The Science of Sharing

I feel like I’m five years old and playing doctor. Over dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, a relatively new friend leans in and tells me that she’s getting sick of her husband. Stiffens at the sound of his voice, pirouettes away from his stubby fingers.  I nod sympathetically, while she ticks off all of his habits that nauseate her.  The list is long. When she finishes and picks up her fork, it’s my turn to talk.  I know that a goofy aside about my new Chrissie Hynde-inspired bangs isn’t going to cut it. This woman expects me to pull a problem out of my purse, expose myself. I think of that scene in Silence of the Lambs in which Hannibal Lecter whispers to Clarice, “Quid pro quo. If I tell you things, you tell me things.”

Clearly, it’s my turn to share.

The old me would have grabbed the mic and launched into a monologue, braised with insecurities and self-deprecation. Up until a year or so ago, I shared like a pro, a Siamese twin. When talk turned to work, you could count on me to recount every detail of a messy break up with a writing partner. If someone brought up sex, I was the first to admit that a post-partum drought between my husband and me still had yet to be quenched. I once told a colleague who insisted that she had the worst labor experience that I shat while on the delivery room table and my OB had to hop out of the way. Too much, you say? I agree.

But there was a heady buzz that came with tossing my latest career hiccup or social blunder into the lap of another woman. Never mind the fact that it made me the center of attention and I could tweak the details with every retelling to heighten the drama. It also me made me feel a little reckless—like I do when I stand in front of the refrigerator and paw at leftover Pad Thai for breakfast.  Once I started gushing over a cocktail or on a late night phone call with a girlfriend, it was really hard to stop.

Of course, trading intimacies and confidences has always been the wampum of women’s relationships. Back in the prehistoric day, we huddled in the kitchen of the cave and gossiped while our men hunted down dinner. But recent scientific research suggests that sharing isn’t just a gender-based pastime that brings us together and helps us bond. Nor does talking about our issues simply stoke our innate narcissism. It feels as addictive as devouring those greasy Thai noodles because it profoundly alters our physiology.

“If we run to our friends when we have a problem, it literally has a calming effect on the body,” says Stephanie Brown, adjunct assistant professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. “Intuitively, we know we are going to feel better if we do it.”

A few years ago, Brown made a big breakthrough on what drives women to share. Researchers already knew that we are more prone to self-disclosure than men, thanks to higher levels of progesterone. Often referred to as a “sex hormone” because it prepares the uterus for fertilization, progesterone spurs maternal feelings and social bonding. It also aids in reducing stress and anxiety. But what Brown discovered was that the act of sharing actually increased our levels of progesterone.

In the 2009 study, she paired up two groups of 80 female college students and had one set of women swap personal information like “an embarrassing moment in your life.” The other group of partners co-edited an academic paper. A week following the exercise, Brown found that the students who shared intimacies still had more progesterone in their systems. “You’re not out on a limb to think that the hormonal basis of social bonding is regulating your stress,” says Brown. “Maybe even making you more healthy.”

Lately, the myriad value of female friendship among all species is a hot topic. Feminist fist pump-worthy findings abound: We now know that female baboons that form close bonds with their tribal sisters endure less stress and live longer. Also, lady elephants in Sri Lanka look out for their pals when essential resources like water become scarce. And when a female prairie vole freaks out, a supportive same sex partner can help her to settle down and relax.  New York Times science writer Natalie Angier recently noted in an article that these female relationships are a force that  “not only binds existing groups together but explains why the animals’ ancestors bothered going herd in the first place.”

So, why did I quit sharing? Am I a glutton for stress? No, I just shared too much and too often. I was that baboon who never stopped jabbering. My brand of compulsive self-disclosure is better known as “co-ruminating,” according to sociologist Amanda Rose. I originally contacted Rose at the University of Missouri to talk about her 2011 study on sharing among young girls versus boys. But once we started chatting, what fascinated me most about her research on friendship was her earlier look at this obsessive strain among young females.

“What we have always heard is, ‘Talk about it and you’ll feel better. Get it off your chest,’” says Rose. “But talking about the same problem for hours validates its importance in your life. And when you dissect it and analyze it, it feels like it gets bigger and bigger.” Not surprisingly, the number one topic among co-ruminators is boyfriends.

Bad ones, I have to assume. Years ago, when I found out that my then Irish boyfriend was a rat, I did more outreach for support than the Red Cross. All I craved was to talk about Mark, a.k.a “he who cheated,” and I spared no one the details.  Once I had thoroughly exhausted my circle of confidantes, I started sharing with colleagues in my office and then acquaintances and then anyone who would feign interest. I’m ashamed to admit that I once panicked when a friend told me that she was finally pregnant—after a few painful missteps—over lunch. All I could think about while she chirped about sonograms and boy names was how I could derail the conversation. “You know you can’t name him Mark…” was my sneaky segue back to me.

All that divulgence should have upped my progesterone to untold levels. It didn’t. In fact, it took me almost a year of moping to get over that crappy six-month relationship. And here’s where the science of sharing gets tricky. The research on co-ruminating also shows that excessive problem talk causes depression and anxiety over time. In that sense, healthy sharing is a lot like healthy eating or drinking. Disclose too much and you circle back to the stressful state that made you dial your friends and gush in the first place.

Unfortunately, our yearning to share starts long before we can define moderation. In her most recent study, Rose found that girls as young as seven years old have high expectations for talking about their problems with close friends.  “Even among elementary school girls, you see this desire to engage in these one-on-one conversations. And they expect that it will make them feel cared for and understood,” says Rose, who studied girls up to age 17. Conversely, boys of the same age span had no interest in sharing their problems with peers. Not because it felt like a breach of their masculinity. Rather, they simply thought that sharing was a waste of time.

Looking back, I remember my first big reveal in fifth grade. My father had just moved out of our house in suburban, middle class New Jersey to a motel on the highway with a paunchy hurricane fence. It was a trial separation. My brother and sister and I promised our parents that we would tell no one. But I longed for some sympathy, a squeeze to my freckled knee. So I told all to my best friend Allison, a strapping redhead with a faulty mood ring. At first, she treated me more tenderly and shared her snacks. But as soon as we got in a tiff, she used my secret to sucker punch me. “At least, my dad doesn’t live in a cheap motel,” she taunted.

More than three decades later, that betrayal still nips at my heart. It was the first time a proffered vulnerability boomeranged back at me—though certainly not the last. Sharing classified information is like baring the soft, doughy underside of your bicep to the sun. You’re bound to get burned. And for me, the workplace has always been a beach in that respect. Throughout most of my late twenties and thirties, I worked with women, first at fashion magazines and then within the style section of a city newspaper. Weekly staff meetings often devolved into personal chitchats. On slow afternoons, we holed up in each other’s offices—chic confessionals—with our high heels dangling from our toes and let it all hang out.

One colleague, let’s call her P., and I shared everything, from tiny diamond stud earrings to club sandwiches. If P. applied a swath of lip-gloss, she would wet the wand and pass it to me without a word. I counseled her through a traumatic estrangement with an alcoholic father. She helped me build enough emotional reserve to break off a callow engagement. One day, she casually asked me how much I made and I told her my entire salary history at the magazine. (Like I said, I always shared too much.) She murmured something about us both deserving more.

A month later, I found out that P. used my admission to ratchet up her own annual figure. Ever the loyal confidante, she even told me that she did it. My boss never confronted me on it, but I felt her disapproval. Pat Heim, an L.A.-based expert on gender issues in the workplace, tells me that I tumbled into the hidden chasm within corporate cultures. That’s me, a modern day Alice in a pencil skirt instead of a pinafore. “Men live in hierarchies and women live in a flat culture where power is shared more equally,” says Heim, who co-authored In the Company of Women: Turning Workplace Conflict in Powerful Alliances. She calls this juxtaposition an “invisible double bind” or conflicting message and warns “women have to be cautious about who they share with because it makes them vulnerable. Those intimacies can become a powerful weapon.”

I don’t think many of us would melt down information into ammo. Nor do I believe that sharing, this currency unique to female relationships, brings out the worst in women. By over sharing, I screwed up the economy. My problem was that the act made me vulnerable to myself. I relied on others to somehow absorb my problems because it was easier to vocalize them than to internalize them. I haven’t yet found the golden mean of self-disclosure but I now let the other baboons get a word in. And when I watch my young daughter Tess play with little girls, I caution her against offering up every cracker. “Honey, it’s good to share,” I say. “But not all of it.”

-Monica Corcoran Harel

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