Personal vs. personable and the benefits of opening up

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I've given a lot of talks about online privacy and what I've learned through these sessions is that there is a lot of FUD - fear, uncertainty, and doubt - floating around. Generally, there are two things that generate the FUD:

  1. Limited knowledge of how the Internet works.

  2. Lack of forethought about boundaries.

I'm not sure what the answer to the problem is, but I do know there is a problem. In one session I did, a parent said to me, "I'm not interested in social media or Facebook. I don't want an account and I don't have time."

I get that. I really do. I replied with something like this:

If, as a parent, you are concerned about your child(ren) being online and what may happen, then gaining knowledge about social media and the internet is no longer about your individual participation - it's about knowing how to teach and protect your child(ren).

Every generation of parents has had its fair share of newfangled ideas and technology that they had to navigate and learn. However, never before have those changes created an actual NEED to be so vigilant. Thanks to the internet, which I think is a wonderful, wonderful thing, we are now in the position of "need to know". Awareness isn't enough. 

Many attendees have commented that they don't want to share information about their personal lives at all. This discussion is where I introduce the difference between personal and personable, as well as the idea of setting personal boundaries.

I used to refer to my comfort zone/personal boundaries filter as the mom-filter. If my mom would be disappointed to see what I shared, then I wouldn't share it. Over the years, my filter has gotten more refined to each individual role. I may talk about my parents, my brothers, my husband, son, and in-laws, but I generally don't refer to them by name without permission. (My husband and I have talked about what we feel is appropriate/inappropriate to share about each other.) I may write in vague terms about conversations that I have with people, but I make an effort to ensure that even the person I was speaking with can't be totally certain it's them I am referring to. I'm not perfect, but I try my very best to avoid sharing judgemental thoughts. (There's more than enough of that online already.) There are certain topics - in particular politics, and religion, and some of the debates around autism - that I avoid. The few times I have waded in, I hated the outcome.

That said, I've experienced huge benefits from opening up and sharing my struggles. The most notable experience was when I broke down and wrote for the first time about my son and the fact that we were waiting to get him in for an assessment to determine whether he had autism (he does). I wrote that just over three years ago. It was a frustrating time for our family and putting it out there was uncomfortable for me. I felt vulnerable - I worried that I was putting Brandon in a vulnerable position without him knowing. The truth is, I still worry a little about that, but I also want him to see autism as one part of who he is - like his blonde hair and blue eyes and his love for technology. If I can't treat it that way, then neither will he.

Inevitably, the topic of "oversharing" comes up in these sessions. I expect it and I'm prepared for it. I had the very great pleasure of seeing Jeff Jarvis speak at an event here in Ottawa a few years ago when he was touring to promote his book, Public Parts. Jeff wrote the book after he blogged and spoke openly online about his treatment for prostate cancer and the effects it had on him physically (urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction). Like me, Jeff found that opening up led to finding support and building a community that supported each other.

In his talk, Jeff brought up the topic of oversharing and gave the perspective that I have since adopted and share with anyone who will listen, with the very small addition of my own insights. Essentially, this is what I believe about oversharing:

Oversharing does not exist except in the context of personal regret over something personally shared. Only the individual who has shared something can decide if they have overshared. If Person A looks at content shared by Person B and feels it is oversharing, it's really about the Person A not being comfortable with what Person B has said. 

To me, this is a critical distinction because we all have different comfort levels. I may see the possible ramifications of what someone else shares and decide I couldn't share that kind of information because it's out of my comfort zone. But the ramifications may not exist for the other person in the same way, or that person may not be bothered by them. Oversharing isn't about the sharer - it's about the person who is taking in what's shared. 

Sheryl Sandberg recently opened up in a post that is real, raw, beautiful, and heartbreaking about the death of her husband. Given how I've been impacted personally by what Sheryl has shared, I can only attempt to imagine what anyone who has lost such a beloved spouse that is reading it would feel. The amazing thing to watch is how many people have shared their own stories, or offered support and compassion for Ms. Sandberg and her family. This is a topic that is associated with many people's worst fears - death of a loved one. Talking about it is scary and uncomfortable, even though we all experience it. 

Opening up online can leave you feeling vulnerable and unsure, but the effects can be positive and uplifting, with an outpouring of understanding, support, and empathy. There are often practical benefits, such as the development of relationships and people living a similar experience offering advice and wisdom. 

The bottom line is that we're all human and we all experience ups and downs, and are afflicted with individual faults that make up part of who we are. Each of us has the right to decide how much we share of our human experience, but being open to opening up can help you and others living your situation as well.

What are some of your concerns about being more open online?