Flying from Melbourne to Sydney I sat next to a stranger.  The weather had been dreadful, flights had been cancelled; we had been ‘off loaded’ and ‘up loaded’ a number of times. Finally we managed to get a seat on the last flight out and consequently I sat next to a friendly stranger and we got talking.

While I had never seen him before we were rapidly on first name terms, and by the end of the flight we knew an awful lot about each other even to sharing business cards. It was a pleasant way of passing a rough flight, and we departed with a warm glow of friendship.

However, on another flight between Brisbane and Port Moresby – I again sat next to a complete stranger who looked upon me as a long lost friend and proceeded to share the intimate secrets of her life. At the end of this flight I was so glad to be free that I ignominiously hid in the crowd and hovered until she had gone through customs before I moved on.

What was the difference I wondered; why did I react so differently to the second stranger than I did to the first? 

Well, with my first encounter we kept our disclosures to impersonal stuff.  We discussed the amount of travel we engaged in, what we did, our hobbies and all that kind of stuff.  We even touched on politics, but finding we differed a little we tactfully withdrew from that subject and discussed gardening instead.

In the second, before the wheels had even left the tarmac it was revealed that her marriage was in tatters, and her children were causing her concern.  She was travelling to Papua New Guinea for an interview and I can only hope that she was less forthcoming with them than with me.  It was far too much and far too soon.

There are levels of Self-disclosure which we should be aware of. If we open up too much to strangers we can embarrass and overwhelm them.  At the same time, if we close up too much we can appear cold and unfriendly.  It’s a hard world out there!

So, how do we know what to do?  How to tell what is appropriate in this conversation?  Well, of course there are no hard and fast rules, but we do have some guidelines which can help us make more comfortable decisions.

1.         Only open up with the kind of information that you would be happy to know about them!  In these circumstances how much information do you really feel comfortable knowing?  That’s the level for you to operate on. My first encounter was at this level, we did not delve into the intimacies but at the end of the meeting we knew enough about each other to know that if we ever met again we would be happy to continue the conversation.

2.         Are you willing now to take the risk?  Taking the risk of moving from the impersonal to the slightly more personal that is.  Getting to this step can take some time; but eventually there comes a time when either the relationships stays on the light and friendly or moves onto to the more personally friendly.

Work colleagues are like this.  There are those that we are happy to chat with about the footie, the television programmes and the weather; and then there are others that you just want to talk over the dreadful argument you had with the bus driver. 

All communication is conducted on ‘levels’ – so when you feel you have met a kindred spirit you might want to up the level, and to do so you will have to take the risk of opening up more and to self-disclose on a more personal level.

3.         Take your cue from their response – so having taken the risk, now be guided by their response. If they are happy to share their personal feelings with you then you are on the road to a real friendship; but if they close up on you, this may not be the right time to push it.  Change the subject to a more impersonal one and see how things go.

4.         Deepening friendships need deeper self-disclosure.  Sound obvious doesn’t it?  But again there is a fine line between appropriate disclosure and overwhelming personal details.  I think the touchstone is still ‘How much am I comfortable with sharing their personal issues?” Pouring out your heart to someone while not wanting to hear their heartfelt issues is not a recipe for reciprocating friendship – so monitor your enthusiasm.

In this day of immediate responses (and communication processes rapidly becoming electronic rather than personal), there is a temptation to pour out our hearts on facebook or twitter without giving much thought to how it will be received – or, indeed, how it could be used!

Personal relationships depend on sharing – sharing ideas, opinions, and beliefs.  We are attracted to those who also share those emotional constructs which we have developed; and as friendship is based on trust, we need to know that we can trust our friends with our deepest secrets.  But such trust is not to be rushed – and those used to opening their hearts up on such sites as facebook or twitter are unused to considering how others may react to their disclosures.

Photo Credit: Mark Resch

Much like my second encounter, they can overwhelm their audience with far too much information which is inappropriate to the level of the conversation. Revealing too much about oneself before that bond of trust is established in real time can lead to alienation and embarrassment.   

Self-disclosure is essential for a strong friendship to develop – but knowing what is appropriate and when to share it is  the secret.

So, how much do you share?  Want to catch up for coffee??

Michele @ Trischel

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