I’m a millennial and I can’t get my older colleagues to be vulnerable. Help!

So close, but so far away.
So close, but so far away.
Image: Getty Images
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I’m a sharer. An extrovert. I come from a loud, Italian family, where argument is a sign of love, and emotional repression is a skill we never learned, or wanted to. I’ve explicitly written about my sex life, therapy, and anxiety. I find the experience liberating, not scary.

Of course, at work especially, sharing runs the risk of over-sharing. From awkward laughs to reputation damage and potential harassment, you should never give intimate details to people you don’t trust, or in conversations that aren’t consensual.

But sharing also drives vulnerability, which, as a millennial, I’ve been primed to believe is a preeminent professional strength. The headlines are endless: “Want to be more successful? Embrace vulnerability”; “The best leaders are vulnerable“; “Embracing vulnerability at work is the key to employee engagement”; “Why doing awesome work means making yourself vulnerable.”

If that’s true, then I’m destined for great things at work. But whether we are in leadership roles or not, we all have issues—and hiding our baggage at work, in my eyes, is a massive waste of energy. As vulnerability expert Brené Brown explains in her infamous TED Talk, “you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.”

I feel sad for those who believe emotional numbing is possible (and for those who’d choose banana nut muffins to numb their pain). On occasion, I cry in the office. Or rant to my work friends. Or sulk silently, do the bare minimum, then go home early. I don’t maintain a ”work-self” and a “self-self,” and I don’t aspire to. It’s just too much effort (and yet also counterproductive, if you believe the experts).

A few months ago, I changed roles at work, going from the youngest member of a millennial-dominated team to the youngest member of a team dominated by Generation X. Most of my new colleagues are at least 10 years my senior. Several of them have children, spouses, and mortgages. They are adults. Comparatively, I am a child. As a sharer, I don’t mind telling you, it was terrifying.

It was also a little lonely. Gone was the office banter I was used to, about dating woes or roommates who don’t clean the dishes. The new group was cordial, but relatively formal. We’d ask about one another’s weekends without getting too many details in return. We’d brainstorm together on work ideas, but refrain from extrapolating them to our own lives. Then, at our third team meeting, our editor proposed a group exercise. We would each write the user manual to ourself, with specific guidance about our personalities, professional habits, and preferred communication styles, and we would share them with everyone on the team.

I was thrilled. For one thing, I’d already done the assignment; I’d written about user manuals before for Quartz, and had drawn up my own user manual for my former boss to test the concept. Even better, I’d finally have the opportunity to get real with my new teammates—and for them to do so with me.

Corinne Purtill, a Gen-Xer on the team, would later tell me that writing her user manual reduced her to tears. She thought the whole exercise seemed backward: “Insecurities and emotional needs… are not for sharing at work. Those you crush and throw away, like beer cans on the beach. Those you do not enumerate in list form for your supervisor or colleagues or anyone, ideally, if you can help it,” she wrote. I love Corinne—but what?

Corinne admits that her philosophy causes problems in her personal life. But they’re “problems that­—and this is the beautiful symmetry of this system—I don’t talk about at work.”

In retrospect, I take it as a small victory that she was willing to share as much as she did.

Ultimately, Corinne put her fears aside, and used humor (as she is wont to do) to get somewhat honest: “What I don’t have patience for: For lack of a better term: trivial shit,” she wrote. “I don’t like office politics. I don’t like the busy work that women often get stuck doing, like organizing Secret Santas and figuring out who brings snacks to the meeting.” Preach.

Lila MacLellan, another Gen X-er on the team, was also willing to open-up, explaining that if she reacts awkwardly to criticism, for example, “it’s probably because I’m desperately trying to respond with just the right amount of grace and professionalism, and I’m terrified of either becoming defensive or beating myself up, diverting attention from the problem that needs to be solved.”

From there it was mostly run-of-the-mill. In the “My Style” section of his user manual, my colleague Khe Hy—who regularly writes about the importance of vulnerability—wrote about his preference for working methodically. For the “What I Value” portion, Oliver Staley wrote about how he values intelligence and efficiency, as did Heather Landy, our manager, who also mentioned confidence, compassion, and hard work. Sarah Kessler shared things like “I like to focus” and can’t stand “any flavor of mean.”

All useful to know. But meh.

When we discussed the manuals at a team debriefing, nearly all of my colleagues said their reflections were more honest than they had ever been at work. In some cases, they felt overexposed, even embarrassed. When I expressed my surprise, they justified their hesitance. Khe said the five-section format we followed for the manuals felt limiting. “I have no problem being vulnerable, but in doing this exercise, I just couldn’t be. And I don’t know why,” he told me.

Oliver said that in his 20-year career, he’d been taught that any personal details you share could be used against you. Corinne was shocked by my approach to vulnerability: “I don’t know how much of it is personality driven and how much is generationally different, but it was such a stark contrast to the instructions I felt I’d been given about what’s ‘ok’ to share with coworkers,” she said.

The irony—given that we all write about modern management, and regularly advocate for honesty and transparency—felt profound to me. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say it made me feel a little bit naive.

The generational divide in today’s modern workplace is unavoidable—especially at companies like Quartz that relish dismantling unnecessary hierarchies and running as flat an organization as possible. But when generational frustration turns to judgment (which often leads to dismissiveness), no one wins.

It was easy to judge my colleagues’ “weak” attempts at honesty. Harder was realizing that their silence and restraint was an even more profound form of vulnerability. In holding their cards close, my co-workers demonstrated the importance of moderation, a strength honed through experience and challenges I have not yet known. And in revealing their personalities to me, and to one another, over time, rather than laying themselves bare, they taught me an equally powerful truth—which we’re so deeply deluded about in the age of social media—that exposure doesn’t always equate to honesty.

I’m going to make sure I don’t overburden my colleagues. But in the weeks since we launched this experiment, they’ve already validated the idea that, done mindfully, personal sharing turns deskmates to friends, bosses to mentors, anxiety to empathy, and work to life.