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Question of the Week: Public and Private 16 March 2008

Posted by SA'ILA in SA'ILA, Sociology.

Human beings have a tendency to act differently—and speak differently—when in public, in contrast to when they are in private. What drives the distinction between public and private? What are things—religion? profession? health? relationships?—that are public to you, and things you decide to keep private?

Are there other factors—beyond personalities—that shape our preferences to be more private—or more public—about certain things than others individuals may be about the same?



1. VARANGALI - 17 March 2008


Willingness to be judged negatively delineates what I’ll say in public vis-a-vis what I’ll share privately. In a sense, this hinges on trust. If I trust the people around me to look beyond the specific issue I take on a subject to who I am and my values, I’ll share, otherwise it’s unlikely.

I’d add that between public and private lies a large gray area, and in fact may be defined by the issue at hand. My stating my opinion on Darfur, for example, lies somewhere between public and private, and what I say depends on the specific context.

Last thing I’d add is that I believe we’re slowly moving to a world where the private is public, and exhibitionism drives self-definition. I’m thinking specifically of social networks, but also of more basic technologies like cell phones. Such technological shifts do tear down lots of walls between the public and private spheres. Not all walls should be torn down.

2. SA'ILA - 18 March 2008

Wa’alaykum assalam –

To some extent, what exactly we share with others, yes, depends on *who* the person is and our relationship with them. The last statement that you make is what I am interested in unpacking a bit more: given your first point, what *are* some walls that should remain up, all across the board. For surely not all walls are based on trust . . . ?


3. Baraka - 18 March 2008

Salaam Sa’ila,

Varangali really said it all.

I tend to be intimate only with close friends, although as a blogger I’m also intimate with many strangers on subjects that I don’t broach with family or friends. That makes me very careful about keeping walls up between my cyber and real worlds- very few people cross over to the other side.

The fact that “not all walls should be torn down” became even clearer to me after reading “Say Everything” in New York magazine: ‘As younger people reveal their private lives on the Internet, the older generation looks on with alarm and misapprehension not seen since the early days of rock and roll. The future belongs to the uninhibited.’

Fascinating question, as always. What are your perspectives, Sa’ila?


4. maximus mercury - 18 March 2008

I have always relied on being able to keep my several social circles apart – it’s not so much that I’m an entirely different person depending on who I’m with, but rather I can then be the one in control of interaction between people who see different degrees of my intimate behaviour. By staying in control, I can release as much information as I see fit.

I think it’s important to control information to keep your sanity – the clearest example I can give of this is the different degrees of intimacy between a family relationship and a work relationship – unless the circumstances are very finely balanced, it is to one’s own advantage to keep the two worlds (and associated behaviours) totally separate. Another analogy: it’s almost like the difference between being a nudist and walking around fully clothed. The convention is certainly to keep as much under wraps as possible.

As for keeping certain walls up, I think the answer is always contextual and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Frost’s words on the subject:

“There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.”

Unless you’re very committedly good neighbours, perhaps maintaining the walls is good form. Letting the walls go imposes responsibility on each other to be more than merely cordial…to be reliable, trustworthy, etc etc. Maintaining pragmatic degrees of separation can actually be a safeguard for everyone, so no one gets overwhelmed…Even married couples need time away from each other that is totally private.

5. EDITOR - 22 March 2008

another way to look at this might be that private discussions are personal while public discussions are impersonal. when i speak to someone in private, it is inevitably in person and within a personal context—i.e., i know that they know who i am and can therefore situate what i say within what they already know about me. in contrast, when i speak in public i am speaking to strangers and therefore at large. what i say holds true generally and not just for me.

this might explain why public discussions are more likely to be about subjects that people feel have universally relevant answers—politics or sports, for example. of course, many people feel strongly about these topics and even have personal favorites, but the point is that this favoritism isn’t meant to say anything special about them. it’s just a more passionate expression of a truth everyone should acknowledge—that this party or this team is the best and the greatest.

private discussions, on the other hand, are more likely to be about questions the answers to which hang on the person, personal history or personality of the speaker—health, for example, or fashion or hygiene or relationships. not all of these topics are equally important to people, of course, but they tend to be in more personal discussions.

if reason is supposed to be public and passion private, then you would similarly expect “rational” topics to be public and “emotional” topics to be private.

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