When are we entitled to privacy? Let’s look first at what we were taught from early childhood. We were taught that we have no privacy at all. People in authority had a right to demand an answer to any question they could think of. Consider whether some of these questions sound familiar:
“Where are you going?”
“Where have you been?”
“Why are you doing that?”
“What were you thinking?”
“What do you think you’re wearing, young man/lady?”
In today’s electronic age, where children are prematurely exposed to thoughts, feelings, pictures, and behaviors impossible in times past, privacy is far too great a potential danger—kidnaping, sexual predation, sexting, bullying, and more—so their lives need to be as transparent as possible.
Unfortunately, as with other principles, we tend to continue believing as adults what we learned as children. As children, we learned the general rule that we HAD to answer personal questions whenever they were asked. Carrying this rule into adulthood, we now feel obligated to answer questions like these:
“What are you doing Friday?”
“Why weren’t you at the party Saturday?”
“What are you working on there?”
“Who was that on the phone?”
With some exceptions—which we’ll discuss shortly—what you do is none of anybody else’s business. Generally, the real question is not when do you have a right to privacy, but when does anybody else have a right to quiz you about what you’re doing? Let’s apply this principle to each of the above questions, just to illustrate the general rule.
“What are you doing Friday?” This kind of question is so common that we accept is as normal. On the contrary, I have no right to ask you what you’re doing on a particular day. This puts you in a position of having to explain your private plans to me, and for me to judge whether your activity is better than the one I’m about to propose. My question would be intrusive and judgmental.
“Why weren’t you at the party Saturday?” None of my darned business where you were Saturday, or why. A possible exception might be if you had agreed to be master of ceremonies at the party, but come on, how often would that be the case?
“What are you working on there?” This might seem to indicate an interest in you and therefore to be desirable, but again, it’s intrusive, and we’re conditioned to it by a lifetime of invasive questions. If I want to indicate an interest in YOU, I might acceptably say, “It looks like you’re pretty occupied,” at which point you could simply agree and keep working, or you could choose to tell me what you’re doing. But then you have a choice.
“Who was that on the phone?” I have heard this question on many occasions, and I’ve noted that mostly people do not like being asked. If they had wanted to tell others who was on the phone, they would have offered the information.
Nobody is entitled to an answer just because they ask you a question. Are there any exceptions? Sure, and we’ll discuss just a few: the workplace, partners, and children.
The workplace. Employers generally do have a right to ask their employees what they’re doing and why, as long as it’s related to job performance.
Partners. When people marry, or agree to a lifetime exclusive relationship, they agree to SHARE themselves with their partner. For that reason, my partner has a right to know things that other people have no right to know: when I’m getting home, when I’m leaving, how I spend our money, and more. Each couple must come to their own agreement, but in my own marriage I keep nothing from my wife. She can read my emails, go through my computer files, or access anything else I’m doing. Ironically, out of respect she would rarely open my computer to read anything, but she has my permission to do so. My privacy is thus relatively secure, but through mutual respect, not out of a defensive posture on my part.
Children. Children have a right to know where their parents are, what the day’s plans are, and more, because children are dependent on their parents. To withhold information from a child is to create chaos that is intolerably painful for the child.
We need to avoid feeling defensive about our privacy, but instead to make our privacy decisions based on what others have the right to know, along with a consideration of what would be loving to share with them.
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