I once worked with a woman who told me and several other people in our office that she was having an affair. In fact, her love interest sometimes sent her flowers at work. As if that weren't awkward enough, I happened to work with her husband at my part-time job. Although I didn't really know him, I knew who he was, and I was uncomfortable every time I passed him in the hallway.
I have no idea what became of their marriage. But almost 20 years later, I still remember how strange it was that this woman felt so comfortable sharing inappropriate information with her co-workers. Now that I'm a psychotherapist, I have a much better sense of why some people share too many details of their personal lives. Here are the five biggest reasons we overshare:
1. A False Sense of Intimacy
There's a reason hairdressers hear intimate details of their clients' lives. When someone is touching you—cutting your hair or painting your toenails—it creates a false sense of intimacy.
You might not even know the person's name, but that person is in your personal space and touching you. For many, that physical touch gives them "permission" to start talking as if they were communicating with a close friend or partner.
2. Solace in a Stranger
Have you ever sat in a waiting room or on an airplane next to a stranger who gave you too many details about their personal life? People quite often tell complete strangers their deepest, darkest secrets.
A stranger won't judge you. And does it matter if she or he does? You probably won't see that person again. For some individuals, telling embarrassing secrets and painful memories to a stranger is a less expensive alternative to therapy.
3. A Misguided Attempt to Fast-Track the Relationship
When you meet someone new—perhaps your new office assistant or a blind date—there's a little tension as you start to negotiate the relationship. You must look for clues to decipher whether the person likes you or is interested in getting to know you better.
Many people find that this initial phase provokes anxiety. In an effort to skip over the "let's get to know each other" period, they reveal problems with bodily functions or strange phobias. They hope that sharing private details will quickly take the relationship to the next level.
4. Poor Boundaries
Oversharers sometimes just lack personal boundaries. They have no idea that it's not appropriate to tell co-workers about relationship issues or to reveal their financial problems to total strangers.
People who lack boundaries sometimes lack close relationships—most likely because they've driven people away. As a result, they often lack close confidants who are interested in hearing about their personal issues.
5. A Hasty Effort to Make Someone Else Feel Comfortable
When someone reveals intimate relationship problems or childhood horror stories, an unsuspecting listener is put in an awkward place. A caring listener will quite often try to help the oversharer feel more comfortable by sharing personal details of her own.
There are oversharers who recognize this and disclose their tragic stories as a way to elicit sympathy—or to actually gain the intimate details of the other person's life. These people are good at what they do, and often manipulate people into sharing a little too much information.
How to Respond to an Oversharer
If someone starts to give you too much information, your first line of defense should be to change the subject. Try saying, "Sorry to hear that. Have you heard the weather for tomorrow?" Sometimes people will take the hint, but you may need a more direct approach if the other person continues to overshare. Saying, "It's going to be hard to maintain a professional relationship with you when I know so many details of your personal life," could be helpful.
Finally, don't reciprocate: Just because your boss tells you she's going through a divorce, that doesn't mean you need to tell her about your marital concerns.
Sharing your personal story can be empowering. But only when you share it at the right time, in the right place, with the right people.