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Tell Me Less: Sometimes It’s What You Don’t Say That Matters

While a certain level of intimacy and camaraderie is natural and expected at work, people sometimes reveal too much personal information to their co-workers. This “oversharing” may simply be due to a lack of understanding about what is acceptable workplace behavior.

In her book The Etiquette Edge—The Unspoken Rules for Business Success (AMACOM), management consultant Beverly Langford writes: “Although revealing information about yourself may help you build bridges with co-workers, you must maintain a balance between being open and maintaining an appropriate level of privacy. Further, you need to recognize just how much other people are really interested in hearing.”

To begin, advises Langford, recognize that certain subjects really should be off limits in the workplace.

For example:  10 Topics to Avoid in Workplace Conversations
1. Detailed health problems
2. Details of sex life
3. Problems with spouse/partner
4. Personal finances (either positive or negative)
5. Personal religious views
6. Hot political topics that evoke passion
7. Personal lives of other co-workers
8. Gossip about the boss
9. Jokes that disparage ethnic, racial or religious groups
10. Lavish purchase

Here are some additional strategies from The Etiquette Edge that will help you prevent the negative effects of TMI (Too Much Information):

  • Think before you speak or write. Revealing sensitive information about yourself may seem like a good idea at the time, but you may regret it later. It becomes especially risky when you communicate the information in an e-mail, because once it reaches its destination, the message leaves your control; it may be forwarded to others. Before you hit the “send” button, stop and consider if you’re completely comfortable with sharing the information, and if you would be OK with others seeing it.
  • Avoid gossip. If you are privy to a secret about one of your co-workers, whether it’s of a professional or personal nature, keep that information to yourself. Even when your audience is receptive to what you’re revealing, it’s likely that your trustworthiness will become suspect. Likewise, when someone comes to you with personal information about a colleague, politely but firmly let the person know that you’d rather not hear it.
  • Don’t expect or demand reciprocity. If you are inclined to bare your soul, recognize your audience’s right not to do so in return. Similarly, when you happen to be on the receiving end of the conversation, don’t let yourself get trapped into feeling obligated to provide equally personal information about yourself.
  • Keep it appropriate. If you receive e-mails containing offensive or defamatory content, delete them immediately and politely ask the sender to stop sending them to you. Having those e-mails in your inbox could cause problems for both you and your organization, particularly if you work for a large company.

Maintain Confidentiality
In the workplace, confidentiality is always an issue. When faced with snooping colleagues, consider using some of the following strategies from AMA’s seminar Communicating with Diplomacy, Discretion and Influence:

  • Say as little as possible.
  • Deny all knowledge. Respond to probing questions with, “I wouldn’t know.” Or, “Really? I hadn’t heard that.”
  • Make light of it. Say, “You’re kidding! Do you think that’s true?”
  • Throw them a bone. Say, “I don’t know about that—but I do know that…”
  • Talk about something else. Respond with, “Doesn’t it seem to you that…” Or, “You know, I heard that…”
  • Confront it. Reply,“I couldn’t say.” Or, “I’m really not comfortable talking about that.”
  • Answer a question with a question: “Where did you hear that?” Or, “Why do you ask?”

“Being sensitive to others and choosing when and where to divulge personal information are themselves a form of self-revelation,” writes Langford. “Knowing just how much to share—about yourself and others—might just be one of the biggest indicators of your character. It might mean the difference between being viewed by co-workers as tactless, insensitive, or just plain clueless and being seen as a professional who respects other people’s privacy and recognizes the importance of maintaining a personal space at work.

In other words, people can learn quite a lot about what kind of person you are by what you don’t say.