The Key to Stronger Friendships: Respecting Privacy

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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."

Continued on page 4:  Think Twice Before Telling All


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