Privacy Is Overrated

Recently, I asked a friend how much he earns.

“None of your fucking business!” he snorted.

Let me be clear: No, I do not deserve to know his salary. He doesn’t need to know mine. Neither of us has a right to view the pay stubs of anyone (other than a relative handful of business and government officers). Still, I wish he would’ve told me.

Lock and ChainI asked out of curiosity, like when I once asked the same friend, “What ever happened to that one calorie that Diet Coke once advertised?”

“None of your fucking business!” he screamed back.

No he didn’t. However, when pressed about why he’s so secretive about his earnings, he responded like most people do: “Because you don’t need to know that.” Why? “Because it’s personal.” So? “You don’t need to know such personal details.” Why not? “Because they’re personal.”

Let’s leave the carousel of kindergarten babble behind. This is not about money. This is not about a right to privacy. It’s about why you choose to exercise that right to begin with.

Too many of us are too private.

Your friends’ Facebook posts of #boring #meals, #opinions on #Gaza, and other hashtagged #thoughts may deceive you into pointing to the demise of personal privacy. When it comes to what we reveal about our lives, though, we are not more open about ourselves—we’re just open to more people. We’re likelier to tweet that we landed new work or new spouses, but we’re as silent as ever about what our jobs pay us and what’s going on under the sheets.

That’s fine. However, your quest for privacy can come at the expense of happiness.

Anytime you purposefully hide any detail about your life—your salary, your love of Right Said Fred, the oral sex you enjoyed in the Port Authority restroom—you do it for one of only two reasons:

  1. To protect someone else.
  2. To protect yourself.

Most often, it’s the latter. Obviously, it’s OK to want to avoid potential hurt feelings, humiliation, pain, and other negative consequences. But what did my friend fear would happen had he told me his salary?

“I don’t want people judging me and treating me a certain way based on how much I make,” he explained.

Closet DoorExcept, we’re friends. His answer implied that I’m one of those people, or that he’s one of those people, or that we’re both the kind of people handicapped by a delusion that someone’s worth and bank account are synonymous.

We’re not those people. And you might not be, either, but the problem is that many of us deem privacy a sacred virtue beyond debate. We regard certain cultural norms and taboos as inherently confidential matters. We create our own closets, stuffed with all sorts of things we are and things we’ve done. And keeping those doors shut wastes a lot of energy. It’s maddening and saddening.

Now, I’m not insisting that by YouTubing sex acts, Instagraming paychecks, and publicizing all sorts of minutiae, we’ll be shiny, happy people holding hands. I’m not arguing for total openness, just greater openness, especially among friends and loved ones. I live a relatively open life and am happier for it. Like you, I fear judgment—ethical and otherwise—by others. But I recognize that anxiety for what it is: an impediment to a more fulfilled life. I don’t couch my reticence to divulge (what I think are) intimate parts about myself by insisting that “I’m a private person” as if that’s a full—or any—explanation. I recognize my inhibition for what it really is.

It’s insecurity.

The less we judge others when we shouldn’t, the less we worry about others’ reactions, and the more we share with each other, the happier we’ll be. You can start by sharing this post!

(For the record, I was recently laid off, so my current salary: $0. My ability to remain relatively upbeat—not despite—because I’ve told everyone that I’m unemployed: priceless.)

7 comments

  1. Mark Lackey

    But there is value in being aware of 1 and 2 in your 2 reasons we are private. I agree with your friend. I won’t tell you what I make in fear of you either a) being very angry because you think it unfair or me very ashamed because why would anyone work for that? Both are really saving me embarrassment but one also saves you the trouble of feeling you have been treated unfairly. That seems reasonable. You would be a rarity if you were take that information and not internalize a reaction to it. Even spouses have been known to not handle that conversation very well. Men feel emasculated or the wife feels underrated. But salary aside Even other information like how many people you slept with or what you actually scored on the SAT are often best left personal. It serves no purpose to make public when no matter how much you trust that person you cannot always gauge the reaction. In 2014 I wish more people were more private.

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  2. Vadim

    Thanks for weighing in! I think parts of your reply actually support my argument. For starters, sure, I may think you’re over- or underpaid but that would be no reflection on you. I would not think of you differently. And even if I were to, that’s not what matters. What matters is how I’d treat you, and that, too, would not change. So when you say that non-disclosure is saving you embarrassment or being treated unfairly, it does not always. Notably, I never said you should disclose your salary to everyone who asks, but I see no problem with doing so among friends — and if you think your friends will judge you negatively (or hey, even positively) as a result, then that’s a whole other issue related to the friendship.

    Still, I do agree with you that people do feel all sorts of ways when they hear information about a friend, but I think it’s up to everyone to re-think those feelings. Ultimately, I care only how much you make or your what you scored on your SAT or how many people you slept with out of sheer curiosity only. Can I live without knowing these? Sure, but life would be more interesting otherwise!

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  3. tovagold

    I’m pretty sure that when I start making tons of money I won’t be telling people the amount. But I am self-employed so my income is totally based on me and sharing it says a lot more about me than what I was able to negotiate for from an employer. When I was working full time I had a much easier time sharing my income, though only with selective people, for selective reasons.
    I think that by NOT sharing what we are making at a job we are often doing our counterparts – and ourselves – a giant disservice. Too many people (especially women) are willing to work for less than they should because they have no idea what the potential rate the COULD be earning is. This secrecy keeps the earning ceiling lower for all of us.

    In terms of privacy in general, many people have told me that I share a lot on my blog which they’d be unable to because of their desire for privacy. But I actually still feel that I am private- just about different things than most people might expect.

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    • Vadim

      Tova, your point about salary secrecy causing lack of sufficient information is a good one—especially so for freelancers. Oftentimes, people don’t like to admit what they perceive as a low wage, which makes it easy for companies to pay…a low wage. And again, I’m not saying one should broadcast their earnings to everyone, but in general, people are far too reticent to discuss this issue (and other matters) with friends and loved ones.

      To your other point about you feeling like a private person, I completely agree there, too. I am private about many things in my life. Which things? Umm…that’s why they’re private. I guess I simply have different personal standards about the things I reveal—yet I still recognize that the more I can share about myself, the better.

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