Dear Crucial Skills,
I’m trying to establish a strictly professional working relationship with my supervisor. I like to have boundaries to limit my personal involvement, but my supervisor wants to have conversations about weekend plans, vacation updates, and so on. They also continually talk with me and my coworkers about their health challenges and medical details. This makes me uncomfortable. I’ve shared my feelings about their behavior, but things have not changed. How do I respectfully share my communication preferences?
The first thing you need to do is a gut check. Be sure you are fully aware of what you are asking for and the consequences of choosing it. The preferences you describe are reasonable. They just aren’t typical. It’s somewhat akin to asking your favorite fast-food place to not put mayonnaise on your sandwich and then asking them to remember you dislike mayonnaise for every future visit.
Most people use workplaces as a hunting ground for closer friendship. The norm, therefore, is progressive disclosure as a way of deepening relationships. People at most workplaces like mayonnaise. They’re used to making the workplace sandwich a certain way. And if someone comes along that wants it made differently from how most everyone else wants it, that person will need to understand that the burden is on them to help others navigate their unique preferences.
So, if you choose to try to create the social reality you prefer, you will be signing up for the following:
You are signing up for the responsibility of establishing and regularly maintaining your boundary. Don’t expect others to take to it immediately. And expect that you will need to periodically remind them of your preference.
You are choosing to surrender the right to feel resentful, judgmental, and mistreated when people forget your preference.
The only way to initiate this kind of boundary is with an uncomfortable and overt conversation with the colleagues most affected by it. Expect them to be surprised. They may also feel offended. That’s not a reason not to do it, it’s just important that you understand the emotions they might go through as they come to respect and accommodate your reality.
Your desire for more formal relationships may periodically cause you and others discomfort as people work through their own stories about why you want things this way. That’s their stuff—but you should be aware that by choosing this path, you are choosing that consequence as well.
I wish it were the case that we lived in a world where everyone would easily remember and respect others’ unique desires, but we don’t. Accommodation is an ongoing social process that puts a disproportionate burden on those who don’t want the mayo!
Finally, you are signing up to be in the “out group.” Much of what happens in the workplace happens through social serendipity. When people are at the water cooler talking about their sore knee or at lunch discussing vacation plans, a work-related issue will arise and those present will deliberate, discuss and sometimes resolve things. That’s how it is. By asking to be excluded from social niceties, you are choosing to be excluded from these predictable, frequent, and significant social processes.
Please know that my goal in saying all this is not to persuade you to make a different choice. It is simply to help you make an informed one. Should you choose to move ahead with more limited socializing, you’ll be properly prepared for the work and tradeoffs ahead.