Patti Sweeney and a dozen of her coworkers recently went out to lunch to celebrate the completion of a project. Over burgers and salads, they chitchatted about their work, their families and their hobbies.
One colleague mentioned that he was training for a 20-mile bike race, adding that he had just purchased a new helmet and Lycra shorts. To the group’s mortification, Ms. Sweeney says, he then described shaving his entire body to reduce aerodynamic drag.
“Why, why, why do we need to go there?” says Ms. Sweeney, a 36-year-old financial analyst for a communications company who lives in Bartlett, Ill. “This is information about a coworker, not someone I really consider a friend, and now it’s forever burned in my brain.”
It’s official: The TMI phenomenon—as in “too much information”—has invaded the workplace. You can thank reality TV and social-networking Web sites for creating a culture where people are encouraged to share every sordid—or boring—detail of their lives. They have desensitized us to the idea that some things are meant to be private.
But we have to take responsibility, too, for mistaking our coworkers for friends. It’s understandable, as the line between office and home has blurred in recent years. We work more now, so we spend more time with our colleagues and clients, sometimes more than we spend with our families or friends, and we socialize with them outside of work.
We also “friend” them on Facebook. (Let’s face it: I have only myself to blame for seeing a photo of my former boss snorkeling in a tiny Speedo. I sent him that friend request.)
Email is another big part of the problem. We use it to chat with each other about work, sure, but also about our vacations, our children and why that guy on the sixth floor really left his job so suddenly. Often we’re not even in the office when we’re emailing coworkers. We’re at home, sometimes in our pajamas. Buoyed because we are behind a computer screen, we say things we might not say and—via smiley faces, winks and pokes—express emotions we might not show face to face. We drop our normal barriers, even though we know we shouldn’t.
“We let our guard down and forget these are colleagues,” says Janet Lenaghan, an assistant professor of management at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Neither men nor women have a monopoly on TMI. Trust me on that. For years, my coworkers have been telling me the most amazing things. I’ve heard female colleagues yammer on about everything from a nasty foot fungus to their drug use in college. Male colleagues, meanwhile, have brought up topics I’d blush to discuss with a therapist.
Adele Pauley, a technical writer in Decatur, Ga., is constantly surprised when colleagues insist on revealing intimate details about their marriages.
At a get-to-know-you lunch with a few coworkers she had just met, one woman blurted out: “I have a 16-year-old son who was conceived on my first date with my husband in high school.” Another time, a colleague told her that her ex-husband would wear her underwear and confided some very personal complaints about her current husband.
“It’s like that scene from ‘Gone with the Wind,’ where Rhett picks Scarlett up, marches up the stairs and into the bedroom, and the door slams,” says Ms. Pauley, 56. “There are some things that are better left to the imagination.”
What constitutes oversharing, exactly? After all, some of our coworkers actually are real friends, trusting us with real confidences. But then again, aren’t there some things that are just too personal to share with anyone in the workplace, no matter how close you are?
Basically, you will know TMI when you hear it. I did, when a coworker told me he keeps a tambourine in his nightstand “for special performances.” “Oh, don’t act like such an old lady,” he said after seeing my stunned expression. “That’s by far the most inoffensive thing in there.”
Darrin Duber Smith, 40, a marketing consultant in Denver, says he was shocked when a client told him he needed an attorney because he had hired a prostitute who was threatening to call his wife. And a 40-year-old Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., doctor I spoke with was pretty amazed last week by a nurse who told her that she uses sex to bribe her husband to go to church.
Majid Alsayegh is still chuckling over the female public-relations representative in her late 30s who told him at the end of their first meeting several years ago that she was single, looking for a nice guy in case he knew of anyone, and that, despite her age, she was ready, willing and able to bear children. “I was left somewhat speechless,” says Mr. Alsayegh, 54, a real-estate developer in Douglassville, Pa. “I think that I said something like, ‘Always good to know.’ ”
We all know that oversharing in the workplace is generally a bad idea, right? You could say something inappropriate to the wrong person and they could think less of you, use the information against you, gossip. They could even become your boss someday.
So why do we do it? Well, often we just don’t think before we speak. Remember my coworker, Mr. Tambourine Man? He says he thought he was being funny, but could tell immediately by the resounding silence of everyone around him that he had made a grave miscalculation.
I must admit: Some of the most interesting people I know share too much. And sometimes a little oversharing can even be a good career move. By judiciously—a key word here—revealing a secret or something private about yourself at work, you can garner support, get people to open up about themselves, or more quickly build friendships and alliances. Think of how politicians share a little bit about themselves to get people to identify with and like them.
But what is interesting at a cocktail party can be distracting in the office. So how do you shut up a privacy-challenged coworker—if that’s what you want to do—without confronting them and possibly ruining the work relationship?
I spoke with one North Carolina man so desperate to cut off a colleague who bent his ear for a half-hour at a time about his disappointments in life that he devised a way to send an automatic instant message to a second colleague, requesting help. “When so-and-so would stop by and it was evident that he wasn’t in a hurry to move on, I’d wait for an opportunity to make a quick, unseen click on my computer, and wait,” says the 48-year-old software-company project manager, who didn’t want his name used. “A minute or so later my phone would ring and, looking at the caller ID, I could say, ‘I’ve got to get this.'”
Too much work? Then try this: Whatever you do, do not reward the oversharing behavior. Don’t listen. Don’t laugh, even out of nervousness. Change the subject. Try my late grandmother’s line: When she was stuck listening to something she deemed overly personal, she put a hand on the speaker’s shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, that is just too sad to talk about.”
Or you can always try Mike Dowd’s “even more information” technique. As soon as someone starts to reveal a little too much to the 51-year-old architect from Portland, Ore., he interrupts with a story of his own:
“Wow! Then what happened? But before you tell me, I’ve got to warn you that sometimes when I hear stuff like this, I get this awful rash—in fact, I can feel it coming on now. The only thing that calms me is to hold Mr. Snuggies, the stuffed-animal monkey I got when I was little and broke my ankle and the bone penetrated the skin and was completely exposed, and there was this putrid yellowish pus everywhere!
“The doctor’s eyes got so wide when he was treating me, he looked like a space alien—not the fictional ones in movies, but the ones I saw in the park last night.