|The Breakfast Club
Have you ever wondered how we connect with people and develop a relationship on a deeper more personal level? I have, and I think that is why I found the social penetration theory so intriguing. The theory was proposed in 1973 by University of Utah psychology professor, Irwin Altman, and Lincoln University psychology professor, Dalmas Taylor, who is now deceased. Altman and Taylor proposed the idea that individuals develop “deeper intimacy with another person through mutual self-disclosure and other forms of vulnerability” (Grifﬁn). They compared people to onions, with the idea that individuals possess “onion-like layers of beliefs and feelings about self, others, and the world; The outer layer is accessible to anyone who cares to look and the deeper layers are more vulnerable, protected, and central to self-concept”(Grifﬁn). Altman and Taylor made three key observations in the process of relationship development and one observation about relationship withdrawal, which I will outline below. In the outline I will give application examples using dialog from the cult classic movie, The Breakfast Club.
The Breakfast Club was directed by John Hughes, and was released in 1985. The movie depicts five seemingly very different high school students: Allison, a basket case, Brian, a brain, Bender, a criminal, Claire, a princess, and Andrew, a athlete, who are forced to spend the day in Saturday detention together. Their Principal, Mr. Vernon, gives them an assignment to write a 1000 word essay about who they think they are. Rather than get right into writing their essays they decide to pass the hours in a variety of ways: they dance, harass each other, tell stories, fight, smoke marijuana, and talk about a variety of subjects. Gradually they open up to each other and by the end of the day, they find that they have more in common than they ever thought. They come to this realization through the process of social penetration.
The first observation that Altman and Taylor proposed in the process of social penetration is that peripheral items are exchanged more frequently and sooner than private information (Griffin). An example of this in The Breakfast Club is a scene where Bender, who is wearing a flannel shirt, some baggy faded jeans and black combat boots that are untied with a bandana tied around his right boot, is giving Alison, who is dressed very fashionably and Andrew, who is wearing his letterman jacket, a hard time. Andrew makes the comment, “Bender, you don’t even count. You could disappear tomorrow and it wouldn’t make a difference. You may as well not even exist at this school.” To which Bender replies, “well I’ll just run right out and join the wrestling team and maybe the prep club too.” This sparks a discussion on the different clubs or “cliques” of the school to which Brian interjects, “I’m in the math club. I’m in the physics club too.” Bender asks him what he is babbling about and Brian says, “what I was saying is I’m in the math club, the physics club and the Latin club.” The is the first real interaction so far in the movie and what they have disclosed so far are peripheral items. Some of the disclosure came in their conversation and other items were evident in the way they dressed and presented themselves.
The second observation that Altman and Taylor made in the process of social penetration is that self-disclosure is reciprocal, especially in the early stages of relationship development. This observation is most easily described by “the law of reciprocity”, which is defined as, “a paced and orderly process in which openness in one person leads to openness in the other” (Griffin). An example of this from the movie is a scene where all five people are sitting in a circle on the floor talking to one another and Andrew makes the comment, “We are all bizarre, some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.” Claire says, “oh yeah, how are you bizarre?” and Allison interjects, “he can’t think for himself.” Andrew says, “she’s right” and then asks, “do you guys know what I did to get in here? I taped Larry Lester’s buns together.” Clair laughs, and Brian asks, “that was you?” Andrew replies, “yeah, do you know him?”Brian answers, “yeah, I know him.” Andrew goes on to tell them how he did it to impress his dad, because his dad’s always telling him all the wild stuff he used to do when he was in school. Andrew tells them that after he got hauled to the principal’s office all he could think about was how humiliated Larry must have felt when he had to go home and tell his parents what happened. Andrew discloses his feelings about his father. He says, “I hate him! He’s like this mindless machine that I can’t even relate to anymore.” Andrew begins to cry and imitate his father, yelling, “Andrew! You’ve got to be number one! I won’t tolerate any losers in this family! Your intensity is for shit! Win! Win! Win!” Andrew starts to cry again and says, “you son of a bitch.” Andrew then discloses how he sometimes wishes his knee would just give out and he couldn’t wrestle anymore, so his dad would stop caring about him and just leave him alone. After Andrew is done telling his story Brian says, “it’s like me with my grades. When I kind of step outside myself and look in, you know, and I see me…. and I don’t like what I see. I really don’t.” Claire asks, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you like yourself?” Brian says, “it sounds stupid, but it’s because I’m failing shop.” Brian goes on to tell the group how he had a project to build a ceramic elephant lamp and when you pull the trunk the light is supposed to turn on and his light didn’t come on. He got an “F” on the project and he has never received an “F” in his life. Bender gives Brian a hard time for not being able to make the lamp and Allison diffuses the situation by saying, “I can write with my toes, I can also eat and brush my teeth.” Claire says, “all with you feet?” Brian interjects, “I can make spaghetti!” Everyone in the group then discloses something different they can do. This eventually leads Brian to ask the question, “assuming we are all friends now, will we still be friends on Monday?” Claire responds, “do you want the truth?” Brian says, “yes” and Claire replies, “no.” This leads to a big blow up in the group about how messed up that is. Claire calls Andrew and Bender hypocrites because she says they would do the same thing. They would probably say hi to him and then cut him down as soon as he walked away, so their friends wouldn’t think badly of them. Claire then discloses how she hates how she has to go along with everything her friends say and how they don’t understand the pressure her friends put on her. Brian then says, “you think I don’t understand pressure, Claire?” Brian then screams some obscenities at Claire, and starts to cry. To hide his tears, Brian buries his head in his arm and asks, “do you know why I am here today?” Brian then yells, “do you?” Brian says, “I’m here today because Mr. Ryan found a gun in my locker.” Andrew asks, “Why did you have a gun in your locker?” Brian replies, “I tried. I pulled the trunk and the light was supposed to go on. It didn’t go on, I mean.” Andrew asks, “what’s the gun for, Brian?” Brian replies, “I can’t have an “F”. I can’t have it, and I know my parents can’t have it. Even if I ace the rest of the semester I’m still only a “B”. Everything is ruined for me.” Allison then says, “do you know what I did to get in here? Nothing, I didn’t have anything better to do.” The group all laughs.
The third observation Altman and Taylor made in the social penetration process is that penetration is rapid at the start but slows down quickly as the tightly wrapped inner layers are reached (Griffin). The scene I described for self-disclosure being reciprocal also applies to penetration being rapid to start, but then begins to slow. Notice how throughout the scene they are disclosing different things, such as what brought them there, family problems, or different talents they have, but eventually they reach a certain degree of disclosure and the conversation slows and comes to an end.
Altman and Taylor also made and observation about the withdrawal or “depenetration” process in some relationships. They say that depenetration is a gradual process of layer-by-layer withdrawal. Altman and Taylor explain that “relationships are likely to terminate by a gradual cooling off of enjoyment and care rather than an explosive flash of anger” (Griffin).There are time’s that for one reason or another the parties who once disclosed certain areas of their life decide to close these areas off to the other individual. As this happens the relationship will start to deteriorate possibly even to the point where only peripheral items will be exchanged. The movie does not give a clear cut example of this process. However, I think when Claire responds, “no” to Brian’s question about being friends on Monday it goes along with this process.
Altman and Taylor point out that while “depth”, or the degree of disclosure in a specific area of an individual’s life is crucial in the process of social penetration, “breadth”, or the range of area’s in an individual’s life that are disclosed is equally important (Griffin). The movie shows the depth of disclosure in a few different areas of the characters lives, such as home situation, pressures they face in school and from friends, but there really isn’t enough time for them to cover the full “breath” of their lives. Altman and Taylor stress that in order to have true intimacy in a relationship there must be full disclosure from both parties.
I think The Breakfast Club does a good job of showing how with time and effort the anxieties about sharing one’s true self and feelings can be overcome. I don’t think that is the message the director had in mind for the film though. My favorite line from the movie is the closing when they designate Brian to write a single letter for the group to their principle Mr. Vernon, because I think it pretty much summarizes the point of the film. “"Dear Mr. Vernon: We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.” Each of the individuals have allowed others to dictate how they view themselves and each of them does what it takes to feel their designated roles as the brain, the basket case, the athlete, or the criminal. What they really all want though is to fit in and be liked by their peers. As the day goes on and the students pour their heart and souls out to one another a change takes place and they are no longer the individuals that society and their principal have pegged them to be. They are now completely different. They have found commonalties between one another and these commonalties have made them The Breakfast Club. I think the message the director had in mind is that you don’t have to be what everyone else wants you to be. You can be your own individual and still be accepted and find commonalties with your peers.
What I gained from studying the social penetration theory is a better understanding of how intimate relationships are developed. The movie, The Breakfast Club, gave me a real life demonstration of how these processes play out. I think this will benefit me in the future in two important ways. I will be able to better develop new relationships into more intimate and meaningful relationships and I will be able to do a better job at fostering my current relationships with continued disclosure. Something else I learned through this assignment and the communication process is how communication can break through the barriers of stereotypes and allow us to find commonalities with those we never thought we would.
Griffin, Em. A First Look At Communication Theory. 7th. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.
Hughes, John, dir. The Breakfast Club. 1985. Film. 08 Mar 2013.