When something is private, it is either personal (that is, confined to one person or well-defined group) or not expressed (that is, what we never say out loud belongs to our thought alone). In the past, a well-defined group meant a small cotillion of friends or a tight family circle, or those who shared our beliefs and attended the same church. Even when we felt most at home in our well-chosen groups, there would be thoughts that never escaped our lips--things we were reluctant to say out loud, even in the presence of good, supportive friends. In other words, sometimes we were private even in the presence of those to whom most of our inner life was exposed. That means that some inner-life details were forever private: i.e. unexpressed.
Cell phones and other technology have redefined the world for us; now, a well-defined group seems to be whomever is in the public bathroom at the same time we are to hear our unfettered expressions. Cell phones have encouraged us to put aside the other sense of privacy, that sense of keeping things to oneself (to be fair: more than cell phones are to blame. Social media, easy access to website-generating programs, and the ability to blog one's undigested thoughts are also culpable. I know. I am such a blogger, though I hope my thoughts are more than just unmeditated outbursts). In short, we have either forgotten what it means to keep some things private, or we have so blurred the line between public and private that the two blend like water colors on a palette, or we no longer care about the distinction.
I just turned forty-nine. In no one's estimation am I old. Yet, I feel old-fashioned when I think about these changing perceptions of privacy. I rail against -- not technology, exactly-- but unbridled freedom, the unconsidered offering. Two impulses seem prominent to me, two that would best be checked more assiduously than they are now.
The first impulse is for complete, unconsidered disclosure. At its core, that impulse hides another: seeking attention no matter the cost. Facebook is perhaps the biggest encourager in this regard. The social media site has become an easy fix; many people seek and receive instant validation, and sometimes I am among them. I want to be clear: it is good to support one's friends, to validate. But Facebook and our obsessive use of it has flattened any scale for balance there may once have been. Most posts receive the same enthusiastic response, whether the writers have just run a marathon or simply turned in an assignment that was due or washed the dishes.It may just be my perspective, but unqualified support doesn't mean as much as the kind that is meted out per the strength of the accomplishment. When my mother said she was proud of me, I knew it was because I had gone above and beyond. For better or worse, she expected me to vigorously meet the minimum requirements. Only when I exceeded them did she think I deserved praise. I carry that attitude with me into my work, where committee participation is expected. When I sit on committees and do what I am asked to do, I resent any overt expressions of gratitude (they sound fawning to me); I am simply doing my job.
Facebook seems to invite the unqualified glee and loyalty of a groupie. I confess that I squirm at such bald pleas for attention. I was raised to value modesty over everything. If I or one of my sisters talked about ourselves too much, we were reminded not to be selfish. We called it bragging. That ingrained attitude has its drawbacks; I find it hard to promote my own work even though my professional development depends on it.
The second impulse is related to the first: namely, thinking that every conversation one has is important enough to be overheard. I suppose this records itself in our brain waves as the simple truth, a procession of nearly-perfect premises: I have a cell phone. I can be reached around the clock. People who are available 24/7 are important cogs in the wheel of progress (hence the blue-tooth devices). Therefore, my cell makes me significant! So I can talk on my phone any time; people may even want to overhear me, since my conversations are obviously filled with wisdom.
No one who has sat in a bathroom stall and listened to someone argue in the next stall with their soon-to-be-ex will object to my plea for a little tempering of this me-first-me-always impulse.
What this public display robs us of is the ability to sympathize. When we hear stories like this over dinner or coffee, stories that we recognize, that break our hearts, that make us enraged at the low-down capabilities of our brothers and sisters, we are quick to offer our undying support. That's because the person telling us has had a chance to call us to see if we're free for the evening, has had time to plan, to go home from work and change into jeans and a T-shirt that has no connection to the bastard who just let her go. S/he has had a little time for introspection, for reflection. What we hear of the story is considered; it's not all red-hot and blathering.
When it is not directed at us, when we overhear the (still) heated exchanges, we see the person at his/her worst. Unedited. In the bathroom stall, with water and the hand dryer running, with the sound of adhesive strips from sanitary pads being torn away, it is hard to get any perspective. The words grate on our ears just as harshly as the unwelcome sound of the metal lid of the sanitary napkin disposal bin closing. Yes, we are in a public place; yes, we sometimes have no choice but to pee there. But that discomfort should be respected, not trod upon. In other words, don't make me more uncomfortable than I already am, exposing my most private bodily functions in public, by exposing your private life--over which you have some say, some choice--in the stall next to me.
What I fear most about our confusion over privacy in the "Cloud" era is that it debilitates us: we don't know any more when to keep anything to ourselves. If there is an audience, we reason, we should hurl our thoughts outward.
How little peace can take root in such an atmosphere. There IS a peace that comes from sheltering some thoughts from public consumption. I have learned, perhaps a little late at almost 50, that not everything my mind dwells on must be shared.