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Some things are better left unsaid. . .

Keep calm and keep it to yourself, please.

Yours truly enjoyed (no, really) an entire five days straight of midterm conferences with students last week for all of the courses I am teaching this semester.  During each confab, we discussed students' recent research topic proposals, related upcoming paper assignments, and so on, and so forth.  By and large, these are always enjoyable although after four or five days you do begin to feel like you are having the same conversation 60 different ways as you try to help most students focus their thoughts and topics into something manageable and/or actually worth doing for the remaining eight weeks or so of the term once Spring Break ends.  We'll come back to this in just a moment.


During the weekend, I enjoyed puttering around the house doing largely nothing of consequence beyond a few domestic small chores and relishing the thought of a week without daily preparation for classes, the classes themselves, and reading/grading papers of any kind.  It's funny how the luxury of almost complete mental relaxation makes you feel lighter than a feather.  Of course, having the windows open for a few hours during the middle of the day on Saturday and Sunday, when it was warm enough to do so, helped too, and it made fairly dull activities like changing the bedsheets, making beds, gathering used towels in the bathroom, and replacing them with clean ones a bit less taxing.  

There was plenty of time for reading too, and I happened upon a short piece online about avoiding certain habits in marriage or close relationships.  Without rehashing that article in its entirety, the gist of it was, with regard to certain less than pleasant personal habits, that it is actually preferable in the longer term to maintain an air of mystery and keep some things to yourself.  Metaphorically speaking, keep the door closed.  There are some things that simply do not need to be mentioned -- much less done in front of -- or made the topic of conversation between you, your nearest, and dearest.  Which brings me back to the student-instructor conferences of last week.


I had a sprinkling of students who, on sitting down across from me at the table in the dining commons where I typically stage these meetings, announced that they had either refined, or changed their intended research topics since writing their proposal papers.  Fine.  As I explain so often to my students, part of the early stage of all this is nailing down a (hopefully) precise focus and deciding on how to approach a topic and say something about it.  However, a few of these dialogues about revised topics disclosed rather more personal information than I either needed, or wanted to know. 

Fortunately, this time at least, none of these conversations involved the human digestive tract.  Pardon me for just a moment, but who in the hell thinks this kind of thing is appropriate to share with anyone but your doctor or healthcare provider. . .  much less your English professor??!!  I had a student (not the first) about a year ago in another course who routinely gave me details like this via email whenever he missed class.  Eeeewww!  There must be a lot of families out there where this kind of thing makes for routine breakfast table fodder over their cold toast and soggy Cornflakes.  That and too many people in 2015 are in the habit of just blurting out whatever half-baked thoughts drifts across their minds whenever and wherever with, apparently, little regard for what they say, where, and to whom they say it.  

On a related note, my parents and maternal grandparents, three of whom hailed from rural and small town North Carolina, used to tell my sister and me when we were very small -- and we managed to grasp their meaning pretty quickly -- "We don't talk about things like that."  Occasionally, that was amended slightly during mealtimes to, "We don't talk about that at the table."  My maternal grandmother, who prefigured Dame Maggie Smith's character on Downton Abbey in some ways, also had an even more pointed expression that she used from time to time, usually about people outside the family, "Familiarity breeds contempt."  There is something to all of these sayings as well as the attitudes and behavior they suggest, but you can, I hope, understand my thinking here.  

And yes.  The point of today's post certainly flies in the face of our current age of over-familiarity and false bonhomie in which, it seems, almost everyone overshares about everything in casual conversation, often with people we have just met for the first time.  You know, because we're all swine traveling in the same filthy, stinky boxcar, right?  So, why keep anything private anymore?  In any case, here goes.  

Let's try for a bit more reserved gentility everyone.  Not only in our appearance, but in how and what we talk about, our conversation in other words, and with whom we share rather intimate details not really suitable for public consumption.  Let's stop spilling our guts, to be perfectly crass, whenever the opportunity presents itself.  It does not matter whether your have ADHD and use medication to focus your thoughts, whether you are gluten and/or lactose intolerant, whether you are clinically depressed and on some kind of medication for it, or if you simply ate something for supper yesterday evening that didn't agree with you.  It's nothing to be embarrassed about, of course (that's not what I mean), but keep it to yourself.  

Many of the rest of us do not want to know these details about your life, and we certainly do not need to know them to interact with you in a polite and productive way.  Moreover, there is nothing remotely stylish or sophisticated about sharing this kind of information with everyone you meet.  Only your doctor needs to know. . .  if and when there is a problem.  Barring that, shut up about it!  There is plenty of other truly interesting, and even troubling stuff in the world to talk about, for example, besides things like bathroom habits or other intensely personal issues.  It is also worth noting that some of us, on being treated to this kind of TMI, think only, "That poor slob must not know any better.  Didn't his parents tell him not to broadcast information like that to just anyone?"  Guess not.

The same thing goes for those old fashioned stalwart topics that also should be played close to your chest in polite company.  Namely, we don't talk about money, sex, religion, or politics.  Believe me.  If people you barely know are at all interested beyond waving from across the street as you walk to your car, or politely nodding as your paths cross in the lobby, elevators, or hallways of your mutual workplace, they will figure it out before long.  

In short, the rest of the world does not need to know your most personal details or secrets, and often we don't want to know either.  After all, what business is it of ours if you like to wear your wife's or partner's negligees whenever she leaves town to visit her sister, right?  So, here is a modest proposal.  How about we take much of what has become public in recent years and make it a bit more private again, hmm?  Let's leave a bit more to the imagination.  By the same token, let's just leave other less than savory subjects out of what passes for conversation these days altogether.  It would sure help make our daily exchanges more pleasant for more of us.

-- Heinz-Ulrich


  1. Thank you for this post, so very much. It's embarrassing especially to be in restaurants where tables are fairly close together, to hear what some people will talk about both in public and over dinner...

    My daddy used to say, "You don't have to say everything you think." I had an uncle who used to say, "Don't air your dirty laundry in front of the neighbors." This rarely happened before the late 1990's, but about that time when we went out to eat & people at other tables would talk about embarrassing things, I had an aunt who would ask, "Does anyone have a poem they would like to share? If you don't, then I will," which effectively took everyone's attention at our table back to our table.


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All opinions are welcome here. Even those that differ from mine. But let's keep it clean and civil, please.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

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