in: People, Social Skills

• Last updated: June 6, 2021

Social Briefing #10: How Much Should You Disclose to Someone New?

Commanding officer social briefing to the platoon.

Social Briefings are short bi-monthly dispatches that offer practical tips to improve your social skills. Read more on their raison d’etre. 

Once you initiate a conversation with someone new, you’ll begin exchanging comments and questions, and bits of information about yourselves.

Just how much information should you disclose during these first (and subsequent) encounters?

It’s a tricky question to answer.

On the one hand, research has shown that people who reveal more about themselves are liked more by the other person than those who are more guarded. Disclosing personal information tells the other person that you trust them, value their point of view, and would like to be closer to them. And as we’ve discussed repeatedly, interest is reciprocal; by showing someone you’re interested in them, they’re more likely to be interested in you.

If you feel like your relationships have a tendency to inexplicably and prematurely die on the vine, it may be because you’re playing your cards too close to the chest. A little reserve and aloofness can initially provoke curiosity and be read as mysterious and attractive. But eventually, your reticence will be perceived as coldness, lack of interest, or the desire to hide something about yourself — whether that’s an unsavory trait or simply the fact that there’s not much for you to show!

People want to know who you are; they can’t establish an emotional connection with a stranger. Intimacy excites (and that’s true both platonically and romantically) — there’s no possibility of chemistry without it. If you don’t let your guard down a little, new acquaintances and potential lovers will become put off or bored or both.

So, self-disclosure is a powerful thing and vitally necessary for building interest and intimacy with people.

On the other hand, however, disclosing too much can be unattractive, and off-putting in and of itself. Everyone is familiar with the term “overshare” — how can you avoid falling into that trap?

Today we’ll discuss a few simple principles for balancing the delicate dynamic of self-disclosure.

Self-Disclosure Principle #1: Keep Disclosures Symmetrical

This is the overarching principle to keep in mind regarding sharing personal information. Disclosures should be reciprocal; you should reveal things about yourself at about the same rate and level of intensity as the other person.

The authors of First Impressions use the analogy of a game of strip poker: you don’t want to be sitting there naked, while everyone else is fully clothed.

The next two principles below will help you understand how to go about keeping your rate of disclosure symmetrical.

Self-Disclosure Principle #2: Gradually Deepen the Conversation in Stages

In Conversationally Speaking, communications expert Alan Garner delineates the 4 stages through which a conversation proceeds and becomes more meaningful and significant:

  • Clichés. These are the little rituals of sociality that mean little, but open up interactions: “Hi, how are you?” and “Nice to meet you.”
  • Facts. After the opening salvos have been launched, people exchange basic information. Where they’re from. What they do for work. As Garner notes, at this stage, “Each person tries to find out whether there is enough to share to make a relationship worthwhile.”
  • Opinions. Once folks have gotten to know each other a bit, they begin to introduce their views on current events, sports, money, love, etc.
  • Feelings. “Feelings differ from facts and opinions,” Garner says, “in that they go beyond describing what happened and how you view what happened and convey your emotional reaction to what happened.” Just sharing facts and opinions keeps the conversation relatively shallow and dry; feelings reveal your heart — and that’s what really gets people interested and intrigued.

Feelings may be conversation’s most potent hook, but you don’t want to skip right into sharing them; doing so generally shows a lack of self-awareness, and provokes a “Whoa! Easy there fella!” response from the other person. Rather, you should proceed through each of these stages gradually, building an on-ramp from more shallow small talk to deeper conversation. Move topics from mild to strong, lighter to heavier, neutral to charged.

How do you know when it’s time, or when the other person is ready to move from one stage to the next?

What’s great about understanding social dynamics like this, is that it gives you the know-how to control the pace of conversation: if you realize you’re talking to someone you don’t want to get to know further, and hope to break away from soon, you can put on the brakes by keeping things shallow and not moving much beyond the exchange of facts; but, if you’re digging the person, and would like to become closer to them, you can accelerate your way down the on-ramp a little.

In the latter case, when you think you’ve spent sufficient time in one of the stages, disclose something from the next stage as a kind of trial balloon, and see if the other person responds in kind. For example, if you’ve been swapping facts, be the first to offer an opinion; if the person offers an opinion in return, then you’re ready to spend some time in that stage. If they fail to reciprocate and stick with sharing facts, however, then keep on with that stage for awhile longer, before sending up another balloon.

Self-Disclosure Principle #3: Lead With Positivity

Since disclosure creates intimacy, it may be tempting to share heavy issues — depression, past break-up angst, a history of abuse, financial problems, etc. — right off the bat to kind of jump-start the bonding process.

But even as you first move into sharing your opinions and feelings, you should initially keep these disclosures on a more positive track. As we’ve discussed in-depth, negativity is a social buzzkill. You’ve got to establish a scaffolding of positive context and interest before a relationship will be ready to bear the weight of your darker burdens. To offer up your heavy issues prior to the establishment of this scaffolding, is like placing a bowling bowl on top of a spider web. The tender, still emerging threads snap under the pressure of this premature overshare. 

Self-Disclosure Principle #4: Balance Questions and Comments

Asking someone a lot of questions is an effective way to demonstrate interest, show charisma, and build rapport.

Asking a lot of questions also gives you control of the conversation — which can be a good thing. If you’re socially confident, you can help draw shy people out of their shell and even steer the discussion to topics you’re personally interested in (ideally, of course, you should seek to broach subjects you’re both interested in).

But asking question after question is also a way of avoiding revealing anything about yourself. It can come off as too controlling, and make it seem like you have something to hide or don’t have anything interesting to share yourself.

While it’s good to err on the side of asking too many questions versus talking too much about yourself, conversation should ideally be more like a volleyball game than an interrogation, and you should allow the other person to ask you questions as well. Of course, not everyone will, even when given the opportunity, either because of shyness or conversational narcissism, but at least pepper the conversation with your own comments and observations, so the other person doesn’t do all the talking.

A good way to assess if you struck a balance between too much and too little self-disclosure is to ask yourself at the end of an interaction: Do I know roughly as much about the other person as they know about me?

If the answer is no, you either talked too much and didn’t ask the other person enough questions, or you asked too many questions and didn’t share enough about yourself. Recalibrate your rate of self-disclosure next time, aiming for a dynamic of more evenly matched revelations.

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