A great way to begin new relationships and enhance relationships you're already involved in is to engage in reciprocal self-disclosure. Self-disclosure has been defined by researchers as the process of revealing information about yourself to others (Verderber et al., 2007). The information that is disclosed is typically described as new. In other words, when you self-disclose about yourself, it usually involves information that other people don't already know about. Additionally, self-disclosure involves risk and vulnerability on the part of the discloser. It's risky to disclose personal information about ourselves. We tend to wonder whether we're disclosing too much at once or whether we're getting too personal too quickly.
There are many reasons why people may self-disclose. You may self-disclose to express yourself, to build your relationship, to support someone else, or to get something off your chest. You could also self-disclose to gain information from someone else (i.e. if you disclose something to your friend, she will likely also disclose something to you), to make someone feel comfortable (i.e. "You know, I wrecked my first car too"), or even to hurt someone's feelings (i.e. "I never liked you anyway!"). Whatever your reason, self-disclosure is an important aspect of each and every one of our lives.
When you're self-disclosing, you're not just revealing the information in your message. You're also allowing people to make inferences about you based on what you say. For instance, if you disclose to someone that you like to scrapbook, they might infer that you like doing other crafty things like making homemade greeting cards or decorating your home or cooking gourmet meals.
As I've blogged about before, there are some "rules" to self-disclosing:
- 1. Make sure that disclosures are appropriate to the topic at hand and fit the flow of the conversation. You want to reduce anxiety in initial interactions, not cause it. If your conversation partner is talking about where he or she is from, you probably shouldn't bring up your pesky drug habit. It doesn't fit or connect with what your partner was talking about. It'll just make the conversation awkward.
- 2. Begin with safe, nonrisky disclosures. Don't begin a conversation by disclosing that you were in jail for grand theft auto when you were 20 or that you like going to swinger's clubs. Save this information for later. Instead, start off by disclosing where you're from, where you went to school, or what your hobbies are.
- 3. Disclose in small doses. There are two parts to this guideline. First, don't disclose everything about yourself all at once. Like I said earlier, save some stuff for later. Second, don't monopolize the conversation. Let the other person disclose some information about him/herself too.
- 4. Match the level and amount of the other's disclosure. Again, you don't want to create an awkward situation by disclosing something very personal about yourself when the conversation is not headed in that direction. For instance, if your conversation partner is talking about his or her hometown, it would be appropriate for the conversation to logically move to how many siblings you have because these two topics are at about the same level of intimateness. However, for most people, it would not be appropriate for the conversation about hometowns to shift towards talking about religious beliefs. In the same respect, you should try to match the other person's amount of self-disclosure. For instance, it would be inappropriate for you to disclose for 20 minutes when your partner has only disclosed for 2 or 3.
- 5. Remember that style of disclosure is as important as substance. Be conscious of your paralanguage and nonverbal behaviors. The way you say something can influence your message. So, think about your tone, pitch, rate, use of sarcasm, and body gestures when self-disclosing.
- 6. Reserve your most important disclosures for significant, ongoing relationships. Don't just tell anyone that you like to watch porn every Tuesday night. You might want to save that one for someone you feel really close to.
In 1997, Arthur Aron and his colleagues created a self-disclosure task to study whether strangers could feel close to each other after disclosing information about themselves. The researchers paired up individuals who did not know each other and gave them three sheets of paper. Each sheet had a series of questions on it. These questions got increasingly more personal in nature as the study progressed. The participants were instructed to
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
- What would constitute a "perfect day" for you?
- For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
- If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
- What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
- What is your most treasured memory?
- What does friendship mean to you?
- How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
- What was the most embarrassing moment in your life?
- When did you last cry in front of another person?
- What, if anything, do you think is too serious to joke about?
- If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven't you told them yet?
- Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing and why?
- Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 363- 377.
- Verderber, K. S., Verderber, R. F., & Berryman-Fink, C. (2007). Inter-act: Interpersonal communication concepts, skills, and contexts (11th edition). New York: Oxford University Press.
Other self-disclosure resources: