As Published in the February 2008 Honor Cord (non-working link); as published by Phi Theta Kappa; contact the publisher for information on how to locate the archives )
By: Kurt D. LaRose
Have you ever been standing in the grocery store line, waiting to check out, and suddenly the guy next to you strikes up an unusually friendly conversation? I’m not talking about the neutral dialogues of weather, taxes, or the cost of living, but I’m talking about when a stranger begins talking with you as if they’ve known you forever. Before you know it, you learn some things either you’d rather not hear. It goes something like this: you’re standing there looking around and your eye catches the person behind you, and the inevitable nod of acknowledgement occurs, followed by the “how are you?” introduction.
In the next three minutes you learn that the patron next to you (whose name you don’t even know) used to be an alcoholic, has a brother, mother, father, and an uncle who are similarly afflicted — and all (excepting the very talkative character, of course) are in relapse facing divorce, jail, death, and job loss. If you’re a therapist it can be a great opportunity; “here’s my card!”
I was recently at the barbershop waiting for a haircut when I listened as a customer sitting in “the chair” described the financial problems of a neighbor. The financial problems were discussed in the context of some pretty serious life circumstances: before, during and after a terminal illness that took the life of the neighbors spouse. It’s important to note here that “the chair” was lined up among many, with several patrons sitting to the left and the right of the conversational customer – backed by a row of barbers / cosmetologists / etc. behind each chair – including a lobby of people looking on. At one point, as I waited for my turn, I couldn’t help but look to the left and the right to see if anyone “could hear us” as if I was somehow involved in this little un-kept secret!
Most of us have experienced times when we’ve looked back at a statement, joke, or story shared with others and thought, “Jeeze, I’m sure I told them more than I should have.” If you frequently find yourself sharing “too much” with people, particularly with strangers, you may want to ask yourself why.
In my work with addictions I often tell clients that the answer to their questions can usually be found in the fact that they have to ask. In other words, for the most part, if you find yourself wondering if you’ve shared too much information with someone, it’s very likely that you have. Of course, there’s really no harm in asking someone if you’re unsure.
So what is it that leads people to overstep the communication boundaries of others? How is it that we frequently say “more than we should?”
Sometimes when people attempt to “connect” with one another, in what seems to be too quickly, it is possible that they do not have anyone else with whom they can be intimate. Intimacy, and I’m not referencing anything sexual here, includes conversations about very personal, and often private matters. Sharing such details is easiest with people who will not overreact, judge or criticize. Sometimes, it’s a fertile ground scenario when two strangers meet.
The “need” to disclose information at the barber shop or in the grocery store check out line is not necessarily one rooted in gossip (although it certainly can be) but rather it is a need of simply being heard by a human being who will listen. If people cannot share openly and honestly with those in their personal lives (there are many reasons why such limitations exist), the “need” to communicate, connect, and talk about life’s little (or big) problems doesn’t simply disappear.
Knowing that everyone is capable of over stepping various boundaries in communication can help the person who does so, not feel so badly about the blunder. Likewise, if you find yourself suddenly and unexpectedly caught up in the role of “listener” you are in a great position; you can either fulfill the role or not.
Humans live lives that are full of stories; some are good, and some are not so good. The good ones are easy to listen to and to participate in – it’s the hard ones that make us question whether or not we’ve shared too much (or whether or not we’re the right person to hear the gory details).
Having a place to share openly with others is important, necessary, and a healthy part of interpersonal relationships (the kind often found among families and friends). If what you’re sharing is “too private” yet you have the “need” to share it anyway, it may be that the relationships in your life are in need of some attention (or they are missing altogether).
In any case, there’s no perfect formula for how to know if you’ve said too much or too little to someone – but one of the best ways to find out is to either ask permission before disclosures and/or to ask for feedback after them. In this way, your audience can be engaged in the process of communication and who knows, maybe you’ll find a friend who will gladly listen to you – in private.
Rev Note: This article did not transfer over to the new domain host at BV. The page Rev is an update in moving the correct data to the correct URL / page. It is not, as of 8/18/19 a revision, but but rather a correction in data transfer errors.