MYO(F)B: Respectful, or indifferent?

I was “chatting around the water cooler” after lunch, and during the conversation leared that a co-worker had moved in with her boyfried. Reportedly this happened months ago, but I was unaware of it. I’m not a big workplace gossip, you see, and, in reciprocal fashion, don’t tend to disclose much of my own personal life. I keep the discussion relatively superficial, e.g. weekend recaps, recent movies, plans for summer vacation, that sort of light fare. I like my private life and work life to have a healthy distinction, and generally consider it a matter of mutual courtesy to not pry into more personal matters of others, regardless of whether or not they’re willing to share such information.

My ignorance of what was apparently a widely-discussed topic surprised the aforementioned co-worker, and she made a comment, something along the lines of “Boy, you do keep your head down around here, don’t you!”

So, my buttoutsky habits seem to have earned me a reputation among the sewing circle that I was unaware of, but should have guessed at, I suppose. The inescapable connotation is that I’m deliberately aloof. Which, I suppose, I am, come to think of it. I guess among the majority who aren’t as scrupulous as myself about not mixing certain intimacies with work, my behavior must seem a bit odd, or even standoffish. Both the desire to grant and receive a level of respect for privacy seems to lack appreciation, or even recognition.

So I’m wondering what you think: Is the habit of minding one’s own effing business, to you, a respectful practice, or one that suggests the individual simply doesn’t care? Do you see questions about, say, your love life, or the more personal status of family members, to be a sign of requisite caring, or an unwelcome intrusion into private matters? Is it simply bad form to keep co-workers at arm’s-length as a rule, or is not mixing business with pleasure a skill to be honed? What say you?

Respectful practice.

Unwelcome intrusion.

A skill to be honed.

Not to say I share nothing with my coworkers…but no, I don’t like being asked unless I’ve already implied it’s Ok to talk about.

Wow, I could have written your OP myself, about my workplace.

I think it’s inevitable that in a gossipy environment, someone who doesn’t participate is going to get noticed and develop a reputation for being, shall we say, “all business.” IME, though, it shouldn’t cause any problems as long as you’re treating everyone in a courteous and friendly way. You’re not likely to make any new best friends unless you participate… but that’s probably not your goal, or you wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.

The last thing I want is for the little gossipers in the office to know fact one about my personal life. After 4 years at this office, my co-workers know almost nothing about me. They probably only know of my immediate family (mother, father, brother, dog), my sports team affiliations, what kind of car I have, and that I play guitar. Other aspects of my life are on a strict need-to-know basis (and they don’t need to know shit.)

But I smile, remember people’s names and talk about current events or sports, and I seem to be reasonably well-liked around the office. People have no trouble telling me all their personal details (I would prefer that they didn’t, but it pays to be polite.)

It’s a fine line, and everyone draws it in a different place, so people are always going to disagree about this. I have one coworker with whom I often have very serious talks. Lately, it’s gotten to be a running joke between us that whenever we attempt to start one in the lab, within five minutes, another coworker will come barging in with an incredibly annoyingly perky “I’m going to barge in your conversation!” then start yammering about boys or bands.

Sorry…I think I went off a bit on my own thing there.

I work in a blue-collar environment so the standards of professionalism are quite a bit different. We tend to work long hours together with few distractions, it’s not at all unusual to talk about personal lives, politics, religion, sex, etc.

However, I can certainly respect anyone’s right to privacy, the only time it’d come off as ‘oddly stuck-up’ is if they didn’t converse at all. Like micahjn said, you can be friendly and chatty without gossiping about personal lives.

From my perspective, it depends. At a minimum, I think that one has to “sufficiently” sociable that you demonstrate the ablity to work with and lead teams (if that is part of your job or future aspirations). Part of that comes with social interactions, the water cooler chat, etc.

As is common with many, I expect, I have colleagues that I have strong relationships with, inside and outside the workplace. I know a great deal about their personal and professional lives as do they about mine.

I also have colleagues that I have a good workplace relationship with, in the sense that I know how many kids they have, if they have a SO, maybe if they have pets, and can chat with about holidays or a movie or t.v. series, etc. With these more distant, but yet still sociable relationships, I would never ask a “prying” question but would rather let them volunteer something personal should they choose to do so.

Today, for example, this did lead to a fairly long discussion with one colleague in this group of people whose mother has just died about the estate, and how he and his family are doing. I didn’t go looking for the discussion (beyond telling him that I was sorry for his loss and glad to see him back) but if he wanted someone to talk to I wasn’t going to refuse to listen.

With many others, though, it would never get beyond the general small talk stage.

What she said.

**Is the habit of minding one’s own effing business, to you, a respectful practice, or one that suggests the individual simply doesn’t care? **
To me, it’s a mixture of both. For the most part I don’t care, don’t want to know. But if I do, I rarely ask outright. If they want me to know, they’ll bring it up sometime, or tell me.

**Do you see questions about, say, your love life, or the more personal status of family members, to be a sign of requisite caring, or an unwelcome intrusion into private matters? **
Some people think asking about your SO’s or family is a way of caring. It’s not mine, and I’m very quick to let people know that.

Is it simply bad form to keep co-workers at arm’s-length as a rule, or is not mixing business with pleasure a skill to be honed? What say you?
I think it’s a smart idea to keep work and personal separate. It’s certainly a skill some people could learn.

Thanks for the answers so far! I’m glad to see at least a few people share my desire for a level of calculated reserve, but I also appreciate the argument that, being calculated, there’s a fine line to tread between decorum and a somewhat asocial reticence. I may not always walk that line well enough, it’s tough to say.

Keep the opinions coming!

The problem I’ve found is that if you get too involved, you find yourself the subject of all sorts of bitchy, petty rumours- if you and a colleague of the opposite sex take lunch together, you can bet by the next day everyone will assume you’re having a hot, naked affair- and if you stay out of the social thing, everyone assumes you’re an unsociable bastard who’s “Too Good” to be around anyone else.

I’m always happy to talk about what I’ve been up to in what I call “specific generalities”- ie, enough information for people to feel that you’ve shared something and you do have a life, but not enough information to actually be useful on any meaningful level.

An example:

Colleague: “So, what did you get up to yesterday?”

Me: “Oh, not much. Went shopping with the other half, then met up with a mate for lunch. Thought about going to the movies, but couldn’t see anything worth going to, so just had a quiet one at home in the end. How about you?”

On the face of it, it sounds like I’ve been helpful and social, talking about how I do have a Significant Other, and how we went shopping, and since we met up with a friend and had lunch I obviously have a social life, and enjoy doing things that “normal” people do, but since there wasn’t anything good on at the movies we stayed home that evening instead.

Of course, the careful reader will note that I didn’t say where we went shopping, who this friend we had lunch with was, where we had lunch, or what movies we might have gone to see if they were showing.

None of this information is secret, of course- if anyone cares enough to ask, I’m always happy to go into more detail, but 9 times out of 10 the “Specific Generality” approach is enough to satisfy people around the water-cooler, without giving the more bitchy/petty ones any ammunition that can be stored for future reference…

My experience has been that good, bad, indifferent or nonexistent, any way I choose to answer any question in any social situation can be taken the wrong way by somebody, and I’m going to go down swinging for personal privacy and my right to separate my home life from my work life. If I’m going to be called into my boss’s office to discuss how I’m interacting with my co-workers, I’m going to find some way to point out (politely) how, in all the Gender Training/Cultural Sensitivity/Blah blah blah training they’ve made us take, 95% of all the problems can be solved by the following process: Show up, sit down, shut up, and get to work, and that if people want to get offended because I keep my private affairs PRIVATE, they can go pound sand.

Politely, of course.

If you don’t share something about yourself…and I’m talking generic stuff…you are going to create an uncomfortable environment for your co-workers. It’s just human nature to want to know a little bit about who you work with.

However, that’s not a signal to ask personal stuff. You don’t ask about a person’s sex life, finances, dirty details about a divorce, or the like. I think it’s perfectly within bounds to ask where a person shops, how their kids are, where they went on vacation, etc. Harmless inquires shouldn’t automatically be assumed to be buttinski prying.