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Inadvertant Access to Other People's Private Worlds
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, November 2012

We live in a very open and accessible world. Consider, for example, how simple it is to get information about people through the Internet. There is no doubt that is true -- not that the information is true -- the fact that we have access to information (truth or fiction or somewhere in between).

When we are not on the internet, and are with someone in person, our "spectator status" gives us the opportunity to hear or see something first hand. Are there guidelines that prescribe how public our personal observations should be? As a house guest, dinner guest, travel companion, or just hanging out with someone, when we have access to a portion of their private life, what, if any, is our responsibility regarding what we see or hear? Extended time with others allows us to be privy to both verbal and non-verbal conversations and interactions. In a different circumstance, we would not have access to their private life which, in reality, is not our business.

We may overhear a health-related conversation, witness a couple's argument about money, or see our friends' teenagers respond disrespectfully to their parents. We see these exchanges at a moment in time, when our paths cross, without context or history. We witness, absorb, interpret, and likely, attribute personality attributes to these people resulting from our observations. We may determine that they are "a certain way" and we may be right -- for that moment.

Whatever we conclude regarding that person, couple, or family -- unless someone is in danger-- it is probably wise to keep our observations to ourselves. We can ask ourselves how we would feel if someone saw us in such a moment, drew conclusions about us based on that moment in time, and then shared them with others. For many of us, what other people think isn't that important, and for others of us, it matters a lot. As hard as we try, or as much as we would like, none of us behaves luminously all of the time. Additionally, hearing personal information which clearly is not our business, does not give us the right to pass that information along. When we find ourselves as the "onlooker" in these circumstances, we need to carefully think through whether and what we share. Proximity does not appear to be a good enough reason to talk about someone's private life. We can all ask ourselves whether, because we believe we are "in the know", we have the right to share personal information.

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