Humans are social species hard-wired to care about the business of other humans in their social circles. It’s what made us tick for thousands of years. An unwanted consequence of this tendency is nosiness.
I have done a separate piece on what makes people nosy that you might want to check out.
Long story short, nosiness allows people to collect important information about others. They use that information to compare themselves to others, get an idea of their own social standing and find out how reproductively successful others are.
Humans evolved in tightly knit, genetically related groups in which the group members highly depended on each other for their survival and reproductive success. As human society progressed, the groups became larger and larger.
The result being that an individual today comes into contact with many people (in real life, and more so on social media). Most of these people don’t belong to their ‘tribe’. Yet, their tribal tendency to poke their nose into another tribe member’s affairs remains.
So, they end up interfering in the affairs of people that don’t actually belong to whatever they consider their tribe.
Closeness and information sharing
How much information a person reveals about themselves is proportional to their closeness to the receiver of that information.
Imagine there are concentric circles of closeness around each person. People who belong to the inner circles or zones have access to more personal information about the person whereas people belonging to the outer circles enjoy little access.
Every person you come across either belongs to the:
1. Stranger zone
People falling in this zone have little or no access to your personal information. Nosiness from such people can be the worst and may even turn you aggressive.
2. Acquaintance zone
Those in this zone know you and you know them. There’s minimal exchange of personal information. Nosiness from people who belong to this zone is also unacceptable.
3. Friendship zone
A lot of personal information is mutually shared in this zone. Still, some important personal matters are also kept secret. We rarely accuse these people of being nosy.
4. Relationship zone
People belonging to this zone are people who’re the closest to you. They have access to most of your personal information. They’re only deprived of the contents of your mind that you’ve never shared. These people are almost never accused of being nosy unless they find a way to peek into your mind.
How the closeness zones work
When we share our personal information with someone, we do that based on how close we think they are to us or how close we want them to be.
For instance, when you’re trying to convert a friend into a lover, you do that by sharing more personal information with them. You also encourage them to share more personal information so that it becomes a mutual thing.
This way, you pull them from the friendship zone into the relationship zone. This mutuality is what keeps a person in a particular zone.
For a person to stay in a zone, the personal information they share with you has to be balanced by the proportionate personal information you share with them.
If either you or them withdraw from sharing personal information, they move to the outer zones. If you both increase the amount of shared personal information, they move into the inner zones.
When they expect you to share more personal information than you should based on the zone they’re currently in, it’s their attempt to forcefully move into your inner circles. This is nosiness.
Nosey people expect you to share your personal information with them even though you don’t expect them to share the same information. There’s no mutuality here. They’re stepping out of the bounds you’ve set for them.
Their attempt to get close to you (or show ‘care’) by asking for your personal information creates an artificial closeness that you feel compelled to push back against.
Ways to stop being nosy
If you’re a nosy person, you’re asking people personal questions that they don’t expect from you based on the zone you’re in.
In each zone, people can only ask certain types of questions. Sure, you can try to ask more personal questions and push your way through into their inner circles. But that can only happen if they let you. There needs to be mutuality.
Following are the things you can do to stop being nosy:
1 Assess their response to your increasingly personal questions
A great way to know what zone you belong to is to ask them increasingly personal questions. If they answer your questions, great. You’re definitely in the zone you thought you were in. Or you can move into the one you want to move into.
If they don’t answer, you’re probably being nosy. If you have to pressure people to answer your questions, you’re definitely overstepping your limits and being nosy.
2. Re-adjust and calibrate
It’s understandable that you may want to get closer to a person. Or you may desperately want to know something about them. Whenever you try to step outside of your bounds and they push back, always re-adjust. Avoid asking further inner zone questions and stick to your zone.
Occasionally, you might want to share information about yourself that is more personal than the zone you’re currently in. If they’re glad you shared this information, they’re likely to reciprocate, moving you into the inner zones.
The key is to stick to your zone as much as possible and occasionally make bids to enter their inner zones, watch how they react, and re-adjust.
3. The mutuality test
The best way to determine whether you’re being nosy is to use the mutuality test. Ask yourself the following questions:
“Have they asked me a similar question about the same topic before?”
“Would I answer them if they asked me a similar question?”
If the answer to any of the above is “No”, you’re risking being too nosy.
4. Avoid asking questions about evolutionarily sensitive topics
People prefer to guard their evolutionarily sensitive information against other people the most. Such topics include:
- A Close relationships (e.g., “Are you and X still together?”)
- Money (e.g., “How much do you make?”)
- Health (e.g., “What were the results of your diabetes test?”)
You should always double-check that you’re in the right zone when you ask questions on these topics.
Of course, this ‘zones of closeness’ framework is only a general guideline. There are situations where people have to share personal information with those they’re not close to.
For example, sharing information about your health with your doctor. Another example would be sharing information about your relationships with a therapist.
Interestingly, feeling close to your therapist is a common phenomenon. It’s because you’ve shared so much personal information with them that your mind seeks consistency by pulling them into one of your inner zones.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.