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Scholars of communication disciplines endeavor to explain messages between two interdependent people and defines interpersonal communication. This process focuses on how messages are offered to “initiate, define, maintain, or further a relationship” (Dainton & Zelley, 2019, p. 77). Four overarching theoretical constructs seem to reign supreme within the interpersonal communications space, at least for this course of study. Politeness theory seems to seek to understand strategies “individuals use to maintain face,” social exchange theory from the perspective of cost and reward, dialectical perspectives from the standpoint of conflict or contradiction, and communication privacy management theory, as related to our decision-making surrounding revealing or concealing information” (Dainton & Zelley, 2019, p. 78). This week, we will apply three of the four theories to a case study presented for analysis against the tenets of each theoretical construct.

Case Study

Our selected study surrounds applying social exchange theory (SET), dialectical theory, and communication privacy theory against a relationship between two entrepreneurs, Jason and Seth. After founding and selling a successful cleaning company, Jason was approached by Seth for advice surrounding a new business opportunity in Florida. Jason agreed to help Seth start a similar cleaning business, offering his expertise without the risk of financial investment.

Jason and Seth’s relationship began in college. After college, Jason started his cleaning business, whereas Seth followed a more traditional career trajectory. After becoming frustrated, Seth engages Jason and invites him to Florida to discuss business over beer. Shortly later, Jason agreed to help Seth launch his own cleaning company in Florida through his resources of experience and time. Jason evaluated the market. He found it saturated with cleaning services, yet agreed to help develop a website and marketing plan.

The two had a rocky start, and Jason learned Seth was “more of a talker” than a “doer.” Jason’s frustration mounts as Jason begins to discover that words and actions are misaligned. Jason’s drive to evolve another cleaning company was not met with the follow-through he expected from his partner Seth. Business conditions eroded, and cashflow impacted payroll, yet Seth disappeared on payroll days, leaving Jason to explain to employees why they had not been paid.

Jason discovers that Seth is drinking and telling tall tales that are not representative of their unique reality, and finally when Jason discovers that Seth is gloating about sticking Jason with all the work, Jason terminated the relationship.

Thibaut and Kelley (1959): Social Exchange Theory

Thibaut and Kelley’s (1959) Social Exchange Theory (SET) offers a unique framework to evaluate the Jason/Seth interplay. SET posits that interpersonal relationships are formed and maintained based on the cost and benefit attached to each. Under SET, the interactors were motivated to maximize their reward while minimizing cost. This perpetual analysis implies that relationships are in a perpetual state of negotiation, imbalance, or comparison. The state of the relationship is constantly scanned and evaluated for alignment with expectations on societal norms and past relationship experiences. When the comparison level of alternatives (CL alt) exceeds the comparison level, SET predicts the end of the relationship (Dainton & Zelley, 2019, pp. 82–84).

Jason initially saw an opportunity to help a friend and start a new business without the financial expense. The reward of mentoring Seth in a familiar industry was higher than the cost. Laterally, Seth values Jason’s experience and resources. In exchange, they mediate their views. From Jason’s perspective, costs began to diminish with Seth’s deceit, and priority-related habits were exposed. Jason becomes frustrated and begins to assign comparative logic to the overarching situation, otherwise applying comparison level (CL). Rewards no longer align with expectations. The ongoing reward matrix becomes diminished.

It seems Seth did not evaluate the relationship based on the same comparable levels as Jason or he would have seen the impending end. The shift begins to occur when an imbalance is detected. Next, Seth views Jason’s expertise and past success as a valuable resource to escape corporate dissatisfaction and enter entrepreneurship. Seth’s perceived benefit is gaining insider knowledge and support in starting a business. Seth’s cost/reward comparison level must have been low (low cost to reward). It seems, however, that Jason did consider his comparison level of alternatives (CL alt) when contemplating the end of the relationship when he made the final determination that other options were more significant than his comparison level, evidenced by Jason blocking Seth’s number and leaving to seek other, more attractive, opportunities.

Baxter and Montgomery (1996; Baxter, 1998): Dialectical Perspective

Baxter and Montgomery (1996; Baxter, 1998) considered relationships as dynamic, and further, the existence of relationships requires the maintenance of a certain level of satisfaction. The overarching theory explains how tension, contradictions, and conflict – features of oppositional force – polarize and guide interpersonal relationships. Objectively, this construct is primarily based on the premise of conflict or the interaction with it inside of the relationship container (Dainton & Zelley, 2019, p. 84).

Four primary assumptions guide this theory regarding relationship maintenance: praxis, change, contradiction, and totality. Within this continuum, the relationship must remain in a constant flux of dialectical tensions, or interdependence, to suffice the oppositional needs of the parties.

The case study of Jason and Seth can be examined through the lens of the dialectical construct, which illuminates certain contradictions that perpetuate interpersonal relationships. This theoretical perspective underscores the dynamic and ongoing nature of relational negotiations, emphasizing that relationships are perpetually in flux due to the competing needs and desires of the individuals involved. In the context of Jason and Seth’s partnership, several dialectical tensions are at play, notably autonomy versus connectedness, openness versus closedness, and predictability versus novelty, each contributing to the evolving dynamics of their relationship.

At the heart lies the tension between autonomy and connectedness. Jason, having experienced the autonomy of running his own business and desiring the freedom to explore new opportunities, is contrasted with Seth’s yearning for a collaborative venture that promises a sense of connection and escape from the isolating corporate world. Their struggle with openness and closedness further complicates this tension; Jason begins the venture with a willingness to share his expertise. Seth’s initial openness gives way to secrecy and a lack of transparency as challenges arise.

The predictability versus novelty tension also plays a critical role; Jason’s desire for new experiences outside the confines of a traditional office setting intersects with his need for a stable and predictable business strategy to guide his ventures. The failure to effectively navigate these tensions leads to the eventual dissolution of their partnership, albeit friendship. The dialectical perspective offers a means to manage outcomes within this construct. In Jason and Seth’s case, the lack of effective communication and mutual adjustment exacerbates the tensions, culminating in Jason’s decision to prioritize his autonomy and pursue personal goals, thereby ending the partnership.

Petronio (2002): Communication Privacy Management Theory

Petronio’s (2002) communication privacy management theory (CPM) intersects the two theories previously discussed, social exchange theory and dialectical theory, and is based on the author’s work within the domain of self-disclosure. CPM contemplates a framework to understand how parties manage private information through selective disclosure and boundary management (Dainton & Zelley, 2019, p. 88).

Under the theoretical construct, individuals view their personal information in a highly possessive form. The theory’s central tenant is that “private information is possession” (Dainton & Zelley, 2019, p. 88). In other words, private information is owned by the possessor; therefore, it assumes an intrinsic value. The sharing of this information contemplates the joint ownership of the information. How parties disclose information is subject to specific privacy rules that are predicated on cultural criteria. Particular motivations enter the relationship, which is evaluated, and then information distribution is coordinated across boundaries. New boundaries are formed, known as boundary linkage, and rules are created around the continual disclosure of information now deemed co-owned (Dainton & Zelley, 2019, pp. 88–90).

Much like the systems theory of organizational communication, boundary permeability refers to how much information spans boundaries, linked or otherwise. The theory’s overarching construct illustrates the complex give and take, tell and keep, nature of interpersonal relationships (Dainton & Zelley, 2019, p. 91).

Applying CPM to the relationships between Jason and Seth, we see the complexities of managing private information within a business partnership. Initially, each party was seeking disclosure, information exchange, and the development of a joint boundary around the business and its strategy emerged as a result. They exchanged private information, which seemed to be underpinned by the idea of secrecy. Jason likely attached an intrinsic value to the information he shared with Seth.

As the relationship progressed, Seth began to violate the privacy rules of the relationship and made disclosures that didn’t align with Jason’s expectations. Boundary turbulence eroded trust and the interactive nature of their relationship, which was established as a rule from the start. Eventually, the turbulence evolved into disruption and the degree of unresolved boundary issues related to privacy required Jason to exit the relationship to preserve and regain control of his private information.


The case study represented through depictions of Jason and Seth’s personal and professional relationship was examined from the perspective of three unique theories posited to address communication within the interpersonal context. To the degree our lecturer calls for an opinion, this student finds value in the Social Exchange theory construct. When applied across relationships within the context of my own life and its unique relationships, I can most closely connect to the tenets of this theory. Accordingly, explaining the state of Jason and Seth’s relationship from this perspective seems to be the most logical and likely to explain the outcome.
From this perspective, SET would explain that the cost of the relationship no longer matched the reward of having it, and accordingly, it terminated. It seems that the underpinning formula of the relationship provides some degree of predictability to relationships we encounter. H

Works Cited
Dainton, M., & Zelley, E. (2019). Applying Communication Theory for Professional Life Fourth Edition. Sage.

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