The Key to Stronger Friendships: Respecting Privacy
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The Key to Stronger Friendships: Respecting Privacy

When you have different notions about how much private detail to reveal, friends can clash -- or drift apart. Here are some rules for creating a comfort zone that will keep you close.

What Should Be Kept Private?

I was having lunch with a friend some years back when she began to tell me about the new man she was dating.

"I like him," she said after enumerating his many fine qualities.

"He sounds wonderful," I agreed.

A worry line suddenly creased her forehead. "There's just this one thing." She dropped her voice. "It's his -- um."

"His...?" I waited, not getting it.

Then she lowered her eyes. "It's really, really small."

Oh. Now I got it. His um. I didn't quite know what to do with the expression on my face.

My friend looked up and sighed unhappily. "It's, like, miniature."

I took an extravagant interest in buttering a dinner roll, at which point the waiter came over to take our orders and the conversation moved on to other topics.

Time passed. Readers, my friend married him. We still see each other from time to time, and once in a while my husband and I enjoy their company as a couple over dinner.

There's just one little thing: I can't see this woman without wondering whether she feels mortified to have confided that intimate piece of information to me in the early days of her courtship. I know that I feel mortified to own it, particularly when chatting with her spouse. But there it is, destined always and forever to be the, um, elephant in the room.

It's tricky, figuring out what is appropriate to reveal about ourselves and our relationships (and when), and what we would be wiser to keep private and why. Where do we draw the line? How do we draw it? Since the same rules don't fit every situation and relationship, how do we determine where the privacy line should be drawn?

Exercising good judgment about privacy is really a matter of being willing to draw and redraw the privacy line to suit different relationships and specific moments, according to Seattle social psychologist Jane Adams, PhD, author of Boundary Issues: Using Boundary Intelligence to Get the Intimacy You Want and the Independence You Need in Life, Love, and Work. "Women tend to err on the side of sharing too much," Dr. Adams says. "They do it because they believe that self-disclosure is the road to intimacy."

Friendship and self-disclosure aren't necessarily linked concepts to Mischelle Blinsmon, 53, a retired contract administrator in Siler City, North Carolina. "If you're a real friend, you respect another person's right not to disclose her deepest secrets or most private thoughts and feelings," she says.

Since the spark that draws people to one another is often more emotional than verbal, how friendships develop after that first round of heart-to-hearts is as much about emotional health as it is about mutual self-disclosure. "If you're secure within yourself," Blinsmon believes, "you don't have to tell everything, or tell it all at once."

Just as some experts believe each of us has a "happiness set point," a basic mood that rises or falls depending on circumstances but always returns to its baseline, perhaps the same is true of personal boundaries. We all act according to a carefully tuned privacy metabolism, revealing intimate things about ourselves at different speeds. "Everyone has her own style," Dr. Adams says. "Often we have to adjust our expectations to take that into account."

Men, Women, and How Much They Share

Boundaries are personal, but they're also cultural. We live in a society tipped to an increasingly dizzying degree toward self-disclosure. Science and technology continue to muddy our sense of what's private and what's public. When the stranger on the cell phone makes everyone within earshot an involuntary party to his argument with his wife and anyone who can type can create a blog for anyone else to read, all personal information and subjective experience seem to shrink to the size of small talk.

Who says that genuine emotional intimacy requires a full download of one's personal history, biographical or emotional, anyway? We've all had the experience of waiting out a huge delay at the airport, talking away to a fellow passenger with whom we feel a real rapport but actually know little about in the way of biographical detail. And look at our spouses. Many of us have observed the privacy style of the men we're close to with a sense of anthropological wonder. My husband plays it much closer to the vest than I do when it comes to sharing details about himself with other people. Even when I first met him, he was more private than other men I'd dated. His privacy style has always had more to do with modesty than discretion. I respect his more reserved style, but there are times I am tempted to bash him over the head with my purse for being unwilling to respond to a harmlessly social, "And how was your week?" with more effusiveness than he would bring, say, to a mortgage application.

Georgina Smythe,* 50, a teacher in Rockland County, New York, is married to a similar privacy freak. "And all this time I thought it was because my husband was British," she said after I described mine. "If we're on public transportation and I say to him, 'You look nice,' he considers that too personal. He worries that someone could overhear me."

The assumption that women are more forthcoming than men is scientifically grounded. Women disclose more to friends, family members, and spouses than men do, concluded a study in the journal Psychological Bulletin involving close to 24,000 subjects. That held true whether the self-disclosure was measured by the women themselves or by the researchers. Men themselves reported a similar amount of self-disclosure when the target was a stranger. But when researchers did the measuring, it turned out men disclosed less to strangers than women did, too.

The difference between men's and women's privacy styles can be chalked up to language skills and brain chemistry. "Women have a greater facility for language than men do," says Marianne J. Legato, MD, author of Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget. "And when women are under stress or in difficulty, their brains secrete much higher levels of a chemical called oxytocin than men's brains do. Its effect is to drive women to the company of other people for intense discussion."

*Name has been changed at individual's request

Disclosure in the Office

Disclosure can actually interfere with intimacy, however, if it's given in the wrong place or to the wrong person. "Let's say your friend tells you that she's having an affair, and you know her husband," says Dr. Adams. "You might feel awkward being with them as a couple." And knowing private information can also prove to be a burden. My dental hygienist tells me her male and female patients routinely confide personal details about their lives to her. "I don't mind it at all," she says, "but I know other dental hygienists who hate it. They don't want to know all that information about their patients."

Circumstance can dictate comfort levels. In Miami's Ryder Trauma Center, where 30-year-old Dr. Julie Oppenheimer was on call during her residency, intimate conversation between medical personnel was the norm. "We deal so closely with death, maybe social convention just isn't as critical. We have sleeping quarters at the hospital. We all discuss our romantic lives, our colleagues, and anything else you can imagine. When you've been awake for 23 hours, staring at the same people night after night for a few years, nothing seems too personal."

But at many workplaces the expectation of openness isn't so universal. The office can be a minefield of misspoken confidences going off like little bombs -- and hurting careers as well as friendships. "Establishing rapport by sharing some of your personal experience is often key to building work relationships," says Aimee B. Horowitz, senior associate at Catalyst, a New York City-based nonprofit advocacy organization for women in the workplace. "But it is critical to consider the culture and the politics of where you work to evaluate how much information you should share."

If you're an open book surrounded by sealed ones, you may find yourself shunned. Or if you are someone who hoards feelings and personal histories and says little when your coworkers are opening up, you may, quite unintentionally, come across as cold and judgmental -- even untrustworthy.

When you feel like an outsider or become uncomfortable talking with your coworkers, it will affect your work and possibly your future in the job. "It's important to develop a style you're comfortable with," Horowitz says. "And it should be reasonably acceptable to the rest of the workplace." And what if you are the "open book" with others -- how do you figure out if you're making them feel uncomfortable? "Pay attention to people's nonverbal clues as well as their verbal clues," she says. "If you're still unsure of their comfort level, it never hurts to simply ask others how they feel about a conversation, which has the added benefit of demonstrating your consideration of their feelings."

Whether we reveal ourselves to a friend or colleague, once a disclosure is made, you can't "unknow" what you know. Furthermore, private information that is made public may ultimately travel a lot farther than you had intended. Who hasn't told a friend something in confidence, then eventually parted ways with that person? Whether you like it or not, your confidences might be swinging on the grapevine.

Which isn't to say we should zip ourselves up and talk to no one. What a cold, cold world that would be! But the adage to think before you speak deserves to be dusted off, even if we err on the side of discretion. It's worthwhile to ask yourself, How sure am I that I can really trust the person in whom I'm confiding?

"A colleague to whom you've given information about your health, for example, might make a judgment about how that situation affects your ability to do your job, and feel compelled to report it," says Dr. Adams. "And when you talk to one friend about another, you really have to consider how that disclosure may affect the relationship of those two people."

Think Twice Before Telling All

The doctor's office and the confessional are sacrosanct for good reason, Dr. Legato adds. Information given to a second party leaves you potentially vulnerable, and not everybody is an expert helper or has pure motives as a listener.

"Some people are merely curious, but others will secretly rejoice in your misfortune even if they are unaware of their own jealousies," Dr. Legato says. "If you need help or need to talk about something very personal, think twice. It's a good idea to restrict your encounters to people you completely trust, which will be a small number, or to a professional who is bound to a code of privacy."

Some self-reflection may be in order as well. What are your own motives for sharing? "Maybe you want to tell your boss about your problems so that she'll go easier on you," says Dr. Adams. Although it's true that there are some people with whom we automatically feel we can share every single thing, in and out of the workplace, we still need to be aware of the potential pitfalls that may be involved. "If you're sharing to unburden yourself," Dr. Adams says, "think about whether it's appropriate from the other person's point of view."

Our private self, held close, turns out to be our most valuable possession. When we offer it at long last, we are offering the most precious gift of all: our vulnerability.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2006.