Monday, March 19, 2012

Oversharing and the Right to Privacy

I met a women last week (I use the term "met" loosely as we weren't introduced and I don't know her name) and after sitting in the same waiting room as her for only 5 minutes I can almost tell you her life story.  These are just a few of the things she told me while we sat across the room from each other:

  • She had to quit her job because of being sick all the time from stress from parenting her 2 year old.
  • She couldn't afford childcare or preschool, even with government subsidy.
  • She had taken the bus with her stroller to carry her stuff, though her child didn't need a stroller anymore.
  • Her child's father is 43, 16 years older than her.
  • She has FASD.
  • She hadn't had a vacation for 5 years.
  • She had cut her daughter's hair short because she (the daughter) didn't like ponytails and complained about it being hot in the summer.
  • They barely had enough money to pay for rent & groceries and cell phone bills.
  • She was getting money from her grandmother's estate that she was going to use to pay off her credit cards and then get a tattoo of her daughter's name on her arm with Mickey & Minnie Mouse on either end of the name.
  • People always mispronounce her daughter's name. (Probably because it's a made-up name, don't even get me started on this).
  • Her daughter was undergoing the process of being diagnosed with autism or being on the autism spectrum.
My initial thoughts were, "Whoa, why are you telling me all this when I am clearly uncomfortably avoiding looking at you so that you will stop telling me personal stuff." And, "How on earth could anyone think that your child has autism when she is smiling at me, making direct eye contact, trying to engage my daughter in play, and wearing jeans and a tight long sleeved shirt?" (If you have experience with autism you will know that people on the spectrum have no tolerance for stiff, tight or scratchy clothes.)

You might think I'm being a hypocrite about revealing too much personal information since you're currently reading this on a blog in which I talk about my life, and you may follow me on Twitter or Pinterest, or are my friend on Facebook (which I restrict to people who are ACTUALLY my friends or that I have personal history and/or frequent direct contact with).  But I want you to think about this for a minute.  If you don't already know me in real life, then you truly don't have that much information about me.  I don't have my real last name on this blog, Twitter or Pinterest.  You don't know where I live, where my kids go to school (or their names) or where we attend church.  You've never seen a photo of my children or husband.  You don't know the state of my personal finances or my marriage, nor do you know how I interact with my children or extended family.  I closely control the flow of information about myself that gets sent into cyberspace to protect the privacy of my family and ensure the safety of my children.  You may know my politics or what colours I like, but does that mean that you know me?

I think this sense of privacy and appropriateness is taught early in most homes.  You learn pretty young what is acceptable information to share with your classmates and friends and what you keep to yourself.  Of course everyone knows that it's rude do discuss politics or religion in social circles (although not so much politics in my social circles).  And it's a foregone conclusion that you would never ask someone how much money they earn or what their assets are.  There is a socially acceptable level of information that most people exchange based on their level of friendship/interaction. Most of us have learnt that healthy boundaries allow people to be comfortable around each other and that everyone doesn't need to know everything about you.

What you tell people about yourself is usually based on the intimacy of your relationship and your perception of the level of trust in that relationship.  Telling someone something private about yourself is to be vulnerable and show that you are trusting them with information that could be used to hurt or embarrass you if used against you.  Usually these disclosures are reciprocated if you share a genuine connection with someone.

I was pondering all this and came to a hypothesis. Someone who has had to access "the system" as much as this woman clearly has, has been conditioned to relay the most private information to virtual strangers in order to get the help she needs.  Not enough money for food?  The food bank needs income and cost of living information to get food. Need some emotional support from Community Mental Health for your problems? Come on in and talk to a stranger about your innermost secrets.  Your child acts out and has developmental problems?  Here comes social services, therapists, assessments and counselling.  I understand the purpose and need behind the intrusion, but I can clearly see how this could affect a person's ability to recognize when they are oversharing.  It's like when you have a baby.  By the time you've pushed that baby out, you don't care how many people have seen you naked or what they thought of you while you were doing it.  Even in the first weeks after childbirth you have no trouble baring breast or bottom to get medical opinions from doctors, nurses or breastfeeding experts.  But give it a few months and your natural modesty begins to creep back until it's back to where it was before you had your baby.

Someone who has to constantly share their personal information could easily lose the ability to realize when it is not appropriate to spill the details of their private lives.  At a time when natural self-preservation would cause us to turn inward and silent, we're expected to talk, talk and talk some more.  So long to dignified stoic silence & strength, hello ingratiating chattiness.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the piece - the subject is timely. I find myself agreeing with you but disagreeing with how you get there. The lady you talk about is an example, but not of the chronic overharing (and some would say rampant narcississm) encouraged by social media today. I would view her rather of an example of the sad failure of the nanny state to provide real relationship and culture for those with mental illness. They are not protected and educated in ways that facilitate true cultural integration nor are they supported in meaningful ways, leaving them to actually negatively impact the well being of their children. Her oversharing is symptomatic of her FASD not of a culture of oversharing. Yes most of her interactions are with a social system that asks for intimate sharing without relationship, but the odds are her illness has distanced her from friends and family who could positively impact her ability to relate normally.

    I share your sadness that she is misdiagnosing her own child in an effort to normalize her own situation. I further share your sadness that nobody is in her life to point out the inconsistency of saying she has no money for her children's care but does have the money to buy a $600 tattoo for herself.

    I think it is a bigger problem that most of us are so completely trusting that the state can meet all our needs (or the needs of this woman) that we don't feel it is our job or concern to take action ourself to help this woman, who you have rightly observed, needs people in her life, not departments. It is both a political question and a question of each of us actually implementing that most basic of Jesus' teachings, "love your neighbour as yourself".