is personal information, shared intentionally, that another person would have trouble finding out without being told.
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Statements such as “I think I really like Dan,” “I am sick of family gatherings,” “I used to play profession” are all self-disclosures. Implicit in this definition is the fact that self-disclosures are verbal behaviours (Wood 2009). We do reveal information about ourselves nonverbally – for example, by dressing in certain clothes, wearing a wedding ring, or making facial expressions – but these types of revelations do not fit the definition of self-disclosure because they do not have the same intentionality as revelations told to a specific person.
Features of self-disclosing
Nonverbal behaviours are more generally sent – for example, everyone we come in contact with sees what we wear. Our definition highlights several important features of self-disclosing. These include intentionality, choice, personal information, risk and trust. Intentionality and choice; when you engage in self-disclosure, you choose to tell another person something about yourself (Owen, Christine & David 1994).
When Mike tells Elizabeth that he fears he is not smart enough to make medical school, his disclosure is a conscious, voluntary decision to confide a vulnerability to a friend, make is not coerced to confide his concerns; rather, he freely discloses them. Although disclosures sometimes slip out unintentionally, for example when someone is drunk, overly tired, or otherwise, these “slips” do not meet our definition for a real self-disclosure. We choose whether or not to say something, and we also choose how to tell it. For instance, mike may tell Elizabeth about his fear of failing in medical school. But he may withhold the information that he did poorly on the GMAT. Mike is in control of how much information he can be able to be in his relationship with Elizabeth (Wood 2009).
As we choose whether and how much to self-disclose in our interpersonal relationships, we negotiate the boundaries between privacy and openness (Sarah & Arthur 2003 ). Selectively self-disclosing helps us create the balance between what is private to ourselves, what is shared with intimates, what is closed to close friends, and what is known to many others.
Private information and risk
Self-disclosure information another would not be easily able to discover without being told; it must be private rather than public. Public information consists of facts that we make parts of our public image – the parts of ourselves that we present to others (Owen, Christine & David 1994). Usually, people strive to present socially approved characteristics as public information. Some researchers use the metaphor of the theatre to describe life, and they refer to public information as what is seen on stage.
Private information reflects the self-concept
Private information consists of the assessments – both good and bad – that we make about ourselves. It also includes our personal values and our interests, fears, and concerns. Some researchers have noted that past research on self-disclosure has left it to the researcher to define private information (Wood 2009). Essentially self-disclosure involves sharing who we really are with another and letting ourselves be truly known by them (West & Turner 2010 ). The scary part is that we may be rejected by the other person after we have exposed ourselves in this fashion.
Trust explains why we decide to take the plunge and reveal ourselves through self-disclosure. When we are in a relationship with a trusted other, we feel comfortable self-disclosing because we believe that our confidante can keep a secret, will continue to care for us, and won’t get upset when we relate what we are thinking (Wood 2009). Our perception of trust is a key factor in our decision to self discloses, and most self-disclosures take place in the context of a trusting relationship.
Self-disclosures are reciprocal
The essence of this principle is reciprocity, or the tendency to respond in kind. Most research suggests that the self-disclosures of one member of a pair will be reciprocated by self-disclosures by the other (George & Martin 1990). The dyadic effect describes the tendency for us to return another’s self-disclosure with one that matches it in the level of intimacy. For example, if Leila tells her friend Victoria that she was raped when she was 18 by a guy she was dating, Victoria’s reciprocal disclosure would have to be about something equally serious and intimate. The norm of reciprocity suggests that Victoria would be unlikely to respond by simply telling Leila that at one time she had dated a basketball player.
Reciprocity is sometimes explained by noting that it keeps people in the relationship on an equal footing. If two people have reciprocated disclosures, they have equalized the rewards and the risks of disclosing (Wood 2009). In addition, researchers observed that disclosure reciprocity might be governed by global conversational norms such as the requirement that a response has to be relevant to the comment that precedes it. Thus, when Leila tells Victoria her story about date rape, Victoria responds with a story about how she narrowly escaped date rape herself. In doing so, Victoria matches Leila’s intimacy level; and keeps the conversation on the same topic.
However, conversations involving self-disclosures do not always contain immediate responses of reciprocal self-disclosures like the one we just described between Leila and Victoria. Victoria does not have to reciprocate immediately; she may simply listen with empathy, while Leila tells her story. Instead of telling about her own experience after hearing about Leila’s Victoria might express concern or encouraging Leila to tell her more about what happened, how she feels about it now, and so forth. Research suggests that expressing concern for the speaker is actually a better response because it makes a more favourable impression on the discloser than responding with matching self-disclosure.
Does this mean that the norm of reciprocity is wrong? This is not exactly, according to some research (Wood 2009). People in close relationships do not have to engage in immediate reciprocity butt they should reciprocate within the conversation at some point. In other words, Leila would be unhappy about the conversation and maybe her relationship with Victoria if Victoria never revealed anything personal about herself. But Victoria’s self – disclosures do not have to come immediately after Leila’s to satisfy the norm of reciprocity.
When people are just getting to know one another, the need for immediate reciprocity is strong. As relationships develop and mature, this need is relaxed, and reciprocal disclosures may no longer need to occur within the same conversation (West & Turner 2010 ). In these cases, the partisan simply trusts that disclosures will equalize over the course of their relationship. For example, Sarah might simply listen to her sister, Miranda, as she discloses that she is about to divorce her husband, without disclosing anything to Miranda at all. But Sarah has disclosed a lot to Miranda in the past and will continue to do so in the future as needed.
Self-disclosures occur over time
Disclosures generally happen incrementally over time. We usually tell a low-level self-disclosure to a relationship partner first and the increase the intimacy level of our disclosures as time goes by and our relationship with that person continues and deepens (Wood 2009). In our example of Leila and Victoria, this principle suggests that Leila would make her disclosure about date rape after she had already disclosed other, lower – level personal information about herself, for example, that she had flunked calculus and sometimes doubted that she belonged to the university. This principle illustrates how relationship development and self-disclosure are intertwined. Self-disclosures change the relationship, and the nature of the self-disclosures changes as the relationship matures or deteriorates.
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This principle also shows us that time affects the meaning of disclosure. For example, the first time Rafe tells his parents of personal information, it may be a sign of their relational growth (Owen, Christine & David 1994). However, after they have been together for many years, that same information may be seen as a part of the overall pattern of their relationship. In another example, when Bethany tells her boyfriend early in their relationship that she is afraid to assert herself around authority figures, he might respond with empathy and support. He might even think it’s sweet that Bethany needs him to help her be assertive.
But if Bethany and her boyfriend stay together, the same disclosure 20 years later could be heard as an indication that Bethany refuses to grow up and take any responsibility for herself. In this case, the disclosure would not be met with empathy and support. Therefore, the function and meaning of disclosures vary within the context of the time (Owen, Christine & David 1994).
People have suggested many ways to picture the process of self-disclosure so that we can understand it more clearly. We discuss two of them in this section: dialectics and social penetration.
This theory explains relational life as full of push-pull tensions resulting from the desire for polar opposites. In early research on self-disclosure, theorists asserted that self-disclosures created our sense of self and contained the essence of being human (George & Martin 1990). Dialectics explains how we wish to have conflicting, seemingly incompatible things at the same time and how we try to deal with the tensions raised by this conflict.
Dialectic thinking assumes that we all want to have both these two things seem like polar opposites. We feel conflict over our desire to both “let it all out” to a friend or a relative and to keep it in to avoid the risks inherent in telling. According to dialectics, the real core of relational life consisted of “communicators seeking a variety of important, yet apparently incompatible goals.” The dialectic theory says that to reduce the tension of this process, we use several coping strategies: cyclic alternation, segmentation, selection, and integration.
This helps communicators handle tension by featuring the oppositions at alternating times (Owen, Christine & David 1994). For instance, if Eileen discloses a great deal with her mother when she is in high school and then she keeps much more information private from her when she goes to college, she is engaging in cyclic alternation. By sometimes being open and other times keeping silent, cyclic alternation allows Eileen to satisfy both goals.
This allows people to isolate separate arenas for user privacy and openness. For example, if Mac Thomas works in a business with his father, Joe, they may not disclose to one another at work but do so when they are together in a family setting.
This means that you choose one of the opposites and ignore your need for the other. For instance, Rosie might decide that disclosing to her friend; Tina isn’t working. Tina fails to be empathic and has occasionally told something Rosie told her in confidence to another friend. Rosie can use selection and simply stop disclosing to Tina altogether, making their relationship less open but less stressful.
This can take several forms. That is, neutralizing: this involves compromising between two oppositions. For instance, if Traci and her sister Reva have been arguing in because Reva feels Traci is leaving her out of her life and not telling her anything. Traci might decide to use neutralizing with Reva. Tracy would disclose a moderate amount to her – maybe telling Reva a little less than Reva wants to hear but a little more than she would normally tell her. Neutralizing copes with the tension by creating a happy medium.
This allows people to cope with tensions by exempting certain issues from the general pattern (Wood 2009). Emily might make some topics, like her love life, off-limits for disclosure with her mother but otherwise engage in many taboo topics, or issues that are out of bounds of discussion. Most relationships contain topics that are not talked about by unspoken mutual consent. Many families avoid discussing sex and money. Even couples who engage in the most intimate of sexual behaviours may not talk about sex to each other. Another example of a taboo topic might be a family member’s alcoholism.
This refers to rethinking the notion of opposition. In doing so, people redefine the dialectic (West & Turner 2010 ). For instance, couples may say that they actually feel closer to each other if they do not tell each other everything. Reframing is illustrated in a couple’s belief that they keep some secrets that make what they do tell more significant.
Reasons to self-disclose
To experience catharsis and improve psychological health and control
One reason psychologists are so interested in the concept of self-disclosure is probably that individuals experience catharsis, or a therapeutic release of tensions and negative emotion, through disclosing (Owen, Christine & David 1994). In general, engaging in self-disclosure is seen as a method for helping individuals achieve psychological health. For example, some research suggests that although and lesbian adolescents find coming out to their parents difficult, doing so offers those adolescents many psychological benefits.
The adage “a shared trouble is halved” expresses the common wisdom that self-disclosing about troubles provides some relief from those troubles. In one study that tested that assumption, 243 Chinese workers in Hong Kong filled out questionnaires about occupational stress and disclosing to a best friend. The researcher found that disclosing to a best friend did reduce the workers’ perception of occupational stress (George & Martin 1990).
To improve physical health
Evidence supports the belief that self-disclosures provide physical as well as psychological benefits for disclosures. In his 1959 article in the Journal of Mental Hygiene, Sidney Jourad stated that self-disclosure promotes physical health and that failure to disclose may cause ill health (George & Martin 1990; Wood 2009). This was a controversial position in 1959, and few others followed up on Jourad’s thesis. Yet, it is a viable argument today because a great deal of evidence supports the relationship between self-disclosing and physical health.
For example, a study of Holocaust survivors found that people who disclosed the most about their experiences showed better physical health than those who concealed more. Other researchers conducted a nine-year study of gay men with HI positive status (George & Martin 1990). They found that men who concealed their sexual identity and their health issues had more deterioration in their immune systems, a quicker onset of AIDS, and lived a shorter time with AIDS than did men who self-disclosed. In addition, a large body of research supports the contention that disclosing has a positive impact on blood pressure levels and resistance to cardiovascular disease.
To achieve self-awareness
Self-disclosures provide us with the means to become more self-aware. We are able to clarify our self-concepts by the feedback we receive from others when we disclose and by the process of hearing ourselves disclose. For example, when Kara discloses to her sisters, Martha that she feels stupid for not learning how to swim till she was an adult, Martha responds by praising Kara for having the courage to tackle a new skill later in life. Martha tells Kara that she is really proud of her and feels that she is setting a good example for their children that it’s never too late to learn. Through such experiences, one is able to transmit positive values in society.
Self-disclosure is a complex, well researched communication process. We define it as verbal communication that intentionally reveals personal information about ourselves that our listener would be unlikely to discover without being told. This means that self-disclosing is a choice we make; we always have the option of not telling. We generally choose to disclose in the context of a close, trusting relationship because self-disclosure is scary and implies risk.
Not everyone self discloses in the same way or at the same rate (West & Turner 2010 ). Our disclosures are affected by individual differences, relational factors, cultural factors, cultural values, and gender and sex. Thus, understanding self-disclosures contributes to an understanding of interpersonal communication. To engage in skilful self-disclosures, you need to learn how to use I – statements, and you must be honest and consistent with your verbal and non-verbal communication (Wood 2009).
Remember to focus your non-verbal communication, and be sure your content and topic are relevant. Practice estimating the risks and benefits of self-disclosure and predicting how your partner will respond. Be sure that the amount and type of disclosure are appropriate, and try to estimate the effect of the disclosure on your relationship.
Farber, BA 2006, Self-disclosure in psychotherapy, Guilford Press, New York.
George, S & Martin, F 1990, Self-disclosure in the therapeutic relationship, Illustrated edn, Springer, New York.
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Sarah, T & Arthur, J 2003 , Interpersonal communication, 5th edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
West, R & Turner, LH 2010 , Understanding Interpersonal Communication:Making Choices in Changing Times, 2nd edn, Cengage Learning, California.
Wood, JT 2009, Interpersonal Communication:Everyday Encounters, 6th edn, Cengage Learning, California.