communication privacy management: a theory about keeping your conversations private

Over the holidays, Hus, our kids, and I traveled to the east coast to visit family. Near the beginning of our trip, my mom made a comment to Hus about something he had told me a week earlier. I didn't think anything about the conversation that ensued, but apparently he did. He later pulled me to the side and said, "you told your mom about that?" To which I replied, "Yeah, I talk to my mom about everything." "EVERYTHING?" he yelled. "Maybe not everything, but most stuff," I said. Hus looked at me and answered, "Well, I'd appreciate it if we could keep our private conversations a little more private."
After our discussion, I began to think about why this act may have upset him. Then I remembered a communication theory that may be able to shed some light on the cause of our exchange.
Petronio’s (2002) theory of communication privacy management (CPM) addresses the tension between sharing and concealing private information in disclosure situations. CPM is a rule-based theory, which explains that individuals develop boundary and privacy rules that help them decide whether to reveal or conceal private information about themselves. These rules are made to help individuals maximize rewards and avoid any costs associated with self-disclosure. Central to CPM is the notion that a person owns information about him or herself until he or she shares it with someone else, at which point, the information becomes co-owned by both people. Also, if boundary or privacy rules are violated, disclosers could feel anger, distrust, or distain towards the person they shared their private information with.
There are five main principles used to explain how people control whether information about themselves is kept secret or shared (Petronio, 2002).
  • First, individuals believe that they own their private information about themselves.
  • Second, individuals therefore believe that they have the right to control whether or not the information is shared with others.
  • Third, individuals use privacy rules that they have developed to decide whether they will open a privacy boundary (i.e. share the information) or keep the boundary closed (i.e. not share the information).
  • The fourth principle states that when individuals share their private information with others, those other people become shareholders of that information. It is assumed that these new owners of the private information will also follow privacy rules that were developed by one or both people.
  • The last principle is concerned with what happens when rules are broken. Specifically, when a problem occurs (e.g. the privacy rules are broken), individuals may begin to not trust the person they shared information with. This could subsequently lead to suspicion or uncertainty when deciding whether to share information with this individual again in the future.
Similar to social penetration theory (Altman & Taylor, 1973; Taylor & Altman, 1987), CPM also emphasizes the importance of maximizing rewards and minimizing costs when disclosing information to another person. The benefits of disclosure could range from self-expression to relationship development to social control, while the risks could include loss of face, status, or control. Self-disclosure always involves some degree of risk. This risk, according to CPM theory, leads individuals to establish boundaries around information that is considered public or private (Petronio, 2002). These boundaries allow individuals to control who has access to the information and motivates them to set expectations for co-ownership of information once it is disclosed to others (Petronio, 2002).
When individuals self-disclose, they give over something they feel belongs to them (e.g., private information), and therefore they feel they should retain the right to control it, even after the initial disclosure. Thus, rules about when and how to share information with others are created by the initial information-holder prior to the initial disclosure and then again after that individual has shared his or her information. The rules that are developed can be the same and stable over time through repeated use or can also be highly situational and may be changed to fit new circumstances. These rules help people know when to conceal information, when to reveal information, what type of information can be revealed, and who the information can be revealed to. For instance, Alaina may have private information about her recent abortion. When Alaina decides to tell her best friend Violet about the abortion, she may create rules with Violet explaining that the only other person who knows about her abortion is her boyfriend, the only other people who can know about it is their other friend Jill, and she only wants to talk about it with Violet when they are alone. These rules help Violet know what is and what is not acceptable when discussing or sharing Alaina’s private information.
To summarize, Petronio’s (2002) theory of communication privacy management explains what privacy is and how the process of sharing private information works. The rewards-to-cost ratio along with boundary rules created by the initial information-holder influence whether a person decides to share their private information with someone else. Once information is disclosed, original rules are reformulated or new rules are created about when, how, and to whom the information can be shared or discussed. Lastly, if any of these rules are broken, individuals may experience negative outcomes, including relationship dissolution.

So, I've decided that the next time Hus tells me something that he considers private information, I won't be telling my mom. (Well, I'll at least make sure that she doesn't say anything about it to Hus this time!-- Just kidding... kind of.)

  • Altman, I., & Taylor, D. A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Petronio, S. (2002). Boundaries of privacy: Dialectics of disclosure. New York: State University of New York Press.
  • Taylor, D. A., & Altman, I. (1987). Communication in interpersonal relationships: Social penetration processes. In M. E. Rolloff & G. R. Miller (Eds.), Interpersonal processes: New directions in communication research (pp. 257- 277). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


Tiffany said...

I always love your post...

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Pants said...

Yep, I love the comm theories. Keep them coming.

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