13

I don't know if this is a common phenomenon, but it has happened to me already more than once. Maybe my opinion of what constitutes intimate information is too narrow, or I just appear to be trustworthy to other people (Yes, you are right. Now I'm here, sharing it with the whole Internet...), or other people are just much more open.

Situation*:

I participate in a training program. There is also someone, let's call her "Eve". I've never met her before and we also have barely anything to do with each other during the program.

However, one day we get to talk a little bit (just small talk about the program itself). And now, Eve starts to mention personal problems in too much detail (substance abuse according to WHO, not illegal). This was not totally out of context (rather some indirect motivation for doing some things) and not directly related to the program itself.

Question:

What is a polite way to deal with such a sudden revelation?

The situation is a bit awkward for me, but I also do not want to make it awkward for the other person, appear too curious or disinterested etc. Please also note, that I want to keep it a bit more general, so anything usually deemed too private to tell strangers, but nothing illegal or insulting.

The question is not so much about someone raving on about a topic you don't like, it's rather about the mention itself (maybe even mentioned in passing only) - sharing information, that I at least (and many other people, judging from my experience) would share with people I trust very much, only. Information, that may leave you vulnerable.

*Don't worry, privacy is being protected here.

  • 3
    Maybe that person just needed someone to talk to. Sometimes listening alone is enough. But you left us hanging. What happened after she told you that? – user3169 Aug 13 '17 at 18:26
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    Is there something about this training program that might encourage someone to be forthright about this sort of thing? Also, how to react depends on what you want to do. If you're interested in hearing her out despite not knowing her, that's different than asking her not to share these things with you any more. – Catija Aug 13 '17 at 19:23
  • @Catija No, it was not about interpersonal skills or something related, rather technical. And the information was shared, when Eve strayed a bit away from the topic, broader explaining her approach to / outlook on life. My goal is to deal with it politely and make the other person not feel uncomfortable or anything. – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Aug 14 '17 at 6:01
  • @user3169 I intentionally left you hangig, as I didn't want to influence the possible answers given yet. – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Aug 14 '17 at 6:03
13

This has happened to me at times, and I agree with user3169's comment that they might just have needed to talk to someone about their problem. Now, a relative stranger is a good choice compared to a close friend or family member, especially if the issue concerned has a secretive or controversial nature.

I have tended to get these confidences from people when I have been empathetic with them and been perceived as a good, kind and sincere person (which I am, but don't always communicate to people often enough to be told their personal problems.)

So the thing is to hear them out sympathetically and either commiserate, offer some insight, or help them to understand that their problem is not unique (do you know a truly unique problem? Hundreds of people are likely to have the same issues) -- although it might upset you to be told their intimate things by a near-stranger, we should take it positively as our success in 'connecting' with another person, and see it as an opportunity to give somebody some psychological support.

There is no need to discourage such confidences of intimate information the first time around, though it would be a different matter if they were to discuss it repeatedly on other occasions, in which case you might politely remind them that you have already given them your best possible inputs on the matter, and further discussion would be simply repetitious.

Exception: if they start to tell you something that could be related to a possibly unethical or criminal activity it is your right to (politely) end the discussion before you hear something compromising that you may be legally or morally obliged to report to the appropriate authority.

Another important exception has been pointed out in comments:

Another exception would be if the discussion leads in a direction that might require professional help rather than lay advice. In that case, saying "You should consider getting professional help." might be enough. – user3169

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    Another exception would be if the discussion leads in a direction that might require professional help rather than lay advice. In that case, saying "You should consider getting professional help." might be enough. – user3169 Aug 14 '17 at 6:53
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    +1 for "help them to understand that their problem is not unique". I would say the same thing "I'm sorry to hear that, it's a big problem in our society", then move on. – user2191 Aug 14 '17 at 14:47
3

I would say to them,

"Do you really want to tell me this?"

That will likely elicit a response that you can follow up on.

For instance, they may say,

"I think I can trust you."

Then you can say,

"Maybe not. You never know with someone you have just met."

Or,

"it's nothing. I tell people this all the time."

Then your response might be,

"I know this isn't illegal but would you want this to get back to the boss?"

Most of the time, they are seeking attention, and at too high a cost. By engaging them as above, you are giving them this attention, while giving them "fair warning" that they may be compromising themselves.

2

There are a lot of stigmas around "personal problems" such as substance abuse. You may be reinforcing the stigma by trying to dance around their bringing up of it.

They may be very proud to have overcome substance abuse or some mental illness/depression.

Generally if it's more than I want to know or feel like I've seen too deep into their head, I come back with "yeah that happened to my friend, they got through it through x y z" and just kind of trail off on your friend. Then if someone approaches you mid-conversation you've kept their privacy.

1

Oh goodness, this happens to me all the time. Must be something in my face. Once an old grandad told me all about his war crimes.

I say, Oh, how awful or whatever is appropriate. When it's over I say, you poor thing. Then we go our separate ways. I never mention it again, not to them and not to anyone else.

The person will be terribly embarrassed if you meet again, but you just say, how are you doing? and leave it at that. After all, it may not even be true (see old grandad above).

Though I must add, a woman once told me her life's problems - which were all of her own making - and then stalked me, telling me every day how awful her life was over and again, and accepting no advice. In the end I threw her out of the house and tell her not to come back. I still feel bad about that. but she soon found another.

  • It's certainly an important point to not share it with anybody (unless it's illegal), so they don't feel that their trust has been betrayed.. – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Aug 31 '17 at 9:21

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