Oversharing on the Metro: A tale of TMI

August 8, 2011

She had two open-heart surgeries and six leg operations. She likes turtles, was pregnant at 15 and has an 11-year-old daughter who lives in a group home. She has to file a police report because she just lost her medication, which can be fatal to the wrong person. Her grandfather has a compound in Virginia, and she prefers Burger King’s chicken nuggets over those of other fast-food chains.

All this (and more) I learned in seven stops on the Metro the other day, from a complete stranger who was a loud and compulsive oversharer.

This is the age of TMI, with Facebook and Twitter making sure we know exactly what the kid who sat next to us in ninth grade U.S. history 20 years ago is cooking for dinner, when she is doing laundry and which Clairol color she switched to.

But you have some control over THAT kind of oversharing, unless you’re as clumsy as disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner. The Red Line, by comparison, lacks a “HIDE” button, and the oversharers know it.

They are cunning in the bait they set to hook you into their world — a smile, a quick comment while you wait for the train. Women seem especially vulnerable to their maneuverings, judging from the responses I received when I asked Dr. Gridlock readers about their TMI public transit moments.

“That escalator is broken again,” the oversharer will say, huffing a bit and looking at you for your response. You bite. “Yeah, those escalators, haha,” you offer, making harmless small talk as you both get on the Metro car. And the hook is set. You’re toast.

“My doctor just changed my meds, and he really wouldn’t want me walking down all those stairs in this weather,” the woman adds.

Danger! Danger! Anytime “meds” are spoken of, you’re in trouble. But it’s too late. You’re in, and even though you break from staring at your fellow passengers’ shoes and look directly into their eyes begging for help, they look away.

These are the oversharers who sense our weakness, those of us who always get cornered by them. Whether we’re just polite or make a living trying to get others to talk or take great care to avoid the sculpted, self-importance of other Washington types, we are the dupes, the suckers. And we usually know exactly the moment when it begins to go south.

Heather Lisy won’t forget her mistake a few years ago, on a commute home from work.

“A woman got on at National Airport, sat down beside me and began telling me about her vacation out West to see her daughter. At first, I thought she must have known me because she started talking like I was her best friend, said Lisy, who lives in Washington.

Uh-oh.

“She told me about how her daughter moved out West, what she did on her vacation and finally whipped out her phone to show me pictures of her daughter, her daughter’s friends and herself,” Lisy recounted. “For four long stops, I had to listen and look at pictures of people I didn’t know or care about. The other passengers were quite amused, but I couldn’t wait to get off.”

We have tools to deflect them. The white iPod earbud is the universal signal to BACK OFF. Or, depending on which line you’re riding, there are Kindles, Bibles, magazines, paperbacks or legal briefs to thwart the oversharer.

Granted, these commuter-protection devices don’t always work, particularly when we encounter what I’ll call the spill-oversharers. These are folks who somehow believe the cellphone offers a cone of silence, that the physical absence of the other person in their dialogue gives them immunity in conversations they’d never have in public otherwise.

Melissa Yorks had a memorable encounter with spill-oversharer on the Metro a while back. “A man was having a very loud conversation with his 10-year-old daughter’s psychiatrist on his cellphone,” said Yorks, who lives in Gaithersburg. “How did I know he was talking to his daughter’s psychiatrist and how old she was? Even though I was sitting several seats away from him, I think everyone in the car could hear.”

Jonna Huseman, a communications specialist for the Teamsters who lives in Silver Spring, got sucked into a spill-oversharer’s vortex the other day on her way to work. Despite many open seats, a man talking loudly on his phone chose to sit right next to her.

“He was arguing with a woman; I tried desperately to ignore it, turning my music up louder and burying myself further into my book. He finally hung up, but that wasn’t the end of it,” Huseman realized. “As soon as he was off the phone, he just kept saying loudly and clearly, ‘That woman’s got a big mouth. A big mouth and she just can’t shut it.’ ”

Sounds like that man and his woman were a perfect match.

The scenario, however, might help explain the recent findings of a University of Pennsylvania professor who suggests physical arousal is a huge factor in why we want to share our information with the world. And one trigger, writes Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business, appears to be physical exertion.

Berger tested this theory by having a set of folks read something and decide whether to share it with their friends. Half of the readers jogged a bit before reading, the others just sat. Just 33 percent of the sitters shared the article with their friends while 75 percent of the joggers passed it along.

Aha! That explains the especially high rate of oversharers at every broken Metro escalator.

And perhaps why Anthony Weiner shared his below-the-belt portraiture in the locker room, post-workout.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.
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