Self-Disclosure: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right? Are You an Open or Closed Book?

Self-disclosure is the process of revealing your inner self to another person. It helps with self-acceptance (esteem) as people form positive impressions of people who give something of themselves. Getting the balance right is important – the ‘Goldilocks Principle’ – Too much, too little or just right.

We describe people as ‘closed books’ who give nothing of themselves away. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the people, who go for total, no-holes-barred, openness. Rushing up to strangers in the library and offering to show them your intimate operation scar and confessing your darkest secrets is hardly likely to win you friends, although it may influence people to avoid you. So when is enough, enough?

In a earlier post, I offered Tips for Making Small Talk, Confidently, including why we should engage in small-talk and how to do it right.

Self-Disclosure Quiz

Here’s a short quiz to explore self-disclosure issues. Rate each of these statements on a scale from zero to ten, where zero equals ‘have never mentioned to anyone’ and ten equals ‘I have disclosed everything about this to everyone I’ve met’. This includes status updates on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

  1. General worries (money, health, wealth)
  2. What really gets on your nerves
  3. Things that make you happy and bring joy to your life
  4. Areas of yourself you’d like to improve (fitness, health, confidence, skills)
  5. Dreams, goals and ambitions
  6. Sexual activity and love life, including graphic details
  7. Your weaknesses and negative character traits
  8. Hobbies and interests
  9. What makes you angry and what happens when you are
  10.  Things in your life you are ashamed of or feel guilty about.

Scoring the Self-Disclosure Quiz

It’s important to stress that this quiz is intention to stimulate thought and discussion. It is not a scientific assessment. The cut-off points only give general feedback. If you score is close to the edge of a range, then also look at the other band too.

 Zero – speaks for itself. You are a closed book, inside a pad-locked buried chest, with a prison built on top of it.

 1 to 20 indicates a closed person who doesn’t like to give much away. Sharing something with others provides an opportunity for feedback. Focus on less personal areas and make small disclosures. Hobbies and goals are a good place to start.

21 to 60 indicates a moderate level of self-disclosure. Just be aware of higher scores and don’t be over familiar with unfamiliar people. Scores towards the middle of the band indicate a balance between your private self and public openness. If you score is below 30, also read the feedback for the lower band.

 61 to 81 indicates an open person with high levels of self-disclosure. Some of these topics may make others uncomfortable or cause the judge you harshly or take advantage of you. Openness is often a good thing provided the other person can handle it, wants to handle it and you can trust them. Spare a thought for the feelings of your listeners.

90 to 100 indicates that you are very open. In fact there isn’t much you won’t disclose and are happy to do so with anyone who will listen including people who’d prefer not to receive so much information. Beware of becoming like the celebrity reality TV stars who live their lives like an open wound. Focus on the more neutral areas for disclosure and the personal stuff more sparingly and with fewer people. Some things are better kept to ourselves, and one or two trusted friends. Beware that your self-disclosure doesn’t become habitual dumping on other people for free therapy.

What is safe for for self-disclosure?

Obviously we have different levels of self-disclosure depending on the degree of intimacy or closeness with people. So begin by thinking of making small-talk with strangers. Consider how much self-disclosure would constitute general chit-chat and also think about at what point it would definitely be TMI (too much information).

Using another ten-point scale, assess the safety of each of the above topics, where ten equals ‘totally safe’ and zero equals ‘Shhh! Don’t tell a soul’.

If these scores match roughly with your first set of scores, your disclosure level for this topic is about right. However, if there is a gap between the two sets of scores then you need to make adjustments. For instance, if you rate sexual activity as a 5 for safety but a ten for disclosure, maybe it’s time to keep a few details to yourself.

Repeat the exercise for friends, people you are dating, partners and colleagues. That way you will get an idea of how to strike the right balance. When we feel an instant connection with someone, the tendency is to mistake this for intimacy and tell all. However, this immediate connection might be because this person reminds us of something else. It’s best to remember that a new acquaintance is still a relative stranger no matter how the sparks fly. It’s also important to remember that friends and partners are not just sounding boards or dumping grounds for your dark secrets and issues. When we feel that we really must disclose all, perhaps its better to engage a professional stranger (counsellor or therapist) to tell all.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

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Tips for Making Small Talk, Confidently: Why do it and how to do it

Subscribe to Dr Gary Wood's psychology and coaching blogSome people complain that small-talk is superficial and pointless. Often ‘not seeing the point’ is about ‘nor knowing the rules’. You may worry that you’re being boring or too banal or to confessional and controversial. You may not know what topics to choose and what to avoid. Small-talk is a key building block in building relationships. It all begins with ‘a bit of banter’ or ‘chit-chat’ to ‘pass the time of day’. Connecting with other people in a positive way is a way of boosting your resilience and confidence.

This post offers some tips and pointers for confident small-talk skills (adapted from Unlock Your Confidence), which are essentially the same as a basic grounding in communication skills. (There are also several links to posts containing supporting information).

What if I’m too shy to initiate small-talk?

They keys to learning any new skill are practice and relaxation. Often people who claim not to be very good at making conversation just need to practice in some low-threat situation. The easiest way is to ask for directions in a supermarket or ask someone’s opinion about a product. I’m particular good at reading maps, contrary to the male gender stereotype, I’ll just stop to ask directions. When I visit a new place I check it out on-line to find recommendations of places to eat and drink. However, many of the best information comes asking the locals. People like to recommend good places and warn you about the ‘no so good’. People like to share their knowledge.

Relaxation is the cornerstone of elite performanceIt’s also the basis of building confidence and esteem. It’s  the ability to control your own physiological responses. A few deep breaths is often all it takes. If you initiate a conversation in a relaxed state, the other person is more likely to match this state. If you both feel comfortable the conversation flows. So focus on putting the other person at ease too. This is a key principle in my confidence building workshops. If we focus on putting the other people at ease and building confidence in them, this rubs off on to us.

It helps to practice some form of relaxation technique or breathing technique regularly and frequently. The more you practice, the more it is likely to become habit, or ‘second nature’.

Small-talk is not about ‘just filling the space’

When I started contributing to radio features, I was very aware of empty airspace. Radio presenters are aware of this and use the discomfort of the contributors to let them chatter away and fill the airspace. On one occasion, with a rather ‘difficult’ presenter, I realized that the responsibility for the dead airspace was his. I resisted the temptation to fill the space and just kept to what I was comfortable saying. I’d made it clear beforehand that I don’t gossip about celebrities and yet he insisted on asking about a particular celebrity. I just ‘stuck to my guns’ and he owned the responsibility for the dead space and asked me a question I could answer.

We are much likely to get the ‘verbal diarrhoea’ when we are nervous. Take a few deep breaths. Any question is a two-way street and it both people share in the responsibility for the ‘awkward silences’. When we feel stressed, the silences seem longer. When stressed we talk faster. Just remember that it’s okay if there are a few gaps. Every conversation has a little variation and changes in pace. It doesn’t have to be a ‘wall of sound’.

Small-talk is also about listening not just talk

Listening is a core communication skill. People often overlook this. Rather than filling the space with our own words you can give the other person a chance and ask a few questions. A ‘bore’ is jokingly defined as ‘a person who wants to talk about her/himself when you want to talk about yourself’. As a general rule, if you have spoken about yourself for 60 seconds then you have already been speaking too much. An easy way to include the other person is just to tag on the words ‘and how about you?’

The great thing about small talk is that it can take unexpected ‘twists and turns’ if you let it. It works better if you don’t have an agenda and just see how things go. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t get to make all of your points. So be flexible. There is a temptation, when the other person is speaking, to just ‘screen for keywords’ so you can prepare your next contribution. When you find yourself doing this, it means you have stopped listening. Part of the fun of small-talk is you don’t know where it will lead.

If you lose the thread, just ask the other person, ‘tell me more about. . . ‘. Then you get a second chance to practice your listening skills!

Open and closed questions: how to move the conversation a long

You have probably seen interviews of famous people where the interviewer has branded them ‘difficult’ or ‘uncooperative’. There’s a classic clip of a famous Hollywood star who mainly answers ‘yep’ and ‘nope’ to most of the questions. It’s clear than the interviewer asked too many closed questions that only required one word answers, usually ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s obvious that if you ask someone ‘Do you like X’ you get a very different response if you ask ‘How do you feel about X?’ or ‘What’s your opinion of X?’. Asking questions with a ‘who, what, where or how‘, will open out the conservation. That’s why they are called open questions. Closed questions are all about the questioner’s agenda. Open questions help along the two-way conversation.

Be patient: The other person may not know all of these small-talk tips

If someone launches into a monologue, just be patient. Not everyone knows the rules of small-talk. Sometimes, we just have to accept the opportunity to practice patience and practice listening skills. Of course, any experience is also an opportunity for reflection. This is important to learning any skill. So sometime after the encounter, just pause and make a few notes about how it went. There’s no need for a full-scale post-mortem. Just a couple of learning points will do.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIn my book Unlock Your Confidence, I offer a whole chapter (Chapter Four, to be precise) on practical tips and techniques for impression management (making good first impressions) and communication skills including suitable topics for casual conversations and topics more likely to promote heated discussions, scare people or bore them to tears.

What are suitable subjects for small-talk?

Here are a few examples of the kind of topics suitable for small-talk:

Saying where you are from, a recent film or television programme you enjoyed, saying what you do and where you go to relax, pets, recreation interests, books you’ve read, your name, food, the weather, clothes, holidays, places to visit, theatre productions, concerts and commenting on something in the immediate environment.

What subjects should be avoided for small-talk?

Here are some topics that you should avoid:

Talking about ailments, sex dreams, religion, being a know-it-all, discussing your sex life or asking questions about theirs, talking about infidelity or swinging, asking someone’s salary, asking whether people own their own home, racism, political correctness, politics, paedophilia, capital punishment, abortion, vivisection, animal rights, pornography, discussing bodily fluids or body parts that have gone septic or the power of prayer as a tool against evil.

A good test is to consider, is this the kind of topic you would discuss over afternoon tea? Think of scones, jam. clotted cream, little sandwiches with the crusts cut-off and a nice pot of Earl Grey tea. Now add your topic of conversation. Does it go? Theatre productions: yes. Septic body parts: no!.

As a general rule, keep it positive. Yes, we all like a bit of moan from time to time, but follow the 80:20 rule. The moaning can not be more than 20% of the conversation. This is easier said than done. Once you are on a negative train of thought, it’s more difficult to switch to the positive.

Casual conversations: How to get started

Never underestimate the power of a smile. It’s an immediate signal that you are an approachable person. Of course, that doesn’t mean you walk around with a fixed rictus grin. (That’s a sure sign of something else entirely).

Assume you are meeting someone for the first time. You exchange named. That immediately leads on to ‘What do you do?’ This is a coded phrase for ‘what’s your job?’ It can be a little dull, unless you are in those dreadful networking situations where people stand about handing out business cards and try to work out whether you are of any use to them whatsoever.

As a twist, try asking ‘How do you spend your time?’ Or ‘How do you like to spend your time?’ This gives the other person the opportunity to talk about something they like. This generates positive feelings which are to a certain extent projected on to you. Some people hate their jobs but most people love their own hobbies and pastimes.

Small-talk and body language

Probably, you will have heard of the often quoted body-language myth that words only account for 7% in any encounter. Take this with the proverbial pinch of salt. The research was carried out in laboratory conditions and may not be generalizable to the real world to the strict 7% rule that is often (mis) quoted. The research mainly applies to first impressions. It’s fair say that if you give off the right non-verbal signals then the words are less important.

You don’t have to study a whole body language book to get the basics right. In fact, we have already covered most of it: relax and smile and show an interest in what is being said, that is, listen. If you do this then the body language will take care of itself.

read_confidence_posts_r_jus copySo that’s it. Those are the basic skills for a successful casual conversation. These also form the basics for good communication skills. Small-talk skills are a great set of skills to have. It means that you can take the lead in awkward situations, especially where people don’t know each other. It’s rare that efforts are rebuffed, most of the time, people are just relieved that someone broke the ice.

With small-talk, perhaps the most important tip is just to have fun with it.

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Overhearing Telephone Conversations in Public: The Annoyance of the Halfalogue

Why we are forced to eavesdrop on phone conversations in pubic

We have all had experience of the annoying people on their mobile (cell) phones chatting loudly in public spaces usually about nothing of particular consequence. These overhead half-conversations have been dubbed ‘halfalogues. Spend a great deal of time travelling the UK, I often encounter the halfalogue on trains particularly in the so-called quiet-zone of the train. The perpetrators may protest that their mutterings on the phone are not as distracting or as annoying as people chatting. And, yes there are some people who have two conversational volumes on trains: (i) Look at me and (ii) Seriously, you really need to look at me I’m being interesting. More often than not, they are not. However research has shown that we do find overhearing a halfalogue more distracting and annoying than overhearing a full conversation. The main reason for the increased stress to a halfalogue is that our brains are drawn to the unpredictable and try to make sense of the information. With an ordinary conversation all the information is present. With the halfalogue it is not. So it is worth being more aware of people around you. Because of our psychological make up, we can’t help but try to make sense of the overhead half-conversation. So on a long train journey, other people are held captive in the physical and psychological senses. You may think you are just being sociable by chattering away on the phone for hours on end about nothing in particular. However, what you are really doing is torturing everyone around you.

Halfalogues are annoying but are they dangerous?

On a recent bust bus journey there was a young man on the back seat of the bus intent on letting everyone on the bus know how intelligence and informed he was. As he was proudly broadcasting his views to the person on the other end of the phone, he uttered a few phrases that brought gasps, tuts, dirty looks and exclamations of ‘oh please’ and ‘for god’s sake’. On a busy bus, people were only able to hear the bits he emphasized. At one point he blurted out ‘the Germans had the right idea’ and ‘I know it’s drastic but we have just got to do what the Germans did and get rid of a few. . .’ The problem with the halfalogue is that it requires us to work hard to make sense of the information. We can’t help but trying to make sense and so employ a strategy of cognitive economy. We can’t process every single bit of information that comes our way, instead we apply scripts, schemata and stereotypes as heuristic devices. In short, we make educated guesses based on insufficient data. It’s often difficult NOT to jump to erroneous conclusions.

Context and communication

When I heard the ‘Germans had the right idea’ phrase, my contextual cues to interpret the halfalogue were the people at the front of the bus who turned around, tutted and scowled in disgust. My guess was that they had assumed some kind of racist, ethnic cleansing diatribe (halfatribe), or maybe that was tapping into my own stereotypes. After all, I only had a few phrases and audience reactions to go on. It was only after I continued to listen to the halfalogue that he uttered the phrase ‘on the terraces’. Immediately the context changed and the reactions of my fellow passengers on the bus became amusing. Although, if they had not heard the new information I just became a man on the bus grinning at someone on the phone proposing genocide. I was compelled to listen to halfalogue-man. It transpired that he was commenting on the new initiative in some German football clubs to remove some of the seats in the stadium and reinstate the more traditional standing on he terraces. So nothing to groan or grimace about unless you find football tedious in the extreme.

Lessons from the halfalogue?

Fortunately for the football commentator on the bus, the other passengers only had the weapon of ‘the dirty look’ and the ‘tut’ and the eye-roll in their arsenal. However it’s easy to imagine how this situation might have escalated. More than anything the mobile (cell) phone has done more to shatter the boundaries between public and private. So for the habitual halfalogger, it is worth remembering the impact on other people. Just be more socially aware. Our brains have not developed the capacity to avoid the annoyance of the halfalogue and probably never will. Rarely are people impressed with anyone’s analytical skills on the back of a bus or on a four hour train journey. People aren’t glancing over because they have discovered one of the greatest minds of the 21st Century. It’s annoyance that they have to subjected to drivel and further annoyance that they seem unable to drag themselves away from the witnessing the social skills equivalent of a road traffic accident.

[Gary Wood is the author of Unlock Your Confidence which aims to put a bit of social conscience back into self-help]

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