7

My parents have a 'bad' habit of disclosing information about any unfinished business of mine, or about other things I like to keep private for reasons, to people ranging from family to vague acquaintances. I've had several conversations with them about this, carefully outlining the reasons I'm averse to them sharing pretty much anything private about me with people. Most of these conversations either ended in fights or at least them maintaining there was no harm in disclosing these things. Especially dad is very hard to argue with, as my aversion against disclosing anything concerns mostly his side of the family.

They share information about things that I can't keep secret from them: it's either stuff they helped me out with starting (like paying for my driving lessons in the past, so no way to keep the exam date secret, and then I had to tell a lot of people I failed), stuff I need to tell them because I need their help or approval for it (like moving back home, and going back to study, which needed both their approval and a bit of financial support), or stuff that I can otherwise not keep secret (like an attempt at changing my lifestyle by going to the gym, my absences will be noticed as I'm living home and I'm not going to lie about that).

Last weekend, at a family gathering I couldn't skip with good grace, Dad disclosed again something that's still very much in the beginning stage. I overheard Dad telling about this thing to an audience of grandparents, uncles, and some cousins. The audience was big enough to ensure his whole side of the family would know about it the same evening.

After overhearing, I immediately joined the conversation by saying nothing is sure yet, outright telling my Dad that I asked him not to tell because of that, and telling the family that I didn't want to hear or talk about it further. Sadly, this only spiked the curiosity in that group further, and I had to answer a load of questions that I didn't want to or couldn't answer (I said as much in reply to pretty much every question). It also made sure that people 'sensed' some drama and started listening in, making more people overhear what was told.

Of course, I very much prefer the opposite to happen: That whenever I notice that either of my parents discloses something about me that I don't want the family to know, I can cut the conversation short, and let both my parent(s) and the family know that this is not something we're going to talk about and that it's also not a rumour to be shared with other family members or worse, people outside the family.

I assume I can't convince my parents to stop sharing my private information or unfinished business with family, at least not on a short term. I also don't want to lie and deny being busy with unfinished businesses. So what I'm looking for is a better way to handle the situation once I overhear my parent(s) telling someone something they shouldn't know, a way that:

  • Avoids being forced to accept premature congratulations and cheeriness, and having to answer all kinds of questions about this unfinished business (most of which I don't know the answer to because things are still unfinished)
  • Avoids me having to tell them in the future that I didn't manage to finish my unfinished business, and so avoid the empty exclamations of sympathy and rather annoying jokes about not finishing whatever I was up to.
  • Avoids rumours being spread from one person to another so that in the end the whole family and half the town knows. This will hopefully avoid being confronted with my failures again months after I failed, by encountering a random stranger in the supermarket that heard the original rumour but not the result.

In the future, how can I handle the aftermath of a parent leaking my private information to family, in a way that reaches the goals described above?

  • Can you give a concrete example, because without one it's very hard to differentiate between what is a lack of respect for privacy (your parent's fault) or an above average need for privacy (maybe not your fault but at least a mitigating circumstance for your parents) . Without gauging where these examples fit on the scale of social norms, it's unclear if an answer to your explicit question solves the problem or rather gives you ammo to perpetuate a problem. It also impacts the correct phrasing for any response from your side. – Flater Jul 19 at 11:14
  • Just to be clear, I'm not judging you in any way. But I also don't know you. When I imagine your story being told by someone (again, I don't know if this could be you!) whose anxiety leads them to want to never reveal anything about themselves to their own detriment and parents who merely talk about normal everyday things; the answer would misguidedly enable your anxiety. That's a very different story from a person with parents who are blabbermouths with no concept of respecting others' privacy. The lack of concrete example in your question makes it harder since we only hear your point of view – Flater Jul 19 at 11:18
  • @Flater don't the examples from the past help? I'd rather keep the current example hidden until I feel at least reasonably sure it'll be finished... I don't want to tell the family about it, strangers on the internet is another step further. It is something big, you can compare it to letting your parents know you had a positive pregnancy test, but then having them tell everyone you're pregnant without first passing the 'safe' boundary of a first trimester and echo if that helps more than the examples already there. (No, I'm not pregnant :P). So yeah, it's something big, not 'everyday'. – Tinkeringbell Jul 19 at 11:24
  • Did you consider limiting the things you tell your parents ? Or is there a reason why that is not an option ? – MlleMei Jul 19 at 12:29
  • @MlleMei For the things I'm talking about in this question, that's not an option, see the paragraph about some reasons why I can't keep these things secret. I do keep a lot of things as secret for as long as I can, but even that has its own set of problems (complaints about trust and communication, for example) To refine the example in my previous comment, it would probably start with a parent suggesting the pregnancy test to begin with... because you were morning sick when they were around. – Tinkeringbell Jul 19 at 13:27
7

I don’t know how things are in the Netherlands, but this is my three-point plan for avoiding unwanted conversations. Some people are relentless gossips, but many family members may just be trying to show genuine interest. Some people will pick up your intent quickly and honor it, some won’t. If one stage doesn’t work, move on to the next.

Reject

Politely but firmly, refuse to discuss it:

Family member: So parent mentioned you’ve done some thing

You: Yes, I asked them not to mention it because I don’t want to/I’d rather not/I’m not ready to talk about it (yet). Thank you.

Each variation has subtly different connotations, depending on how forcefully you want to state your position. The trailing yet can help string the person along so they don’t feel completely shut down, as there is the promise that you’ll tell them in the future when it’s more appropriate.

If you can and feel so inclined, it can also helps here to offer some morsel to satisfy the curiosity. If it’s especially boring, nobody will care to repeat it, and will help shut down the rumor when someone else spreads it

You: Yea, I didn’t want them to mention anything because it’s not a big deal, this class just has a lab requirement so I wanted to be closer to the school to save time on the extra commute

... sometime in the future:

Other person: Did you hear OP moved back with his parents?

Family member: Yea, it’s nothing, just logistics... changes subject

This stage is best paired with stage 2:

Deflect

Upon shutting down a conversation, a good deflection can make the person not even realize they blundered, helping everyone save face:

You: ... but I hear you (better: your child) just did some amazing thing! How did that happen?

If the person was just making conversation, they’ll probably happily go off discussing their or their child’s latest triumph. You can keep this going, or extricate yourself normally without anyone being hurt.

Variation: Gossip. Beware: this can impact your reputation. Gossips want to gossip, if you can give them something juicier, they’ll move on from your tidbit:

You: ... but did you hear/can you believe other person did something scandalous!?

Same effect, you’re no longer talking about yourself.

Variation: “Hey look over there!” Sometimes the fates smile kindly on a poor soul, and something amazing happens at the most opportune time. You can’t count on these (unless you plan them yourself in advance), but it’s almost your duty not to squander them when they come.

If all else fails, deploy Stage 3:

Eject Just leave:

You: ... Excuse me, I have to use the restroom/take this call/help with the dishes/go pick up a friend at the airport

Variation: Step 2.5

You: ... is that so-and-so!? I haven’t seen them in ages, I’ll be right back. (don’t come right back)

These are potentially the most awkward, but also make your point quite forcefully: you will not be discussing this further.

With some practice, these can all help you steer a conversation how you want. Remember it’s a conversation, not an interrogation: you can’t control other people talking about you, but just because it’s family doesn’t mean they can make you talk about something you don’t want to.

7

Personally, I had great results in the past on similar occasion with the "broken record technique".

From the source I linked:

  1. The Broken Record Technique is a form of assertive behaviour.
  2. It is a verbal response that is firm and clear and conveys a message that you mean what you say.
  3. It tends to work well in situations where people want to argue, don’t want to listen, are non-compliant with treatment, forgetful or disorganised.
  4. Your aim is not to upset or offend but rather to prevent further conflict, manage care more effectively or clarify information.
  5. You acknowledge what the patient is saying or doing but repeat the same expectations in the same or similar words with a polite but firm tone.

In your situation, your "broken record" response to any inquiries by relatives regarding the information your father shared could be for example:

You: Thank you for your interest in $topic, but I don't want to discuss it.

With a certain type of person, this will of course lead to follow-up questions that are aimed to change your mind, questioning your mantra that you won't discuss the topic/issue with them. Any such question should be answered with a repetition of your afore-mentioned response, maybe with slight variantions each time.

The important thing to remember is to never give them any particular reason as to why you don't want to discuss that topic/issue with them, sinde that would give them an angle to work around.

Here is an example of my past, where I used this technique to avoid/derail a discussion I didn't want to have (at that time):

When I still was a gay, "closetted" teenager my father would from time to time voice his concerns about me not having had a girlfriend yet. He would then start a conversation with me and usually suggest I ask out one of my (platonic) female friends or class mates, in order for me to get to know her better.

I would then deflect any such attempt/suggestion by always giving the same (boring to him) response:

Me: Thanks, but I do not want to do that.
Him: But why not? Becky is such a nice young lady; you two would have such a good time!
Me: As I said, I do not want to do that.
Him: If you don't start dating someone soon, all the good girls will be taken!
Me: Once more, I do not want to do that.

I'd like to add that eventually, I came out to him and his (well-intentioned) pestering stopped (especially after he realized that I won't end up living my life alone after all). But until then, for several years, this was a regular discussion we had.

  • 4
    This technique is also helpful to kick somebody out without escalating: I hear <your protest>, but you have to leave, repeat as you walk the person out. – thehole Jul 17 at 0:37
  • 1
    An extra benefit to this technique is that it allows you to check out mentally. Instead of worrying about the topic, finding reasons why it's too soon to talk about, you can just "not care" about it and let it go, giving the same generic response. I used this for an exit interview, where my employer wanted me to stay. As long as I argued with them, they continued to give me new (and old) reasons to stay. Arguing with them was draining. Once I started to respond with "I understand, but I'm still leaving" and let go of worrying about my reasons, the stress I felt went away. – MlleMei Jul 19 at 13:42
  • 1
    I'd even suggest using this technique with your parents, on certain subjects (like the gym), if possible (since they seem to harp on you if you don't tell them everything). You can't change their behavior, but this might be a way to set some boundaries, and to not give them too much to talk about to family members. – MlleMei Jul 19 at 13:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.