Somewhere along the line, it seems to have become not only okay to share everything about your life with the world, but also to talk about other people's lives with anyone who will listen. This may or may not be okay but within the context of a career, a lack of discretion can kill you...well, your career at any rate.
First of all, let's talk about being discrete about yourself. With the explosion of Facebook, LinkedIN, Myspace, twitter and other phenomenon, we are now connecting with people in new and novel ways. What is interesting is that many people engaged in these new media seem to have a different idea who they are communicating with and this may cost them!
The first question I suggest you ask yourself is: "Would I be comfortable seeing this on a billboard driving into my home town?" If the answer is no, then perhaps a bit of discretion is in order. Once something is posted on line anywhere, regardless of privacy settings or anything else, you can pretty much guarantee that it will be shared with someone at some point in time. So - if you don't want your boss to know that you spent the weekend as high as a kite at a rally against big business, perhaps this would be a good thing to keep to yourself, rather than talk about it with everyone and worse yet, publish it online for the world to see.
Many of the things in our personal lives don't belong in our professional lives. We may wish to party, swear, carry on and so on in our personal lives but when we come to the office, we want to be seen as professional, credible and respectable. Think about that the next time you publish pictures of you and your friends cavorting in Vegas! In general, you will be much better served in your career quest by being discrete. What you do on your own time is your own business and it should for the most part, remain that way.
The second part of this equation has to do with speaking about others behind their back. In the olden days we used to call this "gossip" and these days, we seem to call it "normal". What do you think it says about you and your character when you speak about someone else in a less than flattering way when they are not present? How does this sort of nattering support you and your career?
It is much preferable to maintain a sense of decorum and respectability in your workplace by not engaging in gossip and rumour mongering. You will actually earn the respect of your peers (and more importantly, your superiors) by not engaging in these sorts of conversations. Is it difficult to avoid? Sure. However, you can always be seen to take the high road by saying, "You know, I personally don't feel comfortable talking about George and his parties when he isn't here to share his experiences first hand. So, what did you do over the weekend?"
While you may initially be seen as a "stick in the mud" by some people, ultimately, people will see you as person of great character, huge integrity and as a true and trusted friend. Does that sound like someone you would like to promote? Me too!
When you demonstrate personal and professional discretion, you become more trusted and that is a real requirement for reaching the inner circle. The people who can't seem to resist talking about other people behind their backs will always be viewed with a bit of concern and even suspicion. It is your choice, but my recommendation is if you don't want to sink your career - demonstrate discretion and know that while it may not accelerate your career, it certainly won't harm it at all. Something that can not be said for those who are less discrete.