Water Cooler Talk: Talking About Your Personal Life at Work

Water cooler gossip is a time-honored tradition in company culture, and is understood as a professional courtesy. By not participating in this friendly banter you stand to ostracize yourself from your coworkers, marking yourself as the one who doesn’t talk to anyone or the one that makes others slightly nervous. However, while sharing surface details about your personal life is expected, sharing too much can be worse than sharing nothing at all. You need to find a fine balance in the middle.

It is not required of employees to share details about their personal lives with their coworkers; I doubt that it’s written in anyone’s contract. It’s just a nice part of company culture that works to improve the cohesion between employees. This means that not sharing with others will not get you fired, but it may hurt your chances of progressing in the company. Meanwhile, sharing too much to the point of becoming a burden to your coworkers is very unprofessional and can in fact serve as grounds for reprimanding.

There are aspects of your personal life that are more private and should not ever be shared with coworkers. Doing so breaks the traditions of company culture. Unless you have formed strong friendships with the people you work with, talking about how you stand to lose your home soon or problems you are having with a relationship can be disconcerting to fellow employees and are usually unprofessional to share. Keep it light. Talk about how your kid did well at soccer practice or how your brother just got accepted into a good law school. If you have something to complain about make sure it’s small like your car getting a flat on the way to church. Don’t tell them about that time when that thing happened that scarred you for life.

Company culture dictates that water cooler talk needs to be kept light for the sake of professionalism. Just like you shouldn’t bring the stress from work to your personal life, you shouldn’t bring problems from your personal life to work. Save that for your friends, family and therapist. While this may sound cruel and inconsiderate, it is far more inconsiderate for you to put your problems on people you hardly know. Back in high school you wouldn’t tell that kid you were lab partners with for a week about your parents’ divorce, would you?

Work is not group therapy- unless you’re a counselor. Treating it as such is unprofessional and will be noticed by your supervisors and managers either through complaints or simply you sharing too much with them as well. If you do not know the people you are speaking with intimately then don’t go too deep, especially out of context. If you are sitting down and happen to start connecting for the first time with a fellow coworker through sharing personal trials, then go for it. Strong friendships are built on trust and openness. But if you begin telling the guy waiting in line behind you at the vending machine about your friend who is going down a bad road then you are crossing a fine line of company culture and water cooler etiquette. Ultimately, too much information about your personal life can get you in trouble with the higher-ups and can even get you fired, so keep it to yourself if you can.

Do you work in a company where the water cooler talk often takes a personal turn? How do you avoid getting involved? Share with us in the comments section below!

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Courtesy of Flickr by Jason Pratt

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About Bane Srdjevic

Bane is a Purdue graduate and has been through a lot of the trials and tribulations every job seeker goes through. He is looking to spread his knowledge so that other job seekers don't make the same mistakes. Learning by doing is fine, but knowledge is king.