In Defense of Oversharing a Little Too Much Information

Oversharing is widely deplored and highly criticized, and those who commit the crime are often themselves considered affronts to good taste. Maybe they can't help it. Also, couldn't it be worse? Beware the undershare!

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Oversharing is widely deplored and highly criticized, and those who commit the crime are often themselves considered affronts to good taste. Maybe they can't help it. And also, couldn't it be worse?

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth Bernstein takes on the matter of oversharing. It's a word — unlike "secrets," "gossip," or "cocktail chatter" — pretty much guaranteed to cause eye rolls, groans, and exhausted sighs of "not that again!" "aghhhhhhh," or "I will never get those 5 minutes of my life back!" That's because the typical overshare provides plenty of information about things we don't really want to know. Things which someone insists on telling us anyway. It's not so much the content that's the problem. It's that the sharer did not target her content properly. You see, an overshare is dependent on the listener to determine whether it's "over" or simply a "share." Surely there are some people in the world who do want to know about that fight with your spouse, or how the cat puked on your pillows last night, and what you did, then. Find said people. If you can't, look out world. You're probably going to share anyway.

Bernstein's article offers some defense for the civilian oversharers we love to hate: They can't help it. It's not their fault. It happens as we try to control anxiety, say experts. As the theory goes, when you talk to people you want to impress, you're all worked-up about what they're going to think of you, and that depletes the brain power you have to address things like properly conversing without oversharing. That's why you told your new boyfriend's parents that you hate kids, or the HR recruiter at the company where you interviewed that it was just the kind of day that makes you want to curl up in bed and stay there. You can blame not only anxiety but also your parents for your big mouth. If they brought you up a certain way, the attention-needy way, you may seek it further by revealing any and all tuna sandwiches you ate for lunch.

Partly too, this is about the culture in which we live. Bernstein gives some of the credit for the surge in oversharing to reality TV and social media, because in those venues, "it's perfectly normal for people to share every single detail of their lives, no matter how mundane or personal." True or not, it's a big old trickle-down, is the idea. The more sharing, the more we go overboard with it, not just in person, but more and more online, too, and often, for money. Photographs, status updates, blog posts, and reported articles can be considered, by some or by many, to be "oversharing." So may be entire books! Anything presumed to reveal too much, to be too personal or self-indulgent or maybe just yucky, is considered an overshare. And oversharing, well, we hate it!

Except we kind of want it, I think. We all want to feel. And oversharing is bound to have that effect not only on the sharer, but also on the recipient of that sharing. Note that no one gets criticized specifically for undersharing. No one says that word. People just say "boring." And it does seem that women in particular (and women who write especially) are unduly criticized — not for being dull, but for the sin of oversharing. As Tyler Coates writes at FlavorWire in a piece defending Mandy Stadtmiller (a writer who's oft been accused of the crime), "It's a word usually lobbed at female writers, particularly those whose personal essays are reduced by male critics (a nice way of saying 'Internet commenters') as self-indulgent, navel-gazing screeds that serve no purpose other than directing attention to the writer's byline."

Of course, there are all kinds of oversharing ranging from amateur to professional. Some forms of the trade may be accidental and excusable due to stress; other types seem to exist purely to get attention. Perhaps these are the really offensive sorts of overshares. If you're oversharing for the page views or for your friends to surround you with hugs and support only for you to say later, oh, that was no biggee at all, that's not great. If you're doing it to make others uncomfortable, on purpose, that's rather deplorable. One must be ever-wary, too, of the slippery oversharing slope, that idea that the next overshare must be bigger and better and, well, you might just be bringing about the end of effective sharing in society. When all the overshares have been shared, one might ask, what is left?

There is a fine line between sharing (widely, even universally considered good) and oversharing (widely, even universally considered bad). Some of what the world dubs an "overshare," I might just call "fun stuff to talk about over drinks with friends." And I'd contend that far worse than the much-decried overshare is the undershare. It is more insidious than its predecessor for numerous reasons. One, because we get nothing from it. It is both uninteresting and highly unsatisfying to live in an utterly polite perfect society in which no one says anything that bothers anyone else, not least because someone is always going to be bothered. Oversharing, too, does the service of giving people things to rail against, to enjoy, to learn from, to feel better about themselves with. And there are people who make their livings based on oversharing, or on pointing out someone else's oversharing (see STFU Parents, a valuable example of the former). Where would the economy, and our enjoyment levels, be without it?

In Victorian times, perhaps, the overshare was a whisper about one's corset button coming unclasped during a mixed-gender tea. Today, well, it might be a blog post about sex, or bodily fluids, or the end of a relationship. But it's not so much that what we share has changed (though sometimes it has). It's that sharing on the internet means we see it everywhere, and our reactions are proportionate to our intake. Perhaps that makes us tired, or cranky, but an anti-sharer can certainly walk away, or block a Facebook feed, or stop reading certain blogs. Imagine a day without anything that might remotely be described by anyone else as an overshare. How drab. How stultifying. How impossible. How sans the letter I.

Certainly, caution, or at the very least, a dash of self-awareness, should be taken with the information we expose to our friends and the broader world (i.e., don't post your divorce plans on Facebook before you've even discussed your relationship with your spouse; don't live-tweet your breakup or Instagram vomited-in bathroom). But also, stop turning oversharing into the enemy. It can have its place. We're getting something out of it, even if it's that we like to think oversharing is bad, thereby enabling some of our more unlikeable judge-y qualities themselves.

So, yes, please, tell me what you ate for lunch, who you just broke up with and why, and how you really got that chocolate stain on your pants. If I don't like what I'm hearing, I'll walk away.

Image via Shutterstock by Ollyy.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.