You walk into your manager’s office, ready to discuss last quarter’s revenue dip, and suddenly, instead of examining the line graph in your hands, your boss is holding up an x-ray and explaining the internal consequences of his recent vasectomy.
It’s called Workplace TMI, and it can happen to you. Side effects may include extreme awkwardness and dwindling respect.
When your supervisor violates the generally accepted rules of workplace discourse with TMI, it’s essential to respond with the exact opposite behavior: an appropriate, professional response. If you're stumped, here’s some advice for dealing.
1. Identify the Reasoning Behind the TMI
To choose the correct protection against TMI, it’s important to understand the root cause. Why does your boss feel compelled to detail how her last one-night-stand went awry? Is it possible that she is trying to bond with you because your relationship, until now, has been stiff or formal? Or perhaps your supervisor wants to advise you on the best remedies for UTIs to subtly explain why she’s been taking so many sick days.
If you’re able to determine the rationale behind the TMI, you can address the cause itself with a proper workplace action. Like going out to lunch with your boss and chatting about your families, hobbies, and other topics unrelated to the digestive tract.
2. Change the Subject (Bonus Points if the New Topic is Work-Related)
Sometimes an abrupt segue is all the TMI-perpetrator needs to realize that he has crossed into dangerous territory. Offering an unexpected change in topic (“Oh, speaking of an unnatural relationship with house cats, I just remembered we need to meet about the new inventory process”) brings your boss back into the reality of the social situation. This method won’t offend or embarrass, but will convey your discomfort effectively.
3. Use Body Language
When TMI is in full-swing, it can be difficult to get a word in. If you find yourself unable to change the subject or excuse yourself from the room, use nonverbal cues to show your supervisor that you’re not sure how to respond. Glance at the door, angle your body away from the speaker, or check the time on your cell phone repeatedly. Showing that you are disengaging from the conversation lets him know that—whatever his reasoning—you are not a fan of the material.
4. Resist the Urge to Join In
You like to impress your boss. Who doesn’t? Knowing that your boss enjoys your company or values your opinion is a great career-confidence booster. When she starts telling you about the Mai-tai induced romance with the lawn guy, it’s tempting to reciprocate with your own scandalous escapade (ok, it wasn’t a lawn guy, but an exterminator is pretty close).
But two TMIs do not make a right. Despite the precedent she’s set, your boss could balk at your personal story, or, even worse, your contribution could escalate the conversation to whole new level of too, too much information.
5. Lock it Up
Regardless of how you choose to combat workplace TMI, it’s absolutely necessary to internalize the tawdry material—forever. Sharing it with your co-workers will surely get you a few laughs in the break room, but, no matter how wide-open your boss seemed at the time, TMI is not meant for group consumption. Like any good story, it has the tendency to transform as it’s passed from person to person—and by the time it circles back to your boss, you’ll look like a gossip instead of an innocent listener.
Photo courtesy of Andy Morales.