Loneliness. The need to make a connection. That really cool party you went to. The fight you got into with your boyfriend. All of these are things we might choose to share at work.
“The workplace is an environment in which we generally see the same people every day for most of our waking hours. Bonds are formed simply out of proximity and time spent. Sometimes, people might mistake a professional relationship for a personal relationship and ‘overshare,’” says clinical psychologist Lindsay Tulchin, Ph.D.
Why do we overshare?
Right now, you might be questioning if you are an oversharer. But Tulchin says it is not that easy. “It is important to note that there is no standard threshold that, if crossed, constitutes ‘oversharing.’ One person might think it’s normal to talk to strangers about personal things, while others might not even share personal anecdotes with close acquaintances,” she says. That being said, Tulchin does point to some reasons a coworker feels the need to share inappropriate things. It could have to do with their upbringing, she says, and how they saw information in their household being shared openly, which means they might not have the same personal boundaries. Or they might think they need to be overly personal to make a deeper connection, she adds.
And while Tulchin says there is no root of the problem for oversharing — given the many different explanations — Greg Kushnick, Psy.D, licensed New York State psychologist, does see one possible reason. “Modern cultural norms promote bold attempts to seek validation with little to no awareness of the consequences of how it’s elicited,” he says. In other words, social media and constant hyper-connectivity has created expectations that do not always transfer into the real world. “As our society becomes more depressed, stressed and overworked, we are paying less attention to traditional boundaries,” he adds.
But for career coach Ashley Stahl, it comes down to one thing. “For most, oversharing just points to poor stress management and a desire to connect,” she says. “This bad habit is one that some people have cultivated as a result of their upbringing. Perhaps they developed anxiety and saw communication as a coping mechanism to release it. Other people perhaps over-communicate because they lacked connection or being heard as a child. It all goes back to psychology.”
What should we not share?
“Many people spend more time with work colleagues than they do with their significant others. As a result, a comfort level develops based on constant exposure,” Kushnick says. And it makes sense, this desire to share with coworkers — in fact, it is estimated we will spend over 90,000 hours at work in our lifetime. But how personal is too personal to get a work? Stahl says there are some topics that are always on the blacklist: politics, sex and any major health issues (unless they affect your ability to work, in which case you should go to HR). Religion, income, alcohol use and drug use also fall on that list.
And then there are the risks. Of course, if you share there will be some type of connection formed, a type of reward for you. But step back from the situation and think: is the reward worth it? “Anything in the form of sleeping with coworkers, drinking with coworkers or oversharing … can lead to termination. Be mindful,” says Stahl.
But what about social media? Can we friend our coworkers? Stahl says yes but keep overly personal things light and remember that you could be watched (Instagram has a feature to disable certain followers from viewing stories). For Kushnick, social media is one of the reasons why we share. “Social media and reality TV, two major influences on workplace norms, promote the smashing of traditional boundaries,” Kushnick says.
It all comes down to this. “Think about the CEO in the corner of the room listening,” says Stahl. “Are you OK with what you’re saying? If not, reevaluate.”
What do we do if we overshare?
Getting overly personal at work has consequences besides termination: it leads to regret. “Oversharing and regret is an energy suck that can permanently damage workplace relationships,” says Stahl. And those are the same relationships you need to foster in order to perform your daily tasks.
Right now, you might be internally freaking out — don’t. There are steps you can take if you have given up just a little too much information about your personal life. “There’s a fine line between addressing an insecurity and shining a spotlight on a weakness,” says Stahl. “I’d consider letting the person you overshared to know that you reflected on your conversation and want to apologize for oversharing. That being said, if it was a one-off, I’d learn from it silently and let it go.”
What if you aren’t the problem?
OK, so you are not the one that overshares, but instead you are on the receiving end of an overly friendly coworker. “Someone might try to purposely move a relationship from professional to personal (while the other wants to keep it professional) and share details of his or her life that are unwanted by the recipient,” says Tulchin. So, how should you deal with an oversharing coworker or boss? The experts have a few tips.
- Set boundaries: “Despite the other person’s intentions, if you feel as if someone at work is oversharing, it is very important to set boundaries. You could politely say something like ‘I’m sorry to hear you’re having a tough time. Do you think you could talk to your family/friends/therapist about that?’ Hopefully the other person will take the hint that you no longer want to be at the receiving end of their venting session,” says Tulchin.
- Keep the conversation about work: “Be present, be a good listener, nod and do not contribute. If they ask directly, let them know you’re not sure it’s your place to give feedback and if you do feel called to share, focus on issues with their work and have a results-focused mindset about how you want their work to add to the good of the team and you want to build a bridge with them … nothing personal about their character or personality,” Stahl says.
- Change the topic: This is a good option, according to Tulchin. “You could try simply not engaging/asking questions and saying something like ‘I’m so happy for you! I’m swamped so I need to get back to my work, but I’ll see you later.’”
- Visit Human Resources: While typically the last step, Tulchin says it might be necessary. “If you feel uncomfortable in any way — or if boundaries are continuously crossed — then it’s important to talk to your HR representative.” But remember, she adds, that someone could be going through a rough time and may just be looking for a friend.
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