While we fight for privacy and private space, we also seem to wear our heart on the sleeve in social media sites.

For a nation that thinks nothing of asking a perfect stranger on a train all sorts of intimately personal details merely to pass the time, it’s extraordinary how urban India is today abuzz on the whole issue of privacy. Many of us like to zealously guard our personal space, even if there’s very little happening inside it. I suspect, many of us aren’t quite sure what to do with this space, but we fight hard for it nevertheless. Almost on principle. And those who we fight with cannot understand our obsession for this personal space, for one look at our Facebook page is more than enough for them to understand what is (or more likely, is not) happening in it.

For a generation that demands privacy as vocally as it does, Gen X, Gen Y and perhaps Gen Z (when someone, realising that Z follows X and Y, gets around to using this nomenclature) are remarkably blasé about wearing their hearts, minds and pretty much every other part of themselves on their social networking sites, for not just governments, HR departments, jealous exes, suspicious spouses or curious parents to spy on, but for any passing Internet troll to like, dislike or trash. But, try asking them for their Facebook passwords, and bedlam is more than likely to ensue.

Evidently, while we are beginning to appreciate that privacy and personal space are valid concepts that we should be espousing and incorporating into our behavioural repertoires, we still haven’t quite got the hang of what precisely privacy is. For, the same privacy zealot wouldn’t think twice about eavesdropping on an office conversation to obtain leverage in the workspace or checking a partner’s mobile phone just to ensure there’s no hanky-panky afoot.

I believe that privacy is certainly a kosher construct, and each of us is entitled to decide what precisely we want to, or more specifically don’t want to, share with others in our lives. And certainly when it comes to strangers, we are even more justified in wanting to keep our personal information personal. But where the whole notion of privacy becomes extremely contentious is in the realm of relationships particularly those with close friends, parents or spouses. Isn’t transparency the hallmark of intimate relationships? And if it is, should we reserve the greatest transparency for our spousal relationships? How transparent should we be with parents and friends? And while we’re at it, should we shoot for complete transparency? Or can we get by with translucency?

All valid questions that need to be answered. Personally, I’m a cheerleader for transparency in intimate relationships, but because many of us don’t pay much attention to these questions, we scramble to find answers to them, usually in crises. And since answers found on the fly aren’t necessarily thought through, we often end up throwing mixed signals. Proactivity could come in handy here, and we might be better off if we are able to devote some time to understand where we would feel comfortable defining our privacy boundaries in close relationships.

And to do this, there are a couple of things we would do well to keep in mind. The most important of these is that privacy is not tantamount to secrecy. Many of us fall into the trap of believing that privacy refers to keeping things from the prying eyes of others. When we think along these lines, two things are implicit. One is that we have something to hide. And we only hide what we are embarrassed or ashamed to reveal or what, in our opinion, might hurt, offend or annoy the other. The second is that the other’s need to know our “secret” springs from a less than honourable intention, and therefore what we reveal may be held against us at some time or the other or even forever.

Of course, if you have skeletons in your cupboard, you might feel that your need to keep them secret is justifiable. But in my experience, skeletons have a nasty habit of clattering and revealing themselves. And they usually have a very poor sense of timing. You might be better off “outing” them yourself than struggling to protect them from others’ eyes.

But if your need for privacy is because you want others to respect your personal space and knock before entering it, this is perfectly reasonable. For, what is implicit here is that you’re willing to let people enter your lair, but would like to have the option of choosing who can come in, when they can come in and for how long they may stay.

Put differently, if you’re cagey about sharing your password (and I use password-sharing only metaphorically) because you have something to hide, even from those closest to you, you’re on a teflon-coated slope. However, if you expect the other to respect the fact that you don’t have to share a password on demand, but you’re not really averse to doing so because you have nothing really to hide, then I think you’re dealing with your privacy rather well. And if the other doesn’t really feel the need to ask for your password, believing that you will have no compunctions in sharing it if ever the need arose, your relationship rocks!

vijay@vijaynagaswami.com