How To Avoid Giving Personal Info to Coworkers?

Question:

How do I say no to providing information when a coworker asks me for information I don’t want to give, like my address, what I do in my time off, etc.? Is it considered impolite to ask people for their address at work, or is it just me that doesn’t wish to provide this information to a co-worker?

Signed,

Want Privacy


Answer:

Dear Want Privacy:

The issue of sharing personal information at work is one that like most things involves balance–not always easy to achieve.

We hear from many people who feel completely isolated and alone for eight hours or more a day because no one will talk to them or, if they do, it’s unpleasant. Some of those letters are tragic in their lonelineness and the feeling that no one thinks of them as a person, merely a worker.

We also hear from and about people who have been told they talk too much and waste too much time flitting from desk to desk. We hear from those who like to be friendly at work but do not want to establish close relationships. And, we hear complaints about people who aren’t just unsociable, they are reclusive and refuse to do much more than grunt now and then.

I’m assuming you aren’t in fear or feeling threatened by a stalker or a similar situation, which is also something we hear about now and then.

Fortunately, most personal questions are just efforts to establish some commonality of thinking and no one is rushing to write it down or memorize it. They may not even internalize it at the time, it’s merely something to ask as a way to connect for a better working environment or so they can talk about themselves next! One more general thought that will help you in your solution: In our society and culture most of us make tentative comments and actions, then we wait to see what happens. Communication is often a process of reach out, step back, wait and see, reach out again, etc.

If you don’t want to be asked about your personal life, you will need to courteously let that be known and I’ll bet the other people will stop asking. If you handle it courteously they won’t even consider that they have been shut down, they’ll just move on. They reached out, you didn’t reach back.

That brings us to some specific advice:

You have two options: You can either say up front that you don’t give out personal information or you can answer, but in a vague way that doesn’t provide anything personal.

The direct way would be to say, “Lisa, I appreciate you asking about my life away from work because I realize a lot of people share personal information. But, that’s something I don’t do. I keep my worklife and private life completely separate. I hope you understand.” If you say that in a friendly way and continue with work conversation, Lisa might think you are odd but she won’t resent it.

That is far better than, “I don’t give out personal information, Lisa.” That sounds like you’re accusing her of trying to weasel information from you for some nefarious purpose.

You can also try responding in a vague way. If someone asks where you live: “I live in the Highland subdivision.” “I live on the Westside.” “I have a place south of here.” If they ask if you live in a house or apartment, you can say something like, “Any place where I live is home to me and that’s all that matters.”

If they ask about family you can say, “I have enough family to keep me busy.”

If they ask what you do on your time off: “Oh, I just live a life, you know how that goes.” “I mostly just take care of things around the house.” If they push that a bit more, for example, by asking about hobbies or favorite things to do, you can just repeat the same general thing, “Really, I just enjoy being away from work.”

If the coworker continues, then you can be honest and friendly about your approach to that kind of thing. “I know that a lot of people talk about their personal life at work, but I don’t like to do that. I keep my private life completely private.” If you’re courteous and can even smile a bit, no one will be hurt or offended and you will have made your point.

Obviously, if they keep asking, that is something to bring up with a supervisor, because it’s not appropriate and it’s excessive and disruptive to work.

The thing to avoid is making your approach one of being angry that you were asked, acting like it’s rude to ask (because it isn’t in our society) and generally being anti-social as though you don’t like them and don’t care if they like you.

Work involves interacting with people and work is done better when there is an element of acceptance, openness, smiles and encouragement. That can’t be achieved without communication.

Shutting down communication isn’t the solution to any problem at work. Balance and appropriateness is what we should all be aiming for, within the culture of our workplaces. Many people keep their private lives private while still being considered friendly and approachable, so I’m confident you’ll be able to do that as well.

Best wishes to you!

Tina Lewis Rowe