The Key to Stronger Friendships: Respecting Privacy

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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

Continued on page 3:  Disclosure in the Office


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