I attended a lecture recently in which the concept of boundaries came up, and how some people have a good understanding of other people’s boundaries, while some people do not. Naturally, when dealing with other people, knowing what boundaries exist is incredibly important, but unfortunately, finding those boundaries can be quite difficult.
As an example of this difficulty, someone showed up at the office about an hour later than expected. Asked for a reason, the person responded that it was personal. Later on, the boss found out that it was because of a dental appointment. Not terribly private, one might think… except the employee thought that it was.
This is a case of not knowing someone else’ boundaries. I might not think a dental appointment is a big deal to be talked about by others, but that’s just me. My lines, in terms of what’s okay to discuss in the open and what is not, lie in one place, which are unlikely to coincide with the boundaries of the people I talk to on a daily basis.
Additionally, complicating this is the fact that over time, people move their boundaries. Someone I met yesterday might have one set of boundaries now, but a year from now, topics that are currently taboo may be part of our normal conversations.
In the case of working with the boundaries of other people, be aware that if you aren’t sure if you might be going over the invisible line, that you might be, and adjust your conversation accordingly. Tactful people in general are more sensitive to the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) clues people emit when lines have been crossed. But anyone can learn to turn on their radar, simply by understanding that their boundaries are not the same as those of other people.
Appropriateness of conversation is not dictated by one participant alone – it’s dictated by the boundaries of all the people involved, relative to all other people involved. The strictest rules apply – if one participant would find the conversation taboo because of a single other participant, then that subject is off limits.
If you’re not aware of what boundaries exist between two other people, then holding a three-way conversation can be difficult. If potentially sensitive subjects need to be discussed, try discussing them one-on-one first, which will assist in detecting the lines that have been drawn. Additionally, if personal issues are to be discussed, they should never be brought out in public unless you are absolutely positive that no boundaries will be crossed.