How Personal Should You Be at Work?

Kirk Loftin

Sometimes the lines between our personal and professional lines can get a little blurry. Since we spend a large amount of our lives at our jobs, it’s inevitable that we’ll create social bonds with the people around us. It’s important to define what the limits are for the blending of our personal and professional lives.

Good Sharing

A recent study by Rice University found that sharing non-visible personal aspects, such as mental illness, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation, caused tighter bonds to form than visible aspects like race or gender. Co-workers tend to respond well with sharing personal aspects of our lives, when it’s welcome. Getting to know those around us help us feel connected, and seen. Work is much more pleasant when you greet Steve, who you know is restoring a classic Mustang, than just mindlessly nodding at the bald guy in the cubicle next to you.  A word of warning, however: only share if they’re comfortable hearing these things, and be sure to only share what you’re comfortable sharing.

But what about when you feel you know all about your co-worker? During down times, try doing ice breaker questions. These are usually done in big groups of strangers, but they can be really fun and insightful with friends and co-workers too. You may know all of Karen’s kids names, but do you know which superhero she would want to be? Do you know her favorite children’s movie? It may seem silly, but it can be a fantastic way to learn about people you already ‘know’.

What to Avoid

No one likes an emotionless robot at work, but people also dislike the nosy person that’s in their private business and spreading gossip. People, much like Holden Caulfield, don’t like phonies.  Avoid “TMI” (too much information), since over-sharers (especially about things that should be private) aren’t the most enjoyable people to be around. There is a balance between being genuine, and maintaining a professional level of personal privacy.

It’s often best to leave anything controversial at home, like political opinions. It’s too easy to cause hurt feelings and conflict because of a off-hand comment (even if there wasn’t harmful intent). If a conversation starts drifting into a contentious area, it’s best to steer it back to something fun.  Instead of arguing the latest congressional vote, debate sports teams or the latest Drag Race contestants. But even when talking about innocuous things like pop culture tastes, remember to be respectful. There’s no reason to needlessly hurt feelings at work, making your co-workers’ lives worse (and yours, too) because you accidentally called Peter’s favorite movie “the kind of movies idiots love.”

The key to all of this, like so many things in life, is respect and kindness in all interactions. Pay attention to body language and reactions. We all remember when that one insufferable guy told an off-color joke, and the room got quiet, so he repeated the offending punchline (but louder this time, followed by “Do you get it?”). This is not the way to go (off-color humor is probably best to avoid in the first place at work). It’s important to find and adhere to your own boundaries, and those of the people around you.

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