How should I open up to other people?
February 25, 2010 11:23 AM   Subscribe

How much should I share about myself when I'm first getting to know someone, and how should I open up further as the friendship/relationship progresses?

Demographic background: I'm a man, from the upper midwest (USA), in my late 20s.

I've been a pretty guarded and private person all of my life. Not totally secret-agent, but I've typically kept my conversations (even with my friends) pretty superficial, and avoided my opinions, emotions, and history.

I've recently realized this isn't working for me, since it's kept my relationships (of all kinds) from progressing past the initial stages. The only deeper kind of connection I've had has been just knowing someone continuously for X years, and being confident that they're a good person, which isn't that deep, really.

However, I have an opposite urge to totally unload and over-share, which was until now held in check by my guardedness. I kind of understand I shouldn't be sharing all the details of things that bother me (breakups, mistakes that aren't funny, feelings of personal inadequacy, moods, etc), but I don't really have any experience drawing a reasonable line between what I should and shouldn't share.

So, how much should I share about myself when I'm first getting to know someone, and how should I open up further as the friendship/relationship progresses? What things should I make a point of sharing, and what things should I make a point of keeping private?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Just stay mindful of the other person as friendships progress. This sort of thing should be reciprocal and it varies with all relationships. As long as you're not making any huge leaps beyond what they share with you, or lagging far behind, it should progress normally. Example: for some reason when I am taking public transportation, especially long distance, people like to share really private things with me, such as their neo-Nazi group memberships, mental health diagnoses, things like that. I think it would be totally appropriate to overshare in return with a person like that. On the other hand if you mainly just see someone at work and talk about the weather, it'll go a lot more gradually and might never go that deep, and that's fine.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:29 AM on February 25, 2010

A successful strategy says: when organized shared activities with would-be friends, tell stories about your past experiences with similar activities. You can start stating only how it went factually, and then answer questions about whether you liked/disliked the situation and why.

By doing this enough you paint a picture of yourself in your friends' mind layer by layer, indirectly, and if you have good stories it will entertain them even if they are not so interested in you. Win-win approach.
posted by knz at 11:32 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

There's a football penalty called "offsides", basically meaning that one member of the defense jumps the gun and rushes the quarterback before the ball is snapped.

I always try to stay "onsides" or just a little behind the other person.
They share, I share, equal to what they shared.
It should be an equal equation, with both parties giving equally.
If you're "oversharing", you're "offsides".

Listen, and stay onsides :)
posted by willmize at 11:36 AM on February 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

But if everyone stays "onsides", the conversation never progresses to deeper and deeper levels of intimacy.

I've found in all of my close relationships that I can remember the early stages of, there were clear moments when someone opened up - told a story about their childhood, shared an insecurity, confessed a crush on or dislike for somebody else. Sometimes it was me. Sometimes it was the other person. Usually we'd go back and forth. Eventually you do get to a place where you're sharing "breakups, mistakes that aren't funny, feelings of personal inadequacy, moods".

You seem worried about the appropriateness of opening up. I'd focus on recognizing when somebody is trying to open up to you, and responding to that, whether by encouraging them to tell more or by sharing similarly yourself. And you know, it's okay to push the boundaries a little. Just make sure the other person is responding in kind.
posted by shaun uh at 11:57 AM on February 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

You can share almost* anything with people**, as-long-as you do it with confidence*** and a sense of humor. But if you say, "Um... I have to tell you something. I'm kinda... um ... a foot fetishist...," you'll make people uncomfortable. It's your nervousness that will make them cringe, not the subject-matter.

That's not to say you should never talk about something you're shy about. Of course you should. You should talk about that stuff to good friends that you know and trust. So use THAT as your guide: I would like to talk about X. Am I confident about it? If so, then I should say it and maybe laugh about it. If not, then I should think about how well I know the people I'm talking to. If I'm talking to my best friend, I should say it. If I'm on a first date or out with people from work, maybe not.

* there are a few subjects you should avoid until you know people fairly well. These include extreme sexual acts you're into, gross things about your body, crimes you've committed or are thinking of committing and prejudiced thoughts you might have. (e.g. racist thoughts.)

** of course, there are some people who are very squeamish, sheltered or conservative. If you tell me (with confidence) that you are a furry, I'll not care or I'll be curious and ask you questions. And I think that's true for a many liberal and open-minded people.

But if you meet someone who is conservative (I don't necessarily mean politically conservative), they may get turned off. You can usually tell if someone is that type pretty quickly. Listen to what they talk about. ("Oh my God! My son's teacher is an ATHEIST!") If you don't know whether someone is like this or not, it's too soon to open up to them about your impending sex-change operation.

*** confidence is NOT the same as arrogance. Arrogance is the flip-side or nervousness. It's usually the sign that someone is over-compensating for nervousness. Most people clue into that, so they feel just as uncomfortable around someone who says, "I... I... um... I just got out of... prison" as someone who says, "I was just as fucking popular in the pen as I am everywhere else!"

You are confident about your dead-chicken collection when it's as easy for you to talk about as your guitar collection.
posted by grumblebee at 11:58 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another thing to remember is that you're way less special than you think you are. Yes, you're all worked up about that affair you had with your sister, but nobody else cares. (See my caveats, above.) When you tell me, I might be interested, but I'm not going to be S-S-S-SHOCKED, because you're not THAT important and the stuff you've done, even the odd stuff, is not THAT odd. As a grownup, I'm aware that there are people around who have committed incest, who have stolen handbags, who pray in public and who think ice skating is a sport. Whatever.

I've been on the other side of that equation. Sometimes I've THOUGHT my main worry was being humiliated by my odd whatever. In reality, I was humiliated to discover that I'm not a special snowflake.
posted by grumblebee at 12:04 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the way to know whether or not it's safe to tell someone some of the stranger/more secret things about yourself is to tell them something much smaller, and see how they react.

For instance, you can tell someone in pretty casual conversation, "You know, ever since I was little, I've really liked putting black pepper on my ice cream."

If they say, "That's weird. You're really strange," or otherwise react badly, then you can be pretty sure that it would be a bad idea to trust them with your deepest, darkest secrets, or even your middling dark secrets. But you also haven't lost much by telling them one silly fact about yourself.

If they say, "Really? What does it taste like?" or react in a neutral-to-positive way, then you can take that as a cautious green-light-go-ahead to tell them something else a little bit more revealing next time.

If they say, "Holy shit! I do that too!" then that person has serious friend potential.

The people I trust are the ones who respond consistently to me in a positive, safe way. It's not that we always agree about everything, but I know no matter what that they'll never be mean to me for telling them what I really think.

And, it's worth noting, I think, that all of my friendships have moved in jerks and starts: something big happens and I need help with, and so I turn to someone I've started to trust because the above process and ask for help, or share something outside of our normal range of conversation. Most of those people have become better friends because of the leap I took, and the ones who didn't, well, it usually turned out that they weren't worth much as friends anyway.

I find Miss Manners' advice very helpful in this sort of situation too. She says that when someone dumps personal information on you way out of context in a casual setting, you're allowed to react to it casually--i.e. when the woman next to you on the plane says, "Nice weather we're having, isn't it? It reminds me of the sunny day my dad died," you're allowed to say, "Oh, I'm sorry. It is really nice weather though. I went for the nicest walk the other day."

I find this helpful because I think it's useful to remember that how you present information makes a difference. You can tell people fairly serious things early in a friendship and keep it brief and fairly casual, and it doesn't fall into the over-sharing category in the same way that an overly intense, hour-long monologue on the subject does.
posted by colfax at 12:22 PM on February 25, 2010 [12 favorites]

In order to do this kind of thing appropriately, you're going to really have to pay attention to what the other person is doing and what kind of signals you are sending out. If you want to try being friends with someone, notice what kind of information they are sharing and show interest by asking questions. If they are kind of tight lipped about giving more information, that's your indication that they don't want to or aren't ready to be more personal with you. If they do answer and show curiosity about you when you share something, that's an indication that they are willing to have a closer relationship. In general, you will have better results if you feel and seem open to getting to know people and that's where the self-awareness part comes in. Meeting new people is a dance and if you avoid stepping on toes it will go pretty well.

I have had relationships with people where I met someone at a party, had an instant connection and the next time we got together we told each other our life stories. Then there are people who are more cautious so we started out as casual friends and talked about various things in the news and what not and then gave opinions after we both kind of felt each other out. Personally I'm an open book and am happy to share or have people share details about their life with me. But I also respect what kind of information other people share and don't push.
posted by Kimberly at 2:07 PM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have this same issue and I've been reading this book recently, that says it's sort of give and take. It suggests you mirror whatever level of sharing the other person is at. So if the other person shares something, like a favorite color, you do the same. At this point, if you choose to take it further, only take it a step. Like your favorite color and then, maybe some personal feelings you associate with that color. This book mentioned it a game of give and take and to let it progress naturally and in levels.
posted by Polgara at 9:36 PM on February 25, 2010

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