3 Reasons We Tell Strangers More Than We Should

Why you may tell the guy next to you on a flight more than your family knows.

Posted May 27, 2015

We all overshare sometimes. Have you ever told intimate details of your life to a stranger on a plane? Does your hair stylist know your whole life story? Why do we disclose so much personal information to complete strangers? 

Here are 3 surprising psychological reasons why:

CandyBox Images/Shutterstock
Source: CandyBox Images/Shutterstock

1. False Intimacy Triggers. 

Under certain circumstances—seated on a plane nearly touching shoulders, being stuck on a crowded elevator, or sharing a taxi—we may experience a sense of intimacy merely due to proximity. We all have a personal space “bubble"; typically we only let intimate friends invade that personal space. When we are crowded together with a stranger—such as being seated together on a long flight—it triggers a false sense of intimacy. This causes us to let our guard down and we find ourselves disclosing personal information we would otherwise only share with close friends or relations.

A false intimacy trigger also occurs when we are getting our hair done, undergoing a physical examination, or getting a massage. Normally, the only people that touch or caress us are our loved ones. A stylist washing our hair and standing close within our personal space bubble can trigger a false sense of intimacy. We respond by letting our guard down and disclosing perhaps too much personal information. 

2. The Norm of Reciprocity. 

Often we find ourselves in a cycle, disclosing personal information, while a stranger reciprocates with some intimate details of her/his own. We continue telling additional “secrets" and the cycle goes on and on. Before you know it, you have shared far too much. This is due to the "norm of reciprocity"—when someone does something for us, such as letting us in on some secret information, we feel obligated to return in kind. The norm of reciprocity can trigger both parties to disclose more, and more intimate, information.

3. Similarity BiasWhen we meet someone who is quite similar to us in background, appearance, likes and dislikes, it immediately fosters a tendency to feel comfortable and trust the individual. We begin to assume there is a connection, and this can lead us to begin self-disclosing personal information. At that point, the norm of reciprocity then can take over. This frequently happens when we are in a strange or new place, such as a trip to another country. We meet another American, and we immediately assume a stronger connection than actually exists. As a result, we often disclose personal information to someone we would not open up to under typical circumstances.

If this sounds like you, you're not alone. Many people succumb to oversharing. So how can we protect ourselves from disclosing too much to strangers? 

  1. Be aware that invasions of personal space will cause arousal that might lead to trust and a false sense of intimacy. Learn to psychologically keep your distance. 
  2. Remember that a professional who gets close to you and touches your body is just that—a professional doing a job. Don’t assume that you are closer than you actually are. This is also important for the service provider who reciprocates clients’ self-disclosures and ends up feeling embarrassed or psychologically drained that so many clients know secrets about their personal lives.
  3. Finally, if someone begins to disclose personal information, realize that you are not obligated to respond in kind. Simply listen and nod, or break off the conversation.
     

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