Wednesday, May 4, 2011

TMI - Too Much Information!

You've just joined your coworkers for lunch after successfully achieving a critical and challenging goal on a project you’re all involved in. The lunch is going well with high spirits and humorous interactions, with everyone feeling good about themselves, each other, and the job they’re doing. Then one of the people decides to launch into a personal tale unrelated to the job, which just hits most of the people as inappropriate or even borderline offensive. It gives insight into the person telling the tale, but not in a good way. You wish there was a way you could “unhear” it, but you can’t. Everyone feels a bit queasy and suddenly doesn’t want to be there any more. You have just been exposed to “too much information” or “TMI”, and it is simply uncomfortable. One bad instance of TMI can inadvertently disrupt what had been excellent working relationships.

TMI creeps into many common workplace activities. You’re attending a meeting about a critical project or issue, waiting for one or a few more people to arrive, when one person, just trying to make small talk, starts talking about something having no bearing whatsoever to the topic at hand. This veers in a direction that is not only off-topic, but off-putting; something that makes everyone in the room uncomfortable. Too much information! Or, people are standing outside of your cubicle having a too-loud but work-related conversation that is a bit disruptive to you, but harmless, when they swerve into something personal and awkward. Too much information! You get the picture.

TMI has invaded the workplace. It seems to be largely generational and technology based. Perhaps it’s been fostered by excessive use of social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., enhanced by smart phones with new apps and nearly constant interactions. Email, instant messaging, or texting can also foster TMI; while intended for exchanging work-related information, people often say things they might not otherwise say, or use smiley faces, winks, and other emoticons to express themselves in ways that may not be appropriate. Exposure to “reality TV” shows, that typically exploit what isn’t really reality, can also encourage TMI, lowering the barriers to what is appropriate in the workplace. Perhaps it’s simply inappropriate chatter. All of these can lead to a climate that fosters the sharing of intimate, sordid, or even boring details of peoples’ lives. What should be personal information gets shared ad nauseam, and passed on to others, making too many people aware of things that are really none of their business, and what ought to be kept private, desensitizing the very idea of privacy. This can lead to acquaintances blurting out inappropriate comments at inopportune times, causing embarrassment, discomfort, and damage in otherwise healthy workplace relationships. What may be interesting at a party can be distracting and even harmful at the office.

Don’t mistake your workplace for home, or workplace coworkers, colleagues or acquaintances for close personal friends. You may actually spend more time with people at work (sad, but often true), but they’re still coworkers and not really close personal friends, and you’re all there to do work that you’re getting paid for, and not for your personal coffee-klatch discussions. 

While we all enjoy getting to know our coworkers and having casual interactions, there are appropriate and inappropriate conversations. I don’t really want to know about your unusual personal habits. I don’t really want to know what you’re doing with your significant other during off-hours. I don’t really want to know the details about your medical problems or the health symptoms you’re experiencing. I don’t really want to know about your kids’ exploits or tragedies. I don’t really want to know about the details of your latest vacation experience. I want to work pleasantly and cooperatively in a healthy workplace environment where people can always feel comfortable and valued (see Dignity, Respect, Compassion - What a Concept!), but TMI just distracts from making that possible. I really just want to do my job and have you do your job! 

Just as too much drama in the workplace can be disruptive (see Too Much Drama!), too much information can be equally or more disruptive. Learn from those you respect what proper workplace behavior is; learn from those you don’t respect what you don’t want to become (see Learn From Good Role Models; Learn More From Bad!).

So what can you do when faced with instances of TMI? Set boundaries, at least for yourself. If discussions start heading off track, pull them back on track. If someone makes inappropriate comments, make it clear that such comments are not relevant to the discussion at hand. Try not to listen or laugh, even out of nervousness. Redirect the discussion to get things back in line.

After the meeting, speak privately with that person to let him/her know what was inappropriate and why. Many people aren't even aware of what they’ve done or said; they don’t think before they speak. You don’t want to ruin a productive working relationship, but this person must understand the purpose of meetings, and that they should not, intentionally or inadvertently, move such meetings off track.

Casual conversations over lunch are fine and can help pass the time, but getting into extremely personal or private matters in the workplace, unless you are very close friends, is almost always inappropriate and uninvited. Don’t get caught in the trap of spouting too much information!

Copyright 2011 Workplace Insanity, All Rights Reserved

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