Tell Me More! Why Do We Overshare?

In an interesting essay in the Sydney Morning Herald, Emily Maguire argues that not only have we lost our capacity for discretion, we resent it. Is oversharing the new etiquette?

At a recent dinner function, I was seated next to a stranger who told me about her divorce, abortion, gynaecological troubles, abusive childhood and teenage sexual experimentation all before the main course was served. I responded with polite interest and sympathy but cheerfully declined to reciprocate with confessions of my own. Later, I learnt that this woman had found me "uptight" and "secretive".

Maguire is not the first to talk about this phenomenon, of course, but her perspective, that of a writer who's tipped her toe in overshare, is an interesting one. She mentions a Variety piece in which the author excoriated Matt Damon for keeping his family life private, an act of unfairness that seems to Maguire emblematic of our sense of public entitlement.

But chronic oversharing is not just a celebrity disease. Producers of reality and lifestyle television shows have no trouble finding people desperate to talk about their sex lives or air their overeating issues on camera and those who can't get a television gig can simply start a blog or YouTube channel....And then there's Facebook, where relationships are announced, questioned and destroyed in tiny, instantly published snippets.

We can debate the implications of society's lack of boundaries till the cows come home and, whatever our thoughts on TMZ, maudlin personal essays or uncomfy interviews - when it's ok, when it's not, whether money figures in or it devalues personal relationships and true sharing - at the end of the day we're forced to agree that it comes down to personal choice. Maguire's point is that choice is the operative word: people can spill their guts, but it shouldn't be mandatory. More to the point, someone shouldn't be considered 'uptight' or somehow disconnected from their emotions because they don't share this openness. As Maguire puts it, "Today we all live with the expectation that we must happily spill our guts for whoever cares to slosh through them. Once considered a virtue, discretion is now viewed as either a character flaw or a sign that you're hiding one." What I think most people will agree is that we've all gotten unreasonable: we may judge people for overspilling, but we still read it, and indeed, expect it. And then feel comfy airing our own thoughts about their behaviors in public forums.

But at the same time, when we, and Maguire, talk about these issues, we're still using the moral language of previous eras, much of which is simply anachronistic. Any celeb can tell you that the face the public sees and knows bears little resemblance to their real selves. The 'selves' every high-schooler might show the world nowadays is probably not the essential soul his parent imagines (and this, is, of course, part of the worry.) Perhaps unconsciously, most people now have a kind of public face that was simply not necessary in previous times, and while this is probably no palliative to a social critic, it's also true. If we feel an entitlement to celeb lives, I wonder if part of the reason isn't that we've had to adopt some of their guises and wiles, the art of sharing and keeping, of exposing and staying yourself. And if we can do it, why shouldn't they? Too much information [Sydney Morning Herald]