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Do you want to see 12 pictures of my dog? No? What about a story about my worst date? Worst roommate? Worst boyfriend? How about the time I cried so much in the airport that a flight attendant offered me a bereavement fare even though no one had died? The last time I puked? The first time I puked? The origins of the scar on my elbow? Are you sure? It involves a lot of blood.
The answer to these questions is no. At least, it should be no. Unless you’re my friend or part of my family, I probably shouldn’t tell these stories to you anyway—especially if we only know each other through work.
Most of us understand the need for professionalism in the office, at least in theory. But every once in a while, we let slip an anecdote about something we really should have kept to our ourselves. Other people turn wanton openness into an annoying, and somewhat disgusting, habit.
I asked people on Twitter and Facebook (FB) for the best examples of oversharing co-workers, and what they told me—well, let’s just say I wished I hadn’t asked. A woman named Brianne said her co-worker once offered a play-by-play of her recent enema. Damon’s colleague said his girlfriend dumped him because he was too, er, small. After a few glasses of wine at a cocktail party, Amanda’s co-worker announced she had a yeast infection. In the middle of her pregnancy, Kristie’s office mate said she’d recently grown a third nipple. Kate’s showed off pictures of her boobs.
“It just baffles me that people would talk about this kind of stuff,” says Angeline Evans, who works in communications and also runs the workplace blog The New Professional. “I just don’t need to know about your last booty call.”
Evans says there are two types of oversharers, and they should be handled two different ways. Some people simply don’t have a privacy filter; they’re telling you about their enema because they’ll tell anyone about their enema. Others share overly personal stories because they’ve developed a false sense of intimacy with you. “This can apply to all relationships, not just professional ones,” Evans says. “Sometimes one person feels closer than the other person does, and then they’re more likely to say things that the other wouldn’t.” When you spend so many hours of the week together, gossiping about co-workers and commiserating about your job, it’s easy to cross boundaries and start swapping personal stories. But it’s not always a good idea. “If you question whether you should share a story with someone, that means you probably shouldn’t,” Evans advises.
Sometimes the issue goes beyond an errant ex-boyfriend rant or an overly graphic medical discussion, says career coach Hallie Crawford. There can be personal issues you do need to discuss at work; the question is just when and how to say it. “I have a client who’s gay and in the middle of a job search,” Crawford explains, “and he’s concerned about corporate culture. He wants to tell people that he’s gay, but he wants to do it way, way too early in the interview process.” Crawford says there’s a time and place for everything, and that it’s best to wait until a topic comes up naturally in conversation before you broach it. It can take weeks or months, she says, but if you go with your gut feeling you’ll know when the time is right. “It’s emotional for him,” says Crawford. “In his current job, he doesn’t feel accepted and so it’s driving him to say something way too early to compensate for that. I tell him, ‘You have to rein in and manage your emotions.’”
Crawford says it’s important to feel comfortable at work, and if there’s something about your background or lifestyle that you want your co-workers to know, go ahead and say it. I’d agree with that statement, to a point. I don’t care how comfortable it makes you, nobody ever needs to hear about your nipples.