Disclosure, as a type of interpersonal communication, means revealing private information that individuals believe they own and have a right to control. Disclosure builds romantic and friendship relationships, although there is a possibility of disclosing too much information, or telling information when a relational partner is not ready to hear the disclosure, thus hampering relational growth. Therefore we know that disclosure has both a positive outcome and the potential to have unwanted outcomes for interpersonal relationships.
Historically, the concept of disclosure is attributed to Sidney Jourard (1971). His work on “self-disclosure,” defined as “the act of making yourself manifest, showing yourself so others can perceive you” (Jourard 1971, 19), focused primarily on opening up the self to others. Much of the early research on disclosure accepted Jourard’s assumption that self-disclosure is unequivocally positive. In fact, Jourard argued that self-disclosure was the key to a healthy personality. From this early work, we learned that there are some gender differences in self-disclosure. For example, women disclose more than men to others of the same sex. We also know that issues such as status, age, and attractiveness affect whether a person discloses. The research also showed that men conceal information because they fear loss of control, while women avoid disclosure to prevent hurt and problems with relationships (Rosenfeld 1979). A focus on the issue of reciprocity (whereby people disclose to others and those individuals respond with disclosures) revealed that people reciprocate disclosures early in a developing relationship, but as people come to know each other, self-disclosure occurs less often. Reciprocity does not have to occur immediately. When disclosure occurs, the recipient might wait days or weeks to reciprocate the disclosure. Altman and Taylor (1973) initially conceptualized disclosure reciprocity in their “social penetration theory.” Their theory explains how interpersonal relationships develop. They argued that reciprocal disclosure occurs along two dimensions: depth, meaning the level of intimacy of the disclosure, and breadth, meaning the number of topics discussed. Through these processes, people develop significant relationships with each other.
Although early researchers argued for the unequivocal positive effects of self-disclosure, others cautioned that disclosure may not indisputably end in a positive outcome. As research began to illustrate that disclosure could be both positive and negative, it became clear that a new way to conceptualize disclosure was needed. One of the ways researchers expanded the notion of disclosure is seen in a theoretical perspective called Communication Privacy Management (CPM) (Petronio 2002). The research from this theory shows that people simultaneously need to reveal and conceal private information. Disclosure helps people to connect; however, keeping information to themselves helps them to sustain autonomy. CPM illustrates how people manage the ebb and flow of these concurrent needs by placing private information within a privacy boundary. People manage the flow through privacy rules. Once people disclose, they make the recipients shareholders in the information, extending the boundary to include the recipients. In a perfect world, each person privy to the disclosed information negotiates the rules allowing third-party disclosures. But we do not live in a perfect world, so people make mistakes and inappropriately disclose or intentionally violate privacy.
The CPM perspective helps us understand many interpersonal communication issues that were not clear in the past. We now have a better idea about stepfamily difficulties when children feel caught between both families (Afifi 2003). We know that there is a chilling effect in families when members apply pressure to conceal secrets by insisting on using certain privacy rules (Afifi & Olson 2005). The management of secrecy and privacy is a powerful source of control for adolescents (Frijns 2004). Further, physicians use very specific management rules to preserve their integrity when it comes to disclosure about medical mistakes, but they suffer the consequences for doing so (Allman 1998). We also know that parents and children use privacy rules to avoid disclosing certain topics, leading to dissatisfying interpersonal interactions (Caughlin & Afifi 2004). People also use certain privacy rules to guide disclosing about HIV status to relational partners (Greene et al. 2003).
As the current thinking about disclosure suggests, we find that people manage a balance between wanting to connect through telling private issues, and also wanting to protect themselves from possible unwelcome or unexpected outcomes resulting from disclosure. Thus there appears to be a calculus that we use to traverse the complicated informational world we live in and still manage to establish, sustain, and repair our interpersonal relationships when it comes to disclosure of our private information.
- Afifi, T. D. (2003). “Feeling caught” in stepfamilies: Managing boundary turbulence through appropriate communication privacy rules. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 20, 729 –755.
- Afifi, T. D., & Olson, L. (2005). The chilling effect in families and the pressure to conceal secrets. Communication Monographs, 72, 192 – 216.
- Allman, J. (1998). Bearing the burden or baring the soul: Physicians’ self-disclosure and boundary management regarding medical mistakes. Health Communication, 10, 175 –197.
- Altman, I., & Taylor, D. A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Caughlin, J. P., & Afifi, T. D. (2004). When is topic avoidance unsatisfying? Examining moderators of the association between avoidance and dissatisfaction. Human Communication Research, 30, 479 –513.
- Frijns, T. (2004). Keeping secrets: Quantity, quality, and consequences. Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit, Ridderkerks.
- Greene, K., Derlega, V. J., Yep, G. A., & Petronio, S. (2003). Privacy and disclosure of HIV in interpersonal relationships: A sourcebook for researchers and practitioners. Mahwah, NJ: LEA.
- Jourard, S. M. (1971). The transparent self. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
- Petronio, S. (2002). Boundaries of privacy: Dialectics of disclosure. NY: SUNY Press.
- Rosenfeld, L. B. (1979). Self-disclosure avoidance: Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? Communication Monographs, 46, 63 –74.
- Wheeless, L. R., & Grotz, J. (1976). Conceptualization and measurement of reported self-disclosure. Human Communication Research, 2, 338 – 346.