Dear Kiki: How do I tell a customer ‘TMI’?

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Dear Kiki,

I have a client who is getting a little … too personal with her stories. She works in a location that I deliver to for my job, and I see her pretty often, almost every day. She’s very nice; problem is, for the past couple months she’s kept me up to date with her love life. She’s divorced and in the dating scene and keeps telling me about whatever person she’s met and gone on dates with, and how often they don’t work out. I didn’t really mind this at first, but she’s got a little more explicit with certain details as of late, and it’s making me a bit uncomfortable and taking up my time. I’m not really one to share a lot of details about my personal life, so it’s also very one-sided. My issue is, she seems like someone who is very sensitive and gets her feelings hurt easily, which I’ve gathered from her stories about her love life. I don’t think that’s a bad quality, but I’m nervous about potentially hurting her feelings and ruining our friendly work relationship. Should I just come right out and tell her she’s making me uncomfortable? Should I get my supervisor involved? Should I just try to avoid interaction as much as possible? I’m at a loss.

Tired of TMI

Dear Tired,

You’re very kind to be thinking about your acquaintance’s feelings. It’s likely that kindness is what makes her feel she can open up to you. And while I’m never going to recommend that someone be less kind, I will say that, for the sake of kindness, you should probably start being less nice.

A distinction without a difference, you say? Ohhhh, buckle up, Tired, because this is one of Kiki’s favorite topics.

“Iowa nice” is more than just an ambiguous phrase deployed as praise and insult in roughly equal measure. It’s also the way that anyone who has spent any substantial amount of time in the Midwest is conditioned to behave, on pain of social ostracization. It’s the impulse to equate politeness with minimizing ourselves.

People living on the crowded coasts have learned to share physical space, but will fill emotional space with abandon. Here, on the wide open prairie, we shrink and cower in our interactions and are praised for it. That’s probably why you get the impression that your workplace chatterbox might get her feelings hurt if you call her out: She’ll read the interaction as though she broke the social contract and get embarrassed.

The thing is, Tired, that she *did* break the social contract. And this is where “nice” butts up against “kind.” By smiling and nodding, you’re leading her to believe that she has a closer relationship with you than she does, which also ironically prevents any actual friendship (which requires intimacy from both parties) to blossom. Essentially, you’re treating her like a TV program, and you’re annoyed because you can’t find the remote. The only action available from a place of kindness is to engage with her as a person. Holding her at a distance may be nice, but it’s unkind.

Step one: Be honest and specific. Tell her, “I enjoy chatting with you, but it makes me uncomfortable when you share intimate details of your life with me.” She might not believe the first part, and yes, she might feel hurt at first—but she’ll probably stop oversharing.

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Step two: Keep talking. You’re the one who nixed this line of conversation, so you need to come up with a new one. Future awkward silences are on you to fill, at least to start. Show her with your actions that you value your daily banter and that you want to remain friendly.

Be your best self, Tired. That’s the other glaring difference between nice and kind: Nice is a way we attempt to control the reactions of others; kind is the acknowledgement that we can only exert authority over ourselves. Maybe she will freeze you out. Maybe she’ll retaliate in some way (in which case, do get your supervisor involved). But however she responds, you’ll know you were respectful and kind — both to her, and (importantly) to yourself.

xoxo, Kiki

This article was originally published in Little Village’s November 2022 issues.