NEW YORK — After getting a call from your lawyer at work, you might be tempted to turn to your co-workers and gripe about your acrimonious divorce proceedings. Before you do, ask yourself whether sharing too much about your personal life could hurt you at work. What you reveal about your life can influence your bosses' and co-workers' perceptions of you and how competent you are. The subject matter may be just part of the problem — how much time you spend chatting rather than working could also be an issue. "The person who interrupts the work flow, that is going to reflect a little more poorly on them when it's time for downsizing," said Cindy Post Senning, an etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute, based in Burlington, Vt. Candice Choi, Associated Press
When sharing helps
Watercooler talk can be a vital part of working. Some sharing contributes to a sense of camaraderie that makes a workplace a more pleasant and productive place to be. Often, though, it's about topics of general interest, not personal problems.
"There is a whole set of things people use for small talk, like sports teams and local events," Post Senning said.
Still, because you're likely to have different relationships with different co-workers, the people you're close to may be willing to hear more of the details of your personal life. There are no hard-and-fast rules on what you can share, or with whom. It could be that the person you're most at ease with is your boss.
When to refrain
Politics and religion are often taboo topics at work. Other subjects that should be off-limits include too much detail about your love life or your nights out drinking.
What you might not realize is that even seemingly innocuous subjects could also cause problems.
If all you talk about is your love of knitting, for example, people may eventually tire of it and start avoiding you, said Rachelle Canter, president of RJC Associates, a career counseling firm based in San Francisco.
Your obsession with a single topic probably won't affect perceptions about your competency. But it could undermine you in more subtle ways, perhaps by hurting your rapport with co-workers. In turn, that could affect how much you enjoy heading into the office, and ultimately, your performance.
Even if co-workers share your enthusiasm about a particular hobby, you don't want to let it become too much of a distraction.
"Sooner or later, the boss is going to realize you don't have enough to do, and you're going to be expendable," Canter said.
Another pitfall could be the information you post online on social networking sites. Even if you post it in a way so that only friends can see it, it's always safer to assume anything you put online could become public.
Dealing with an oversharer
You probably know people at work who give more details about their personal life than you want to hear. Apart from some inner groans, these oversharers generally don't cause any real harm.
If the chatter starts becoming a distraction, however, there are ways to cope.
"Do not in any way ask questions or egg them on. Nod, and be passive in responding," Post Senning said. Once they realize you're not going to engage, they'll eventually stop coming to you.
The tactic might seem cruel if someone is confiding in you about a serious matter, like a family illness. In that case, be frank in explaining how busy you are, and apologize that you can't give them the attention they so clearly need.
If you share a cubicle and can't escape the daily monologues, you might want to get a supervisor involved. Your boss may be able to leave you out of it, and simply note to your co-worker that his or her productivity isn't up to par.
When you have to share
There are of course times when you have a responsibility to share very personal information. If you're going through a divorce or wrestling with a chronic illness, for example, you should talk to a supervisor about any time off or other accommodations you'll need.
Especially at a time when everyone is nervous about layoffs, you don't want to leave any doubt in your boss' mind about your priorities. For example, when you're getting married, you need to tell your boss about the days off you need, but keep the conversation focused on what are likely to be his or her concerns.
"It shouldn't be, 'Yippie, I'm going on my honeymoon!' You need to think about how much lead time to give your boss, and how you can help make any absences easier," Canter said.
That said, you don't need to lay out every detail. Stick to the aspects of your situation that will affect your job. Anything else might be more than anyone wants to hear.