What We Talk About When We Talk About Oversharing

For some time now, I've harbored the suspicion that "oversharing" (2008's word of the year!) was a sort of insidious code:

Steven Johnson's Time piece, "In Praise of Oversharing," deals with the cathartic possibilities of sharing those struggles that in earlier periods would have been deemed taboo - illness and, as we've discussed, death. In the context of blogging one's death, the inevitable generational conflict arose: to a prior generation, pieces on the topic reiterated, the notion of dirty-laundry airing was anathema, young people's profligacy unthinkable. This comes up a lot in discussions of younger writers who've used their experiences as fodder: it's variously described as necessary, or brave, or narcissistic, but almost invariably as a product of a new generation. Certainly this is partly true: the Internet's role cannot be understated. (And if you want a great look at the exigencies of the personal today, check out this piece by Moe.)

That said, I've increasingly wondered if when we talk about "generational conflict," we're not being a tad disingenuous. This being solipsistic new media, take my family. My dad's side - not incidentally, made up of relatively recent Jewish immigrants - are oversharers from way back. No one needed a blog to talk about a hernia, marital problems, menstrual cramps, or disappointment with a underachieving son. This was regarded as the normal stuff of life and conversation and personal commerce.

My mother's family is made up of WASPs, reserved, restrained and private. To share anything private, to my mother and her forebears, would not only be unthinkable, it would be vulgar. I don't think it's any stretch, in fact, to say that my grandmother, in her tacit, well-bred way, would have considered that sort of behavior exactly the purview of people like my father's family: unrefined, lower-class, Jewish.

Not to say the idea of cultural openness is a uniquely Jewish one: warm-hearted "ethnic" sharing has been a cliche since time and movies began. My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Fools Rush In. Moonstruck. The Secret Life of Bees. Spanglish. Non-Americans and non-whites are invariably portrayed as warm, open, amusingly inappropriate, an antidote to the staid background of whatever character needs some magical ethnics to find himself. They boast about their children and try to make matches. They gripe amusingly about their health problems. Sometimes they talk frankly about death.

Look, no one's saying that any of this "oversharing" and the resulting cultural controversy would be much of an issue absent of new technology. I'm not making moral judgments about it one way or the other. But my point is this: we talk about "oversharing" like it's a new phenomenon, purely a generational thing. It's not. The "other" has always been associated with it, in fact it's long been an implicit standard of this otherness and a point of distinction. It's not that "oversharing" is new - it's that the mainstream has changed. This, I think, in some subconscious way troubles people. And yet, the old, puritan ethic of "dignity" is still regarded as the standard, with any deviation from it an irreparable tear in a magical cultural framework. To call this an implicit prejudice might be going too far - but then again, maybe it's not.

In Praise Of Oversharing [Time]