Friday, February 18, 2011

What Happens in Tokyo Stays in Tokyo

As kids, we're taught to respect each other's privacy. We learn that there are people referred to as private people. Sometimes the greatest desire of private people is to be known and understood, all while maintaining their privacy.

On the other hand, there are open people who share their most private and intimate secrets, once they've been scrubbed, sanitized and polished. Many open people duck, jive, roll and spin, considering obfuscation to be unavoidable, even compulsory, and certainly not discretionary lying. 

Privacy is something everyone of us considers from time to time, some openly and some privately.

To be sure, there are places where privacy is absolutely the best course of action, for example, keeping private the identities of those who might otherwise be subject to persecution or genocide. However, these form a tiny fraction of the actual incidence of privacy. There are places where privacy matters (actually, it always matters), but relatively few places where privacy is warranted or ultimately beneficial.

Privacy is often used as an incantation to ward off fears. However, in the end, privacy serves only to enhance and amplify that which is feared. It may help avoid the manifestation of that which is feared in the near term, but it leaves the fear in place like a dike leaves the ocean in place. And as with a dike, the only reasonable follow-on action is reinforcement. Before you know it, maintenance of the dike begins to consume more resources than are being produced by the land that the dike was created to protect; the maintenance of privacy becomes more important than that which was meant to be private.

No Secrets
One time when I was in Japan on business, our hosts provided us an evening of entertainment. We were first wined-and-dined at the former residence of the Mitsubishi family. It was a facility that often catered to heads of state and CEOs of major corporations conducting proprietary business. Arrivals and departures were tightly scheduled so that no party would ever see the members of another party. Privacy was paramount.

We were ushered into a private dining room where each participant in the dinner was provided his or her personal server who sat kneeling behind the one she was serving, waiting and anticipating, quick to respond to any request. Glasses were never empty. Items consumed were quickly replaced with new delicacies. It was amazing. It was opulent. And it was very private.

Afterwards, the party moved to a club that featured exotic dancers, a "strip club". I hadn't been to one before and I'm not sure that this one was representative of your average place. It was very private, a place where you had to know someone in order to gain access. Everything was spoken in code, some of which I could guess pretty well and some of which left me looking like some naive duffis who grew up in the midwest, which I was. Apparently, spending my late teens and twenties as a pentecostal Christian, I'd missed a lot of educational events that had been shared by my current colleagues.

As I sat there watching all the goings on, I didn't pick up on the propositions that were presented me as my some of my colleagues disappeared into private rooms for private entertainment. I was beyond clueless, and it wasn't until the next day that I began putting two-plus-two together. When I began asking my colleagues rather openly about the previous evening's events, it became clear to me that what happens in Tokyo stays in Tokyo. Very private.

Every once and a while, I'll encounter one of those colleagues in a social setting with his partner and he'll be quick to steer away from me lest I speak too openly forgetting the maxim of Tokyo.

Privacy is not a strategy. Strategies have forethought. They're designed for growth. They're designed to gain efficiency over time or to be self-extinguishing.

Privacy is a tactic, a defensive maneuver, a posture, a bandaid, and an expensive one at that. The overall expense is often unforeseen, easily surpassing the value of that being kept private. Privacy isolates us from others. It builds mistrust. It's difficult and costly to maintain. It causes us to miss out on opportunities to share and to connect with others.

And yet, no one questions privacy, at least not in western culture. It's a right that we defend and one that I agree with.

Still, I tend to think about the desire for privacy as a symptom, the oddly shaped mole that indicates some hidden malignancy or the shortness of breath tied to an undiagnosed condition. The nacent desire for privacy can be an early warning sign that something is amiss. The tiny fractures in a relationship that will grow if not patched. The early cellular mutations that attach to healthy tissue morphing into cancerous guilt if not exposed to the cleansing light of day. The trickle of hesitation that if unstopped becomes a river of obfuscation secluding each of us from others, even those with whom we've been close.

The question isn't one of privacy being good or bad, warranted or unwarranted, a right or a privilege; it's one of cost and benefit. What is the cost of privacy? What is the benefit of privacy? Is it really worth it?

Perhaps the first question that we might ask ourselves before incanting privacy or asserting rights to privacy is: Why? Why do I feel the need to keep this private? What about the shift in topic or the question just asked suddenly got me thinking about my privacy? What exactly is it that I want to keep private? What am I afraid would happen were it not kept private? What is keeping it private going to cost me in the long term? How am I missing out right now? What would change if I let go of privacy?

What are you keeping private? How come?

Happy Friday!


  1. I couldn't help thinking: what inspired you to write this blog to day?

    Did you while writting it avoid examples which would have conflicted someoneelses privacy?

    I think part of "keeping privacy" is caretaking others.

  2. Inspiration... that's probably a long and winding route that started with noticing that there is a set of people with whom I've worked over the years who seem to be getting dumber over time. They're less quick. They're less current. They're easily confused and overwhelmed by things they haven't encountered before.

    I think I started noticing the privacy pattern among them.

    I think you're generally correct that people help others keep things private as a form of "care-taking". However, in my case care-taking would involve taking measures to expose that which is held private as I see the retention of privacy as detrimental, that is if you consider side effects such as breakdown of relationships, early-aging and getting dumber as detrimental.

    So, I'm pretty actively not care-taking. I do believe that each of us has the right to exercise privacy, I just don't buy it as being a good idea in most cases. Whenever someone says, "I want to tell you something, but you've got to promise not to tell anyone", I respond with, "Then don't tell me."

    It's bad enough watching others wither away under the weight of privacy let alone taking on their burden myself. ;-)


  3. My mind got side-tracked again: I find it interesting when a small thing which happens now reminds us of something we see more often and then we are reminded of an older example which illustrates the same thing.

    The issue with privacy reminds me of the issue of authenticity:
    there might be things that some people see as private that you would in general not reveal - not because you felt you shouldnt - simply because it's not relevant - just like being autentic doesn't mean to tell everything at any given moment - its more about saying what is important and not holding back.

  4. Joy,

    I agree. Privacy and authenticity go hand in hand. Further, almost all efforts at privacy are motivated by fear. I don't like privacy as a solution because it doesn't alleviate fear, it just holds it a bay and at best temporarily: sometimes until the fear passes and most times not.

    If we were never private, much of what we fear could never take root.



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