QUESTION: During a recent discussion with a friend, I mentioned that I keep my work and personal lives totally segregated. I never discuss my personal affairs with anyone at work. Most of my friends and extended family know only what field I work in, not which company I work for, and I don't bring up my co-workers in conversation when I'm off.
My friend seemed genuinely shocked about this and said he'd never heard of anyone doing that. Is it honestly that unusual to desire that one's professional and personal lives be completely separate spheres?
ANSWER: As someone with a number of acquaintances who work “for the government,” I don't find it unusual to want to keep the details of your work life vague. And my inbox suggests most people could do with knowing less about their co-workers' intimate personal lives.
In fact, for many workers, keeping mum about even mundane personal details is essential to their personal and professional well-being. So when it comes to matters of national and individual security, I'm all in favour of making the need-to-know threshold a high one.
But take that compartmentalisation to its extreme, and you have Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies: the international super-spy commando posing so convincingly as an ordinary family man that his own wife grows bored with him.
For most of us unclassified schlubs, it's natural to chat (with appropriate discretion) about where we spend a third of our day and how we deal with the delights and frustrations that bubble up there. It's rich storytelling material, and it can help friends and acquaintances know us better. I'd even argue that sharing that side of yourself is crucial to forging real intimacy with those closest to you - especially if you're battling work stress.
From the workplace angle, the “I don't go to work to make friends” crowd may be practical, but they come off a bit hostile. A little superficial information about your interests, travel or pets reassures colleagues they're not working alongside a robot. And if you're reeling from a personal blow and your work is suffering, you should release that information to a select few - again, not because of their need to know, but because of your need to have it known.
So, if you're more comfortable keeping your personal and professional spheres quarantined, I'm not going to tell you to tear down that wall. It's just worth asking yourself what your reasons are for putting up the wall and whether punching a few windows in it would connect you with some necessary sources of support.
Otherwise, you can cheerfully deflect probing questions as follows: “Trust me, the details of my day are not that interesting. But what's been going on in your life?”
* Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. She has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.