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How Much of People’s Lives Should Be Shared at Work?

Last week I took a couple of people out to lunch at a local restaurant where I’ve been before for both business and social lunches: The food is reasonably good, the service is reasonably responsive, and the prices are reasonable.

Our waitress had a splint contraption on her arm, so I asked her what had happened. Neither of my guests were surprised that I asked, but we were all surprised at the outpouring of information and observations that ensued: about the waitress’s car, the other cars, the hospital, her relatives — as well as her current physical condition and how she was coping.

Eventually she wound down and asked for our order. Lunch was fine, but she wasn’t on her (typically only-adequate-but-never-terrific) game. My reflections on the experience, however, have nothing to do with how great the service wasn’t, or even how completely the waitress violated the appropriate norms of her role. What struck me was the fact that there is a sort of no-man’s-land that exists where life and work overlap.

People need to be heard. Whether we think of ourselves as suffering, recovering, overcoming, or surviving, we all have stories to tell. We vary a lot, though, in what and when we choose to tell — and in how much we can tolerate hearing. The ability to scan the listener, to recognize cues and pick up on clues about how much is enough and how much is too much, is partially innate and partially learned, but it’s clearly not the same for everyone.

A crisis or disruption, even a small one, may take more recovery time and effort than a typical work schedule affords. We’re not automatons, and we have varying levels of resilience. It behooves both returning workers and their managers to keep this in mind, and to make reasonable, temporary accommodations. Although accommodations might include time off, reduced schedules, or easier tasks, it might be even more important to provide a sort of supportive attention that can be soothing, restorative, and potentially energizing.

Each of us needs to think carefully about who should and should not hear our stories — particularly in their entirety. In our show-and-tell world of reality TV and Facebook, it’s easy to forget that boundaries can be a good thing. Not everyone needs to be interested in us. Civil, yes. Respectful, yes. But not necessarily interested. It’s reasonable to assume that there should be balance between the teller and the listener, that we would share ourselves most with those who share themselves with us — and vice versa.

Does this stance sound too harsh? At the restaurant, of course, I gave the waitress my full attention, even though I could sense my guests’ twitching, because, as I said, it’s a neighborhood place, I’m there a couple of times a month, and I didn’t want to be unkind. But perhaps it would have been kinder in the long run if I had gently cut her off and nudged her back to the work at hand: She might have gotten a better sense of where the boundaries were, and my guests would have been calmer. What do you think?

Onward and upward,


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2 thoughts on “How Much of People’s Lives Should Be Shared at Work?

  1. Excellent article! It seems to me that the sense of boundaries has eroded over the years. So has judgment about appropriateness for given venues and occasions. I agree that the popularity of “reality TV” and other “shock value” entertainment has influenced this trend.

  2. I appreciate the comment, Debbie. It doesn’t seem to be “just a generational” thing, although there may be some of that. Perhaps if people felt heard on a more personal level, if they received more focused attention from close relationships, they wouldn’t need quite so much from the wide world. But that means that they need to have relationships in which others have the time, commitment, and skill to provide focused attention. Tough situation!

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