5 Things Your Coworkers Don’t Want to Hear You Talk About

October 19, 2019, 1:30 PM UTC
Cultura RM Exclusive/Lilly Bloom Getty Images/Cultura Exclusive

“The blended work-life world is here to stay,” declares MetLife’s 2019 annual U.S. employee benefit trends study, “Thriving in the New Work-Life World.” Remote work is ubiquitous, and employees want to feel like they are treated as individuals, with benefits addressing the needs they have in their own lives. And having a workplace “where coworkers feel like friends and family” is one of the top five drivers of happiness, according to the report.  

The combination of close relationships at work and more personal relationships with coworkers and bosses creates a comfortable environment for sharing, says leadership development consultant Jodi Glickman, author of Great on the Job: What to Say, How to Say It, The Secrets of Getting Ahead. Coworkers and supervisors connect on social media and discuss personal issues routinely. And some research suggests that self-disclosure in the workplace builds trust. The problem, says Glickman, is when sharing leads to oversharing. 

In fact, what is shared and who is sharing it make a difference. A January 2018 report published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that leaders can ding their reputations if they share information that belies a weakness or personal shortcoming with those who have less status in the office. (Peer-to-peer disclosures didn’t have the same negative effect.) 

“It’s like there is an overshare epidemic, and it’s almost like people are happy to have that release, wherever it may take place,” says Sal Mistry, assistant professor of management at the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics. You have to self-monitor, he says.

Still, there are some things you should just steer clear of because you’ll either irritate your coworkers or change the way they view you, Glickman says. Here are 5 discussions that are a good idea to avoid.

1. Threats to your work

Be careful about disclosing something about your personal life that could lead others to question your ability to do your job or your commitment to it, says Wayne Pernell, PhD, a clinical psychologist and leadership coach. This could take several forms, ranging from positive disclosures, such as a new volunteer, to serious issues like chronic illness or caretaking responsibilities. 

“Context matters a lot,” Pernell says. If you roll into the office on Monday talking about your full weekend and share a bit about your personal life, that’s one thing. If you proceed to use it as an excuse for being tired or not at your best, that’s a problem, he says. He recommends using a rough 5:1 ratio: five positive discussions about your work to each discussion about something that could be seen as taking away time and focus from it.

2. Gross or overly personal details

When people get comfortable with each other, it’s easy to forget where you are and what you should be sharing, Glickman says. It may seem like a blast of the obvious, but less is more when it comes to specifics that could be considered distasteful or off-putting. Generally, it’s best to leave details about your gastrointestinal distress, pet’s latest disgusting habit, and your sex life out of workplace conversations —and it happens more than you might think, she adds.

“It’s the details that people don’t want to know,” Glickman adds. It’s enough to say you’re at home because you’re sick without going into your symptoms. Stop after disclosing that you’re taking a personal day, “instead of explaining that you need to take your 12 cats to the vet,” she adds.

3. Political rants

In large part, the ban on discussion politics or religion has gone out the window. Even current events or policy conversations can devolve into partisan side-taking. But, there’s a difference between having a difference of opinion about how your company should plan for the impact of climate change versus ranting about how you feel about one party or the other, Glickman says. 

By all means, talk about what matters to you. That’s part of being authentic, she says. “You can talk about things you believe in, about how you are working to make the world a better place. But going in and having sort of a bashing Trump conversation, you just have to be careful. I mean, you just don’t know what people think and who’s in the room,” she says.

4. Rumination about personal issues

You may be going through a rough patch, like an illness or a divorce, and sharing the broad details may be appropriate to help people understand challenges that could affect your work from time to time. But be careful about slipping into chronic negativity or self-pity, Pernell says. 

“Trouble happens when either the upset turns to drama and others are drawn in, essentially creating a work slow-down.  It’s troublesome when one person seems to bring their ‘stuff’ in all the time, creating a more regular lack of focus,” he says. And when personal details are shared, there is a risk of creating cliques: those”in the know” and those feeling left out, which can be demoralizing and hurt your team, he says. You want to be careful about not leaving the impression that you’re not focused and committed. 

5. Too much about anything

Whether it’s positive or negative news, no one wants to hear a coworker talk endlessly about anything. Your children, latest obsession, hobby, home life, or other topics can get old fast, so be mindful of how often you’re revisiting them, Glickman says. If someone inquires, give a broad answer and offer to discuss it more at a later time, to not hold up the rest of the team.

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