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Revealing too many personal details

Most of us have probably met what Charles Ford calls the 'compulsive truth teller'.(1)  Imagine you are in the chemist or the supermarket and the shop assistant asks one of the customers how he is today.

‘Well OK you know but things could be better.  Going through the divorce process you know – and my solicitor has told me not to expect too much.  It’s a nasty process you know.  But hey I’ll get through!’

Many people in hearing range (other than any other compulsive truth tellers) will probably be quite embarrassed in this situation.  This lady is not following good social protocol.  As I have mentioned earlier, you earn the right to share more intimate details.  As you get to know someone better, mutual disclosure occurs.  You share more personal details and emotions, the other person also shares a more, and as you become increasingly comfortable with each other you share increasingly personal details.  But only with your best friends do you share the most sensitive information. 

I suspect the compulsive truth teller often falls within the brackets of she who anxiously attaches (see ‘attachment in romantic relationships’ under the Romantic Relationships tab).  This person desperately wants people to like them and accept them and hyperactivates her attachment system, i.e. Adopts overly clingy and forward behaviours.  Again, it is obvious to others that this person is overly needy and the fact that the person is unaware of how she is coming across also telegraphs that she in somewhat emotionally unstable.  If we wish to come across well socially, we must learn to gradually share more personal information as we get to know a person better. 

From my perspective, the trick is to watch how much the person we are talking to is opening up to us.  Perhaps we lead the way by revealing a little personal information.  Then we watch to see how our converser responds.  If they too reveal a little more personal information, then they are, in effect, inviting us to become a little more intimate, and intimacy is growing.  If we are not sensitive to this social ‘dance’, and we aggressively attempt to be overly open too early in a social interaction, we are likely to frighten the person whom we are addressing away.  If we fall at the far end of the extreme on the ‘overly forward and open’ continuum, it is likely that the majority of people whom we will not frighten away or annoy will be others who are somewhat more open than the general population.  In fact people at the other end of the continuum will find the ‘overly forward and open’ individual very embarrassing, and are likely to feel very uncomfortable in their presence. 

Of course the ‘avoidant’ individual may struggle to reveal personal information to people he or she doesn’t know.  This is also problematic if one wishes to get to know new people.  If you rigidly refuse to reveal any personal information, there may quickly become little to talk about with someone you meet.  In essence, this individual is refusing to share any intimacy with the person they are talking to, and this response represents the opposite extreme to the compulsive truth teller.  In the end, if we want to get to know someone or begin to get closer to someone, we must reveal something of ourselves.  We cannot expect someone to open up to us if we are not willing to. 

One of the problems that can face a more ‘avoidant’ individual is that they are often paranoid that everyone is ‘out to get them’.  I have a friend called James who I hang around with sometimes.  I remember going out with him recently and chatting to a group of girls for a while.  As we left one of the girls asked me ‘how old are you?’  After leaving the pub James said to me ‘they were taking the Mick out of you!’  (They were probably somewhat younger than me).  This may be true, but it hadn’t even crossed my mind.  Someone asking how old you are, after all, could mean they are just interested to know how old you are.  I relayed to my friend the following story in order to make my point. 

Earlier in the evening, I had whispered something to another mutual friend and James had seen us whispering.  He immediately began to emphatically say ‘what are you saying what are you saying!’  He then said ‘you are taking the Mick out of me!’  In fact I was making a comment about someone I thought was attractive nearby and was in no way taking the Mick of James. 

I also went out with James on another occasion and he saw a girl he was attracted to at a nearby table.  ‘Go and get her to come and talk to us’ he said to me.  So I went over to the girl’s table and began to converse.  After a couple of minutes I found a way to integrate James into the conversation and beckoned for him to come over.  But he was too nervous and refused. 

It seems that James assumes people are thinking the worst of him even if they are not.  I think this kind of attitude can often affect the more avoidant individual.  Some people are slightly paranoid that everyone is thinking badly of them.  It can be difficult for this kind of individual to reveal personal information because she is convinced that people are ‘out to get her’ and really have no desire to get to know them better. 

I was out with my best friend last year.  I had just returned from Texas and we were in a Rock-a-Billy club and I was wearing my new cowboy hat that I had bought.  At one point in the evening my best friend was wearing my hat and an attractive girl came up to him, pointed at him and said ‘Hey cool hat!!’ 

Later I asked him why he didn’t start talking to her.  He responded, ‘well I was 75% convinced that she wasn’t taking the piss’ – a declaration of reasonable confidence for this particular friend.  If it had happened to me I would have been 175% convinced that, had I engaged in conversation with her, she would have enjoyed a humorous conversation with me!  This is an ‘is the glass half full or half empty’ type of scenario.  I can assure you, however, that if you assume that the glass is half empty in these kinds of situations, you will have far fewer delightful conversations and relationships and will miss out on all sorts of other benefits that come out of these kinds of scenarios, than I benefit from!!  I adopt the attitude that I would rather mistakenly think some people are being kind when they are actually taking the Mick, than assume everyone is taking the Mick and never open up to anyone.  If you get it wrong sometimes and in fact someone is taking the Mick and you didn’t realise, then so what?  What’s the worst that can happen?  We need to try to get over being so worried about people thinking badly of us if we are to open up in social situations.  Some people will always think badly of us and this cannot be avoided.  But in my experience there are infinite numbers of people who will enjoy our company and conversation if we learn to converse well.  We just have to accept that some wont like us and move on to those who do.  If we only focus on those who don’t like us we will not socialise very openly and we may well struggle socially.

1.  Ford, C., V., (1996).  Lies!, Lies!, Lies!: The Psychology of Deceit, American Psychiatric Press, Inc.