The etiquette of self-disclosure

Looking at people’s profiles on Twitter, I rarely follow anyone who mentions their religion.  Introducing faith so early on gives me the impression that they’re going to preach at me or worse still judge me, both of which make me defensive and uncomfortable.  Does this make me narrow-minded?  Perhaps.  You might actually agree with me, or maybe my attitude to religion provokes a negative reaction in you (there’s something wonderfully ironic about intolerance of intolerance).

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on how and when to reveal things that may be important but not immediately relevant, especially where there’s a risk of a strong response.  These thoughts started when I experienced someone mentioning their religion when introducing themselves to a group of strangers.  They didn’t make a particularly big thing about it, but for the reasons mentioned above, it had an impact on me.  While I think I’m relatively conscious of my prejudices and try hard not to let them get in the way, I am aware that they affect my behaviour.  At the very least, there’s a period of distraction while I process my reaction to whatever’s been said.  In some circumstances, such as choosing who to follow on Twitter, I make an instant decision not to engage further.  Usually though, the information gets stored away and only resurfaces if it becomes relevant.

But what exactly is the etiquette of self-disclosure?  Is there a perfect timing?  Who’s responsible for any negative reaction, the person making the revelation or the person reacting?  Are there some things that are actually best left hidden?

In many places an unofficial policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ develops, with religion being only one of many potentially sensitive areas.  Similar considerations apply to any strongly-held beliefs, political leanings or personal details such as sexuality or the state of your mental health.  I heard recently of someone running a mental health awareness campaign in their organisation who was criticised by senior managers for referring openly to their own struggles.  If self-disclosure is not acceptable where it is not only relevant but could also be highly beneficial to others, what chance is there of encouraging informed discussion on the subject?

In the wake of Tom Daly’s recent announcement about being in a same-sex relationship, there has been a lot of debate about why he felt the need to make a public statement.  Whenever there’s a coming-out story on Facebook, a friend says that it shouldn’t be necessary; but it clearly still is.  Is Daly’s sexuality in any way related to his job? No, not directly; but it has been argued that continually having to deflect speculation might take his focus away from his performance, and that by saying something now he is giving himself space to prepare for the next Olympics.

Making a definite statement about anything that deviates from whatever’s ‘normal’ within the organisation, particularly in the early stages of getting acquainted, risks an accusation that you’re being some kind of activist and that you’ve only got yourself to blame for any negative reaction.  And yet, not doing so can have an impact on your performance and ultimately your credibility.  As Tom Daly decided, lying, or even just carefully editing what you tell people, takes effort that could be better directed elsewhere.

Even if it provokes a strong reaction, being open about who you are and what you believe seems to the only credible option.  It’s being honest with others, allowing them to process the information in whatever way they need and to make their own choices about what to do next.  Vitally, it also gives you the information you need about the people you’re dealing with.  The person who was criticised for being open about their mental health issues decided that an organisation that demanded silence on the subject was not a place where they could do their best work.

In one of its campaigns, the lobbying group Stonewall used the statement ‘some people are gay – get over it!’  In time perhaps, and with more people having the courage to be authentic about who they are, more people will ‘get over it’, whether ‘it’ is someone’s sexual preference, their mental health or indeed their religious beliefs.