Tuesday, April 6, 2010

An Epidemic of Oversharing

It happens all the time. You turn on the television and tune in a talk show. There, some lost soul is confessing to sins that you would rather not have heard about. At some points the confession will stop and a wizened representative of the therapy culture will interject to explain about how good it is that this lost soul has overcome her shame and is opening up... in front of millions of strangers.

The therapy culture insists, dogmatically, that you overcome your feelings shame, because then you can talk about all your issues. For reasons that no one ever explains, this is supposed to make you feel better. Perhaps not about your issues, but at least for having attained that moral summit occupied only by those who are completely and utterly shameless.

In many ways you cannot receive worse advice. Shame is the emotional basis for your social being. If you overcome your sense of shame you will be undermining your ability to interact with others in society, and that is very bad indeed.

Today, Elizabeth Bernstein shows us what happens when people overcome too much of their sense of shame and reveal personal and intimate details about themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time in front of the wrong people. Link here.

At a business lunch, a man tells his assembled colleagues that he is training for a bike race. So far, so good. Then he goes on to explain that he has shaved his entire body to reduce aerodynamic drag. Too far, not so good.

Then there was the woman who explained to her colleagues that she had conceived her son on her first date with her husband. Another woman confided that her ex-husband used to wear her underwear. And one of Bernstein's male colleagues shared that he kept a tambourine in his night table... so he could have a fitting way to express his satisfaction over especially good performances.

Some of these remarks might be appropriate in some circumstances, but these individuals have chosen to reveal intimate details about their personal lives in business situations. Thereby, they are showing that they have no sense of who they are, where they are, with whom they are speaking, or the purpose of their meeting.

They seem to have erased all barriers, especially those that separate public from private. And they have lost all sense of roles and responsibilities.

It sounds like Girls Gone Wild Enters the Boardroom, or better, the moral equivalent of hooking-up. A culture that teaches young people to expose too much of themselves to strangers is surely fostering oversharing.

I would describe the problem in terms of social anomie. When you do not know your place in society, when you do not understand the rules and responsibilities that inhere in your public role, when you do not even know the game that is being played... then you are suffering from what sociologists have called anomie.

Anomie involves feelings of disconnection. Some people try to overcome those feelings by trying to get too close too quickly... by oversharing.

Anomie is not new. It was named and analyzed by sociologist Emile Durkheim over a century ago. It is the natural byproduct of social mobility and the social dislocations that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.

If your workplace is filled with people who have come from the four corners of the globe and a multiplicity of American communities and social strata, you would expect that they would have trouble getting along. No one would really know the rules of social decorum, the proper customs and manners.

If you are an executive anomie can easily threaten group cohesion and harmony. One way to cure it is to create a strong corporate culture-- with uniforms and dress codes, strict rules of conduct and propriety-- that everyone can learn and follow. This is roughly the approach that the military takes, and, as we should know by now, no institution has been as effective in integrating people from diverse backgrounds.

The therapy culture, you might know, finds military culture repulsive... what with its strict rules and roles, its uniforms and conformity, its spit and polish, and its status hierarchies. It prefers to see the problem in roughly the terms that Freud outlined, not as anomie, but as neurosis.

Instead of seeing anomie as a normal reaction to excessive social mobility, thus, something to be cured by reorganizing society, Freud labelled it an intrapsychic phenomenon, a disease or a dysfunction. The fault did not lay in society; it lay in your mind. Unprocessed past traumas were making it impossible for you to adapt to reality. You did not need to learn new dinner table decorum; you needed medical treatment.

If we use anomie as our frame of reference, oversharing is saying something that might be appropriate in one context in another where it is decidedly not.

Psychotherapy has a different approach. It has no real interest in creating a strong culture to which everyone can belong. It prefers trying to transcend cultural and social differences by finding a universal language that will always be appropriate. That would be the language of feelings.

The therapy culture prescribes oversharing. It glorifies oversharing as a cure to all of your feelings of disconnection. It bases its counsel on the notion that we all share a common humanity that will, once expressed, draw us together.

Sounds good, doesn't it?

So, you have people who speak several different languages, in a kind of tower of Babel, and you are trying to help them communicate. You can choose to encourage or impose one language that everyone can speak, or else, you can tell them to communicate in the universal language of feeling... by grunting, whining, and moaning.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. This is the kinda thing I come here for.

I just hate oversharing. I'm the self-proclaimed king of the deadpan, snarky, yet not offensive, put-down of over-sharing. It has served me well in my career.

Some examples that came to me reading this:

shaved his whole body "Nothing gets as close as a straight razor...."

tambourine on the bedstand for a (ugh) great performance "I prefer a brass band...."

wearing his wife's undies "My wife would be very cross after I stretched them all out...."

After a few of those, I don't have to hear such nonsense, I've made allies among the other uncomfortable people and the oversharer has to laugh along.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the suggestions... at the least, they will help people to understand that there are ways to let another person know that he has been oversharing... with greater or lesser degrees of embarrassment.