The secrets of self-disclosure are not easy to fathom. It can be tricky to decide what to disclose to whom and at what pace, especially with people we have only recently met. At one end of the spectrum are those who are not afraid to bare their soul straightaway – such as the stranger who volunteers some intimate detail about their sex life, leaving you unsure how to respond.
Other people err on the opposite side and are not prepared to give much away – they are easily spotted by the fact that, every time you ask them a question about themselves, they immediately bat it back to you. It’s certainly a good idea to ask people about their life and experience rather than dominating the conversation but we should aim for some kind of balance. It’s a bit vague, I know. Since it can make the difference between drawing someone into your life – assuming you want a particular interaction to develop – and pushing them away, it’s disappointing that the rules are not clearer. There is definitely no algorithm for achieving the former and avoiding the latter.
There are, though, some things to bear in mind. It seems that self-disclosure tends to promote a sense of familiarity and trust, and is connected with being liked. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’re obliged to disclose, and there may well be times when retaining your privacy is the right thing to do. In general, however, if you’re interested in the person you’re talking to, you might want to share something of yourself.
But it’s important that there’s a match: it won’t work if only one person is prepared to self-disclose. If there is no response, it might be a sign that you need to step back, at least for the time being. So it may be advisable to have your antennae out and attune your disclosure to the other person.
There’s an odd asymmetry when it comes to being open about what we believe. Civility would seem to demand that, although everyone is free to express any opinion they like, you must be more guarded if you find yourself holding a contrary view. If James says that he is a great believer in homeopathy, Jane should find a moderate way of expressing her belief that it is all nonsense, or perhaps just smile, nod and say nothing.
There’s no double standard here. The person who speaks second simply has more power to either start a row or smooth over potentially rocky differences.
As someone who has experienced the cut and thrust of the philosophy seminar room, I find it somewhat unfortunate that it is so difficult to be open about major disagreement without causing offence. Academe gets around the problem by turning argument into a kind of gladiatorial contest, where receiving a mauling is a hazard of the job and should never be taken personally. Having your viewpoint ripped to shreds around a dinner table, however, is just humiliating.
So if we want to be more open about disagreement in social settings, we need to take care to do so with tact. The most useful strategy here is to depersonalise the issues as much as possible. Take our homeopathy sceptic. Instead of bluntly saying, “It doesn’t work,” she could ask, “Don’t a lot of scientists say there isn’t sufficient evidence that it works?” Instead of simply criticising, she could ask, “What do you think about the argument that … ” Other useful framing devices include “I might be wrong but … ” and “You might be right but … ”
These are not just feeble niceties. Serious conversation must stick to the issues and not become personal disputes. To achieve this, how we talk matters, and all this depends on your interlocutor being prepared to play ball. Sadly, some people cannot handle any challenge without taking offence. Although complacent ideological insularity should not be indulged, protracted debate with such people is pointless. So I suggest just gently goading them enough to make them feel uncomfortable and then moving on to discussing the weather.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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