March 1, 2015

Who Owns Your Stories?

There is a difference, for people my age and older, at least, between the pseudo-private and the public.

The pseudo-private are the things you say behind closed doors, the stories you haven’t agreed to publish fully.  You know you are making yourself vulnerable when you tell your close friends, and they may (if they are indiscreet) share with their close friends (but even they should understand that they receive the information under an NDA). Everyone knows it’s not something that should be shared publicly, without your consent.

Historically, I suffered from the idea that people understood this. 

I am, of course, probably na├»ve.  On the other hand, I am the chosen trusted recipient of many stories I've never shared of sexual and physical abuse, exploration, cheating, abortion, parental horrors, and other secrets that, frankly, I believe are part of what make us human, so perhaps I am the opposite of naive vis-a-vis content, but very naive and willingly in disbelief on the disclosure front. 

For the generations younger than mine (and also my cohort, if I'm honest), I've observed that this distinction between the treatment that should be accorded private shared secrets and the treatment accorded those that are made public is much less real, if it even exists at all.  And technically, they are correct.  Of *COURSE* everything you share can end up on the front page of the New York Times.  This has always been true.  But most of us were not entertaining enough, historically, to have this be an actual risk.  It's a point of pride for my down-to-earth extended family that the New York Times has never actually cared about what a particular member of my family has ever done.  Period.

Essentially, I (wrongly) thought I owned, or at least could control, my own stories.  

Tonight, at a social event, I found myself the butt of a series of jokes, grounded in reality.  Fine.  Terrible, but fine.  We’ve all been there.  Unfortunately, the jokes started with things I'd said and done in a limited set of close friends and veered into sexual comments about my own life I've shared in a few small intimate settings.   Mind you, this was at a nice restaurant for a public birthday dinner including several folks who would never have been part of the initial audience I selected.  When I realized the joke direction, I tried to slightly move the conversation away from the topic.  This did not work.  The speaker kept returning, intent on making the joke at my expense on fairly personal sexually-related themes, in front of people I did not know well, at all.  

This speaker clearly felt entitled to my stories.  It was as if by telling them, I'd given up my ownership.

Now, to be fair, I can understand the speaker’s confusion.  On a few occasions, I’d spoken openly, drunkenly, without care, in front of close friends in our home on this topic.  Regularly, I speak and write openly about gender and sexual themes (generally).  I can see how the speaker may have assumed that I have no concern for my own dignity or privacy when it comes to these issues, because I've highlighted, linked to, attended and celebrated women who were much more open than I am on similar themes.


And the kids today, they aren't.  Really.  I’m pretty sure they don’t think dignity and privacy are actually things (even if you try to trick them into an answer regarding sexuality).  Certainly the famous do not have the privilege of believing that private disclosures between friends is actually a thing to be respected.
The difference is, up until tonight I thought privacy and owning my own stories was still a thing for me. 

So, I am sad. 

My take home tonight is that to live my life the way I want to, I need to develop a very different set of filters.  Either that, or I need to get comfortable living my life with much more of myself on full-on public display than I’ve traditionally been comfortable with.  And, honestly, the latter is probably on the winning side of history…


Arvay said...

Ouch. That person sounds rude, irrespective of age and the era of upbringing. I do respect and love about you that you are so intensely respectful of other people's privacy. JK and I have remarked on the same thing.

AR said...

I agree that the line tends to skew toward the young 'uns, given the blurring of public and private that social media has brought us, but I have learned this rather painful lesson through my interactions with various family members - all of whom are one generation older than me. I quickly learned to readjust my filters as a result. I agree with Arvay - this person is just rude.

bt said...

Thanks, @Arvay and @AR. I truly believe this person was not in any way doing anything they thought was rude. I just hadn't realized where their lines were with disclosing other people's stories.

To AR's point, I probably was going to have to learn this lesson at some point -- I have been very blessed with close friends and family who are very respectful of letting people tell their own stories. But that's not the norm. And this was actually a relatively painless way learn that lesson.

Arvay said...

Making someone else the butt of jokes is rude. Discussing someone else's sex life in any way, shape or form, is rude. If they don't realize they are being rude, they are still rude.

bt said...

@Arvay -- I love that you got my back here. To be fair, this person did not start with the jokes about me, they jumped in on what probably looked like good-natured fun to them.

The topic they raised was one I'd discussed before in their presence, and in the presence of half of the attendees of the party. I can see how they may have thought it was open for discussion, despite simultaneously feeling like it was just *so* obviously *not* open for discussion if I wasn't the one to raise it.

I agree that I don't like being the butt of jokes, but in some circles it's it's doled out evenly, as a type of bonding in a good-natured fashion. In those situations, I don't think it's actually rude. It may be a bit uncomfortable for me, but we all know I'm a big girl, and if I was truly uncomfortable, I'd ask them to stop. Which, in fairness, is exactly what I did in this case once it escalated and the subject was immediately dropped.

RE: discussing someone else's sex life being rude: I do think there's much less general agreement on whether discussing someone else's sex life is generally considered rude. I think there is a belief that some hold which says that if something has been disclosed, it is free for re-disclosure. Obviously, I don't believe this. But, I have to live in the world amongst others, so it's good to understand how the norms may be different in different groups, and choose not to disclose when the receiver is unlikely to share my values/beliefs on privacy.

Arvay said...

Ugh, ugh. I have never considered myself to be particularly old-fashioned when it comes to sexual mores, but I just don't think it's something we discuss outside of small groups of close friends. But you're right in that the world is not composed of people that I may safely assume to be just like me.

I saw a funny bumper sticker a few years back that I still remember. It said, "It doesn't take all kinds, but we have all kinds."

Jen said...

I'm a bit naive like you, in that I trust people with stories and don't often think to say, "Hey, let's keep this between just the two of us, OK?" A couple of times, though, I've been the offending party, spreading gossip or stories that weren't mine, just for the sake of entertainment and inadvertently hurting people along the way. Those were tough lessons to learn, and I deeply regretted it. If you're close to the offending person, it might be worth it to bring up the subject and say, "You know what? I know you weren't trying to upset me, but I was." They might think twice about saying such things in a group setting next time.

bt said...

@Jen -- thanks for the advice. After talking about it with others, I think I've gotten comfortable with the idea that this truly was a failure on my part. There were discussions of open sharing of the story that I thought were *obviously* jokes, but it now seems clear that this wasn't as clear as I thought. I thought the group in the setting understood where funny ended and unfunny/uncomfortable for me started, but now that I have more context, I can totally understand how if you aren't in my head you don't know where this line is. It was a big learning lesson for me. I am almost certain that this same person, if I had been super clear about my lines would *never* have put me in this position. I just was cavalier and made assumptions, my husband egged people on (as he always does) and we ended up in a situation where I was mortified and others thought we were having a comfortably hilarious joke/discussion.

C'est la vie.