- It was friendly co-worker conversation - until Melanie
abruptly brought up lurid details of her sex life.
- One night, she and her husband couldn't find the sex
toy they liked using. They finally found it, but it was broken. Then, Melanie
giggled, they had to be much more imaginative ...
- Experts say people who feel they have a license to spill
these kinds of intimate details - colloquially known as TMI, or too much
information - are taking advantage of a friendship, crossing boundaries
and traumatizing casual acquaintances. But what motivates these unwanted
- Seduction or Shock Value?
- Such behavior is like "diving into a lake without
testing how cold the water is," according to Dr. Bonnie Jacobson,
director of the New York Institute for Psychological Change and author
of If Only You Would Listen.
- "For some people, it's a form of exhibitionism,
even seduction," she added. "Like, if I show you mine, you can
show me yours. On the other hand, they may not even be aware of what they're
- These promiscuous disclosures are also the refuge of
lonely people, according to Dr. Gerald Goodman, a psychology professor
at UCLA. "We walk around with a basic need to be emotionally known,"
he said. "If we don't have a good source of empathy, we will then
go to non-intimates" like casual acquaintances, he said.
- "The extreme case is a talk show like Jerry Springer,
where we disclose our sexual history to the world."
- TMI tends to strike when it's least expected. In the
middle of an innocuous chat, details are provided that leave the listener
with an unpleasantly vivid mental image of their once-casual friend.
- "For some weird reason, random people I'm not even
close with come over to my desk and shock me with these stories,"
said Sheba, who works in a production studio largely staffed by twentysomethings.
"I tell them it's TMI and they laugh " then keep telling me the
- "I think it has to do a lot with young people working
together in a very lax and casual environment," she said. And sex
has certainly become a more acceptable topic of conversation, a trend that
reaches back decades but has been put on fast-forward by raunchy sitcoms
and presidential scandals.
- Multimedia TMI
- TMI doesn't just apply to conversations. "The brother
of the guy I'm seeing tells me his girlfriend took racy pictures of him,"
said Suzanne, who works for a New Jersey newspaper. "The next time
I'm at her place, I ask about them, just for laughs. Well, they showed
the Full Monty. I was flabbergasted. All night I couldn't look the brother
in the face. ... If I'm dating someone I don't need to know if there's
that much of a family resemblance."
- And new technologies have opened up new avenues for TMI.
"There are some twisted individuals out there who like to find as
many sick Web sites as possible," said Dost, an engineer working in
Baltimore. "On a weekly basis, I get many pictures e-mailed to me
at work of stuff that I really don't want to see. No thank you!"
- Anti-TMI Strategies
- Experts and victims alike agree the best way to stop
TMI perpetrators is to set firm boundaries. "If the other person is
offended or uncomfortable, it's inappropriate," Jacobson said. "But
the person listening is just as responsible if they don't speak up. Don't
think you're innocent here " it's not just the speaker. The listener
needs to say, gently, that this is more than they want to hear."
- "I tell people to stop," Sheba said. "Some
get it and some don't. TMIers think if you have an open, outgoing personality
then it's fine, you can say anything, no holds barred. But I don't ask
(for it), so I don't welcome it."
- In the workplace, Jacobson adds, TMI behavior often qualifies
as sexual harassment, and victims should take official action if the unwanted
disclosures don't stop. "In the office you really better be sure"
the listener wants to hear that anecdote about the handcuffs, "or
you're facing a big lawsuit," she said. "You especially shouldn't
talk about sex with someone who's at a very different power level: your
boss, or a subordinate."
- Jacobson says men telling sexual anecdotes to women are
a common source of sexual harassment lawsuits. "You don't want your
insensitivity to jeopardize your ability to earn a living," she said.
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