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Discuss Personal Life Professionally

By Judith Martin United Features S

Dear Miss Manners: As an individual formerly in management, I am dismayed by associates who make an issue of their personal lives at the office. Nonetheless, I am writing to you for advice on the delicate etiquette of “coming out” in the workplace.

Like other people, I do have a life outside of the work environment. To have no evidence of it in my office and to make no mention of it at work is becoming increasingly burdensome and stilted.

I am particularly annoyed by the need to edit my pronouns. (e.g., Q: “What did you do this weekend?” A: “Uh… worked in the garden,” when, in fact, we worked in the garden.)

I plan to place a picture of my significant other in my office, and I am prepared to answer questions. Our company has a few social events to which employees are encouraged to bring a spouse or guest, and I want, at some point, to be able to bring my partner to one without both of us being creatures from Mars.

The situation is somewhat complicated by the fact that I was, for many years, in a conventional marriage with children and that is how most people think of me, so there is a greater surprise factor than might otherwise be the case.

Gentle Reader: Nobody is more strongly against bringing one’s personal life into the work place than Miss Manners. She doesn’t even approve of those pseudo-social after-hours events you mention; they are neither as delightful as real parties nor as profitable as real overtime.

But she is not quite so Draconian as to condemn a portrait on the desk, an appropriate office visit, or an exchange of pleasantries about the weekend, complete with correct pronouns. There is a huge difference between acknowledging the basic facts of your life, such as the identity of the person with whom you live, and providing a daily supply of intimate details, which is what now passes for workplace chatter.

Miss Manners is pleased that you join her in condemning the abandonment of privacy and dignity that occurred when the ideal of professionalism was recast as friendliness - and a rather loathsome, intrusive form of friendliness at that. But you went beyond being discreet to being secretive, and if you want to cut back to a simple professional demeanor, she has not the least objection.

Others will, she realizes. People who think nothing of cornering everyone with lurid tales about their families may classify your desk photograph or remark about gardening together or office introduction as “flaunting” your personal life, or with that even sillier term, “making a statement.”

She urges you not to accept their premise by behaving as if their knowing your situation now obliges you to satisfy any curiosity about it. You are not “coming out” in the sense of doing what you have always deplored - making an issue out of your personal life. You are merely abandoning an excessive policy of concealment.

So Miss Manners worries when you mention being prepared to answer questions. She hopes you mean reasonable questions, of which she can imagine very few. Perhaps “How long have you known each other?” or “Do you live together?” along with a polite show of interest in your partner’s profession or home town.

More personal questions, such as “When did you discover you were gay?” or “How do your children feel about him?” must be as firmly discouraged. Offices are already full of people who think it reasonable to ask one another why they don’t have children or what caused their divorces - exactly the sort of thing that you and Miss Manners (and the targets of these questions, although it doesn’t stop them from doing it themselves) find offensive.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Judith Martin United Features Syndicate

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