Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Privacy: A Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report

This was a topic that really took off. I was joined at the hangout by Jaleh Dragich, Glenda Pfeiffer, Liz Arroyo, Erin Peterson, and David Peterson.

We started out talking about the privacy of the body, specifically, the issue of modesty in dress. Modesty is an interesting topic because the definition of what is "modest" depends a lot on the social and cultural context. I told a story about how I was barred from my university cafeteria because I'd been dared to wear a bathing suit (one-piece) and they insisted I go back and put on a bathrobe. Bathing suits that cover almost nothing are appropriate at the beach (even nakedness is appropriate in some places) whereas they are not acceptable in other contexts. Age also has a huge influence on standards of dress, as when parents think nothing of taking naked pictures of their babies in their first bath, but those pictures become the source of merriment and embarrassment at a 21st birthday party. Then of course there are also cultural norms. I was shocked when I first discovered the "monokini" (i.e. a bikini without the top) being worn for sunbathing in Europe, but everyone thought it was normal. Then there were the prostitutes displaying themselves in the windows in the red light district of Amsterdam as we drove through... And that's only scratching the surface. There are also striking norms on the more conservative side such as those we can see with Amish or Orthodox Jewish dress, conservative Islam, etc.

Erin told us an interesting story about a Dutch actress on HBO's Game of Thrones. The actress wasn't at all shocked at the idea of appearing on the show naked, because her view of it was that the privacy of the circumstances portrayed in the scene was the deciding factor; American viewers felt that the public nature of the eventual showing of the TV show was the deciding factor, and so felt a shock at her nudity that she did not.

We also discussed the issue of whether one keeps the door shut when dressing. In the US in general, kids tend to be accustomed to being dressed by their parents, but eventually learn a modesty that causes them to want to dress alone with the door shut - but this can be influenced by gender and family relationships as well as age. In Japan I encountered an unusual form of modesty in the context public bathing. In the baths I visited, the bathers were segregated by gender, but people felt little modesty in the baths themselves and were generally unconcerned about being in the bath with people they didn't know. At most they would bring a small washcloth to keep over the lower regions. By contrast, the same people were very sensitive about getting undressed. They would come in clothed, shut themselves into a private cubicle to get undressed, then come out with (or without) the aforementioned washcloth and get in the baths with no further need to maintain privacy.

Privacy also applies to information. Jaleh brought up the issue of how much information one is expected to share about one's "private life." Do you talk about everything? What about old or suppressed secrets? As Erin asked, do you talk about your drinking habits (alcohol)? She told us about a situation where a child in the family commented to a relative stranger that the adults in the family were "drinking beer all the time." Even apart from the question of what "all the time" means, it's clear that there is such thing as "too much information." TMI is one of our modern expressions - but how is it defined? It differs culturally across groups, across ages, etc.

David mentioned that in Deaf culture, people tend to share a lot more personal information than they do in hearing culture, concerning things like weight, appearance, etc. This can cause cultural strife between members of the hearing and Deaf communities.

Jaleh said she takes a lot of inspiration from the kids she has seen in her experiences in retail, and the kinds of things they reveal (unintentionally). David picked that up and turned us to the question of speaking in front of people as though they were not present. We often reveal things in front of "staff" or other invisible people - sleeping/unconscious people, crazy people, or children, for example - that we would not reveal if we were watched by others within our own group.

I explained a complex situation of information privacy and management in my novel. Aloran the servant is given a piece of information, namely that another servant has stolen the key to his mistress' diary. He wants to return it to her, but the servant who has stolen it is of higher rank, so Aloran can't force him to give it back... and if he steals it back, his mistress will see the key in his hand and assume that Aloran has opened the diary and trespassed on her private thoughts. Neither does Aloran feel comfortable telling his mistress for fear she'll think he has obtained private information about her inappropriately (they have a difficult relationship). Therefore he chooses to approach her son anonymously so that the son can act on his behalf, and the private information of the family won't be compromised by anyone other than the servant who originally stole the key. Essentially, the whole roundabout method is determined by what kind of information is deemed private and what kind of privacy borderlines may or may not be invaded by different members of the family and Household. Also in that Household, there are examples of what we discussed above, namely servants hearing information while no one realizes they are listening.

Another example of people talking in front of others and assuming they "don't count" as listeners (an unwarranted assumption of privacy) is talking in front of others as if they don't understand your language. Many of us had had experiences of this nature. Liz and Erin had both been spoken in front of in Spanish. My husband and I have been spoken in front of in Japanese many times, and when we lived there we came close to making a sport of pointing out that these people didn't have as much privacy as they had assumed (yes, we seriously embarrassed some people). Jaleh mentioned something similar occurring in a minivan ad (possibly Volvo). David talked about a German conlanger (language creator) he knows who can speak Mandarin and runs into similar situations. Jaleh also mentioned an instance of this occurring in the Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey - it is certainly easy and piquant to add instances in any multilingual situation in your story!

As I had just watched the Doctor Who episode, "The End of the Earth," this put me in mind of the question of the TARDIS, which was revealed to be "partly psychic" and to be translating all the strange languages around Rose into English. Most relevant to this discussion was her immediate reaction, which was to feel that her privacy had been invaded by this psychic influence (an interesting choice, and it showed some subtlety, as I'd expected her just to accept simultaneous translation without comment). This brought us to the question of telepathy, and Jaleh mentioned that in Babylon 5 there are strict controls on telepaths: they must either suppress their telepathy, or join the Psycorps telepathic group (subjecting themselves to its guidance), or go to prison.

Erin brought up some very interesting questions at this point. Are the emotions we broadcast on our faces to be considered private or not? Are our public behaviors to be considered private? Certainly tracking or following someone is considered stalking, and clearly a privacy violation. There are plenty of cases where a private citizen taking pictures of something that is publicly visible (like government installations) is considered off-limits as an invasion of privacy. Glenda mentioned an instance where a man was caught taking pictures of teenage girls at a high school game, and punished for it - but what were the specific elements of context that made this inappropriate? The age of the girls being photographed is probably one; the telephoto lens that allowed inappropriate closeness was probably another. Some people consider Google maps to be an invasion of privacy. What kinds of behaviors might be considered privacy violations in your world?

There is also some wonderful stuff to be explored in a context where people are stuck together in a confined space where privacy becomes very difficult, like a spaceship or a prison, etc. What do you do when you have no privacy? How do you keep things to yourself? What happens if you get overstimulated by contact with others?

In Japan, personal space is generally at bowing distance when in friendly yet private situations. After all, you don't want to conk heads with someone accidentally in mid-conversation (this distance is slightly further out than handshake distance). When commuting, however, I have found that the typical sense of personal space totally changes, as though the boundary line has moved to the surface of the body. People will not speak to you, will avoid eye contact, and will even walk right through you as if you weren't there. To me, this feels like an invasion of privacy, but it appears to be the norm in the huge Tokyo crowds. I once took a group of US high school students to Kyoto and had to encourage them to get on a crowded bus. The bus arrived, the door opened, the students decided there was no room on the bus and would not get on. The bus left. I then had to give them a talking-to, explaining that there *was* room on the bus, that the next five buses would be just as crowded, and if they ever hoped to arrive at their destination, they must disregard the wall of people and get in anyway.

In the US we can run into other kinds of difficulties with the sense of personal space. I'm sure many of you have run into situations where a friend was far too huggy for comfort, or even had conversations where you were being chased backwards in slow motion. Here are some questions you might ask. How do you get close to a person in your world? How does one move from one set of privacy rules (acquaintance rules) to another (friend rules, lover rules)? Is it difficult? How risky is it?

Crossing privacy borders is always a risky business. Typically, we agreed, a particular type of overture or "ticket" is required to make the transition successfully. When one approaches a science fiction author, one kind of ticket is a knowledge and informed opinion about that person's work. Children can often serve as a kind of ticket, as they are a point of commonality between individuals and can be turned into a "safe" shared topic. Jaleh called this being a part of the "Parents' Club." Liz mentioned that having a shared place of origin can be an effective ticket. These tickets are not unconditional, either - often it will be okay to talk about kids but not to talk about oneself. Erin mentioned that it's often okay to ask for advice or be self-critical, where it would not be okay to brag or talk about oneself positively. I also thought about how very often pregnant women will encounter random people who think that the shared experience of pregnancy and parenthood licenses them to comment, to touch the pregnant woman's belly, and to give her advice.

Obviously this is a topic with lots of possible applications. I really enjoyed the discussion and I hope this report gives you some interesting places to go in your thinking. Thanks again to everyone who attended.

Today's hangout will be at 11am and will be discussing gender roles.


  1. It seems to me that we can apply this to individual characterization as well as world-building.

    Different people even in the same culture have wildly different privacy borders, and very different ideas of what legitimate privacy tickets are.

    And even within a single person's boundaries, there can be a wide spread. For example, between two people with the same idea of boundaries and tickets in a casual social situation, there could be very different opinions on how far those boundaries stretch in stressful or extra-ordinary conditions.

    This might also relate to the old story of the stabbing victim in New York who bled to death in front of dozens of witnesses. A less extreme example might be a crying child. Where and under what circumstances would it be socially correct to approach the child even with only the best of intentions?

    The issue of perceived privacy in terms of language use is another fun question to consider. It's often played for comedy in TV shows like George Lopez. I've heard anecdotes intended to be humorous from tons of people. When is eavesdropping just harmless fun, and when is it an invasion of privacy?

    Does the speakers intent in speaking a different language have an effect on such a value judgement? If someone is insulting you, then I would judge a bit of eavesdropping reasonable. But if they're discussing an emotionally sensitive topic, and one that might have an effect on an interaction between them and you, is it polite/acceptable/manipulative/rude of you to continue listening, even if they're in a public place with no legal or even social expectation of privacy?

    And even more interesting, how do disagreements in these areas reflect on people? How big of a difference before it creates a negative value judgement in your mind?

    1. This is an excellent point, Atsiko. A lot of the patterns that play out on a larger cultural level are visible in different permutations on the individual level. And you're right that context plays into everything. Thanks for contributing your thoughts!