Your coworker is always swinging by your desk unprompted–or sliding into your Slack DMs–to share tidbits about his kid’s latest stomach virus, the play-by-play of some recent dispute with his inlaws, or the foundation of his views on abortion.
It’s TMI and you just want it to stop. Here’s what you need to know.
Why People Overshare
For starters, try to give your coworker the benefit of the doubt. Someone who’s decided to come to you with their problems obviously trusts you and may not realize they’re crossing any lines, Ash Rao, a certified professional career coach and global head of talent acquisition at Verizon, points out.
“Showing vulnerability takes courage,” even when the recipient feels it’s too much vulnerability. Oversharers, she explains, “may want to find a common ground with their peers and deepen their relationships. It is a way to vent out and destress. Finding solace in strangers is easier than talking to therapist!”
Of course you’re not your colleague’s therapist. “Divulging way too much personal information like the details of divorce settlements, relationship issues, [or] financial situations may signal a deeper problem,” says Rao–one that you’re in no position to help your coworker solve.
When I asked some folks on Twitter how they handle oversharers at work, a few of the deterrence methods I heard didn’t sound likely to solve any of those deeper issues Rao alludes to:
@FastCompany start telling them about what my cat puked up that morning.
— ????JSB (@TweetKred) February 24, 2018
A lot of uncomfortable laughing.
— mieshelley (@mieshelley) February 24, 2018
So what can you do instead? For starters, make an educated guess as to whether they’re oversharing intentionally or unwittingly.
When They Don’t Realize They’re Doing It . . .
“I was coaching a job seeker who was recently undergoing divorce and would go on to the details of his personal life when I asked his motivation to look for a better job,” Rao recalls. Her client didn’t seem to recognize that those pressures could be separated from his job search. So she simply reminded him of “the purpose of our call–saying something like, ‘I understand your situation, and thanks for sharing, but I don’t need the details. I trust your reasons. So, in essence of time, can we continue to discuss your resume?”
This is arguably the easiest approach and–in situations like this–probably the most effective. Politely remind your coworker of the problems you’re getting paid to solve and the limited time you have to do it. One Twitter user summed it up straightforwardly:
As the chronic oversharer, just be upfront. “Actually, I have a lot going on and I can’t give you the time you need right now.” https://t.co/gJVsFs3wMd
— MAC. (@AvrilReigns) February 24, 2018
When They’re Aware But Just Don’t Care
The key to dealing with someone who knows they are oversharing but doesn’t see a problem with it in Rao’s view is consistent disengagement.
“Resist the pressure to respond and don’t get carried away into sharing your own personal experiences in an attempt to provide comfort to the other person,” she suggests. Empathy is great, but not when someone seems to be abusing it. If you have to, just stay silent and “walk away if possible, so they get their cue that it is not okay to pour on their emotions on you without permission,” Rao says.
Underscore Your Workplace’s Boundaries
No matter the oversharer’s intentions, Rao believes it’s best to avoid making things personal. “It is always better to approach this issue with broader expectations of the workplace, as your workplace reputation takes higher priority to being intimate and contributing to juicy gossip.”
She points out that everyone has different comfort levels with sharing personal information, so don’t frame it in terms of your own preferences. Instead, remind your colleague that the rules of your workplace dictate what you should and shouldn’t discuss, no matter how either of you may feel individually: “Break off the conversation and simply state, ‘I am not the right person to share all this info [with] and we need to remain professional as long as we work together.'”
Someone on Twitter claims she took a similar approach, opting to have this chat during a social occasion when her oversharing coworker was less likely to feel attacked:
Took them aside (after 2-3 drinks) and gently explained that no one wants to hear about anyone’s ailments – especially those between the bellybutton and knees – in the workplace.
— Malia (@heymally) February 25, 2018
Reiterating workplace boundaries is especially crucial when someone’s oversharing may cross a line into an HR issue like sexual harassment–in which case, it’s worth considering a more serious course of action.
Sometimes, though, your coworker really just needs to vent about their car problems. And that’s fine: “I have a great mechanic for you–let me email you their contact info just as soon as I knock out this report. Talk later!”