I want to think out loud about TMI today—“too much information.” I think we do give too much information sometimes, but I suspect that most of the time that particular way of saying “Shut up!” really means something else. This post will speculate about what else it might mean.
I had a conversation with a friend recently in which TMI came up. I’m going to place attribute his comments to Steve, an entirely fictional creation. Steve is married to Martha, also fictional. I just give them the traits I want to talk about on any given day. It provides me with a source of good examples and they don’t seem to mind.
So Steve was thinking that he had gotten painted into a corner. He tends to speak abstractly so a lot of the time illustrations are needed. Martha asks for illustrations because she doesn’t understand, or isn’t sure she understands, what he is saying. Steve sets about providing the examples Martha asks for. At which point, she clubs him with “TMI.”
Steve speaks abstractly to me too, but I really haven’t had this difficulty with him. I ask for examples and he gives examples. After each one, I check to see if I have a concrete enough grasp of what he is saying. If I do, we go on; if I don’t he gives more examples.
That doesn’t seem to work with Martha, but then this question of how much information is “enough” is harder when a conflict has already begun. The presence of conflict made me wonder if it isn’t a lack of specificity that is bothering Martha. Martha has a concern. Let’s say that the concern is about whether a trip they are considering is really safe. Steve’s answers—each and every one of them—have to do with how exciting the trip will be. He has friends who took this trip and really loved it. He names the friends; he names the various destinations; he tells the stories they told when they got back. He goes on and on until finally Martha stops him—and the conversation—with the TMI club.
What is happening here—or rather, the part of what is happening here that I want to look at today—is that Steve is providing lots of information but none of it bears on Martha’s concern. Martha may have tried and failed to get Steve to address the concerns she actually has. It is her frustration speaking when she says TMI.
My experience says that if you don’t know what they really care about, you can waste a lot of words and give yourself a frustration headache. When you do know what they really care about—sometimes I have taken the time to find out and sometimes not—it doesn’t take many words at all. Not many examples; not much “clarification;” not much “explanation.” I don’t know why it is hard, sometimes, to find this out, but I have come to the conclusion that time spend finding it out is better spent than is time piling up examples that you think are going to be relevant but aren’t.
I know that some people are just better at this than others are. I know that I am not very good at it, that I am better at it than I used to be, and that I can do it pretty well if I remember how important it is. In any case, it is something I value a good deal in others.
Which brings me to a first date story. Bette and I met first for coffee at Starbucks. I’m not calling that our first date. That was a meeting so we could decide if each of us wanted a first date. Our actual first date was a movie. After the movie, we wandered around the mall and I asked Bette if I could take some pictures of her. She said, “Sure.”
So I took a few. Nothing seemed problematic. Then I thought of a picture of her I thought I would like to have. This is the picture. But getting here wasn’t easy. The table was too high for her to sit like this. I couldn’t figure out just how her arms should be so that her hands could be the way they are in the picture—and her chin on her hands like this was really the only part of the picture that had been clear to me.
Then a really really nice thing happened. Bette said, “Oh. I think I see what you’re getting at.” And they she arranged herself exactly into the picture I had imagined and I took it and went home a very happy guy. Bette had been able to put herself in my place and to see herself the way I was seeing her. Based on that, she made a reasonable guess about what I was really looking for. It was a very good guess, it turned out, but what really flipped my switch was that she tried.
I’m passing this story along partly because I like it, but I also think it is at the heart of the TMI problem. I really think that if Steve took the time to put himself in Martha’s place, he would see what was needed. It might be information, but it might not. It might be reassurance. It might be freely granted time to consider the idea. Note: “grudgingly granted” time doesn’t work as well. It might be conveying an understanding that Martha’s concerns are entirely reasonable.
Steve and Martha are just going to have to work it out, but when I think of their difficulty, it reminds me of this date and the great pleasure I took in Bette’s willingness to put herself in my place and help me figure out what I was asking.
 If you are my age, it is easy to see it as Three Mile Island, which was more destructive, sure, but this feels worse if you are involved in it yourself.
 Bette was my last date. I haven’t dated anyone since I started dating her. And no one, either, since I married her. But my first date—the first of the series that ended with Bette—was six months before that. Also a movie date. I asked if I could take a picture and my date looked at me suspiciously and said, “Why would you want to do that?” She went on at some length to describe what she feared: her picture was going to wind up on a wall along with the pictures of a lot of other women I had dated and she would feel so demeaned to have her picture in such a collection.