If I ask you what’s your favorite ice cream flavor, what was the last Hollywood movie you saw, or whether you’ve ever been to Vermont, chances are you’ll answer my questions honestly and with little hesitation (provided you’re in the mood to chat in the first place).
If I move on to inquiring about your ATM PIN, your kinkiest sexual fantasy, or your rap sheet, you’ll probably be more reluctant to tell, thinking (perhaps even saying aloud) that these matters are none of my business.
Obviously, how much and what type of information you’re game to share with me hinges on a variety of factors, such as the nature and depth of our relationship, the time and place of our conversation, your upbringing, and how many tequila shots you’ve had.
Few people are ready to reveal everything to everyone at all times, and those who are most likely suffer from some type of psychiatric disorder. The majority of us constantly draw lines in terms of what we’re willing to share when and with whom.
For the purpose of this polemic, I shall disregard situations where we don’t feel like conversing at all. Let us confine our discussion to situations in which we are willing to talk but keep within either spontaneous or premeditated limits the kind and quantity of information we are prepared to divulge to a given audience, i.e., pretty much every time the psychologically sound and sober among us are in information-sharing mode and face an audience of at least one other individual deemed capable of comprehending what we say.
Whenever we resist disclosing a particular piece of information or take active measures to reduce the numerical size of our audience, we do so for one of three reasons:
- Plain civility and consideration for others, e.g., by keeping our voices down when jabbering into our cell phones in public
- Efficiency of communication—we’ve adjudged the information in question to be excessive or off-topic, and even though we do not, in principle, object to sharing it with the same audience at another time, doing so at this point would only clutter, confuse, or distract from the discussion at hand
- We worry that its disclosure may result in undesirable consequences beyond merely disturbing others or blurring the focus of a given debate
Such potentially undesirable consequences in the wake of injudicious disclosure of certain data can range from subtle to severe. Perhaps we are simply worried some people might misunderstand or “judge” us to varying degrees and carry away the impression we’re either freaky, obtuse, or mentally imbalanced (“need help”).
Higher up on the disaster scale, we may be concerned that one or another audience member could misuse the information we so magnanimously provided to cause us harm; perhaps by cleaning out our bank accounts; or by passing it on to the wrong people, such as contacting law enforcement in case we owned up to illegal activity, informing our spouses in case we shared juicy details regarding extramarital desires we had unwisely given into, or forwarding to our superiors confidential emails in which we had bestowed various primate designations upon them.
So unless, for content-neutral reasons, we don’t wish to talk at all, or we are solely concerned about efficiency of communication or extending rudimentary courtesy to others, every impulse to hold back information or to share it with a limited audience only is born out of fear—fear not necessarily in the melodramatic sense of shaking in our wingtips, but in the less conspicuous sense of anticipating unpleasantness—pain, for short—and adjusting our behavior so as to avoid it.
Just as we strive to keep access into our hearts and minds restricted, we tend to keep our houses and apartments locked, yet our hands don’t tremble as we insert our keys into the keyholes, and no pearls of cold sweat materialize on our foreheads as we sense the bits engaging the tumblers. Even in the absence of physical symptoms, the rote action of securing our premises is driven by fear, to wit the fear of what might happen if we didn’t lock them, for it seems unlikely that a great many of us get an actual kick (i.e., a “dopamine squirt”) out of stopping on our way out in order to manipulate a flat piece of brass on a keychain, save the agreeable tranquility of mind derived from having now reduced the risk of finding our abodes ransacked upon returning from yoga class or the nail parlor.
Fear need not be a monumental emotion. It needn’t even be recognizable as an emotion at all. Most of the time we refer to it as “common sense” and class it as a thought rather than a feeling. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with many of our choices being governed by fear-based common sense. In fact, such common sense is vital not only for our functioning in society, but indeed for our survival.
At bottom, each of our impulses and actions is motivated by either love or fear—more precisely, pleasure-seeking or pain avoidance—although it can be tricky to tell which is which. Why do we floss? Because we’re afraid of the dentist’s drill and bill, or because maintaining a clean and wholesome oral cavity feels good? Do we put on our seat belts because we’re scared of sailing through the windshield, or because we enjoy that heightened sense of safety which buckling up affords us?
Often, the motivation for our behavior is a combination of pleasure-seeking and pain avoidance. In a way, one appears to imply the other—intoxication is a classic strategy of seeking bliss in order to escape discomfort—yet upon close examination, one of these two forces generally preponderates on a per-action basis. Of course, we are hopelessly biased in favor of couching the bulk of our own behavior in glowing terms of love and the pursuit of happiness while downplaying any fear component that may also have a hand in pulling our behavioral strings; then we simply reverse this analytical procedure in explaining the behavior of others, especially when their conduct is not to our liking; for instance, when they root for the wrong political candidate or party. By definition, voting for the opposition is driven by fear fueled by enemy propaganda, and the bad guys always happen to possess a “bigger megaphone” and are so much better organized in terms of getting their message out. (I shall now discontinue pursuing this particular train of thought and return to the topic under examination—not out of fear of undesirable consequences, but because I am beginning to blur the focus of this discussion. At another time, I shall be perfectly willing to disclose to this very same audience the thoughts I am withholding right now for efficiency’s sake.)
In fine, if you ever see me flee from an angry grizzly, I shall most likely insist I am running away because I love life and derive pleasure from the structural integrity of my mortal coil, not because I fear the furry mammal on my heels.
Now, requests for information an individual does not wish to disclose frequently provoke the NOYB (“none of your business”) response. The problem with this half-witted locution is not a lack of factual accuracy. Chances are the information requested is none of the inquirer’s business indeed. Of course your PIN code, your favorite sexual position, and your criminal record are none of my business, except in a fairly limited number of scenarios where the transfer of such intelligence may be relevant.
The problem is that your favorite ice cream flavor isn’t any of my business either, yet you blurted out “mint chocolate chip” without the faintest trace of reluctance; after all, I’m neither a dessert store employee whom you’ve approached for professional guidance through the gelato selection, nor a physician analyzing your food cravings in the context of ascertaining the nature of the distemper which prompted you to seek my counsel, nor a law enforcement officer investigating the theft of a dozen pints of Ben & Jerry’s from the deli on your block.
In the overwhelming majority of conceivable circumstances, your predilection for mint chocolate chip is not one iota more of my—or anybody else’s—business than is your preference of 69 over missionary. Yet how often do you brush off a query about the former as NOYB as compared to a query about the latter? And how often do you volunteer unsolicited information regarding irrelevant matters of a certain kind versus equally irrelevant matters of a different kind, selectively invoking the NOYB rationale over here but not over there?
So the trouble with NOYB lies in its preposterously inconsistent application to a point where the phrase itself has become an all-out lie—white, perhaps, but a lie nonetheless—the word lie defined as an act of dishonesty, i.e., any statement or action designed to conceal or mislead, not in the speciously sloppy sense of not telling the truth, for lying and telling the truth are by no means mutually exclusive. Our level of honesty is a function of our objectives, not of the literal veracity of our assertions. Trying to foist off a factually accurate yet utterly immaterial reason as the real reason for your behavior is a lie no matter which way you turn it—unless, of course, you’re living in Delusionville and sincerely believe that the fact that something isn’t somebody else’s business is the real reason for why you would ever withhold information from that person.
Either you are one of these no-nonsense monosyllabic Clint-Eastwood-style tough guys who refuse to waste time with idle chitchat and only use words as a last resort when neither an eye-roll, a lip-curl, a shoulder-shrug, nor an icy glower will do, or you’ll have a pretty hard time cooking up a cogent argument as to why a non-negligible portion of your daily revelations are any of your respective audience’s business. If you can’t cook it up—and the odds are you can’t—you’ve effectively disqualified NOYB as a credible justification for your silence on anything. And if you’re in the habit of tweeting about the molassitudinous checkout lane at the supermarket, the ambrosial mac & cheese you had for lunch, and your balmy afternoon in the park, your ever invoking this phrase won’t even pass the laugh test.
Speaking of cooking stuff up, scanning my Facebook News Feed as I am writing these lines I glimpse the following breaking-news flash posted by one of my FB friends:
[name of friend] excited to cook for regina! greek-style spinach lasagna with dill and feta cheese, arugula salad with crispy prosciutto, raspberries and vanilla ice cream for dessert
I betcha if I send this friend a message asking if she prefers Tampax or Playtex, I’ll reap a resounding NOYB in response.
Even if you aren’t an electronic attention strumpet, you may periodically engage in small talk—its subtype substantive small talk (SST) in particular—whereby relevance and import are sacrificed in favor of bouncing substantively meaningless messages or sound waves back and forth for the sheer joy of bonding with others. Sure, bonding is wonderful, necessary, therapeutic, you name it. Keep in mind, though, that when you regale others with frivolous autobiographical fluff one minute—like where you purchased your lipstick or your cuff links—it doesn’t quite compute to then turn around and put a sock in on grounds of some other type of information being nobody’s business.
In no way do I suggest that people ought to share more than they are comfortable sharing. Whether to err on the side of revealing too little instead of too much signifies Solomonic sagacity, neurosis or clinical paranoia, or just plain old common sense, is beside the point. If you wish to keep your most erogenous zones a secret, more power to you. But if you cite as a reason that your zones are none of my business after you just told me you used to own a ferret named Darwin that made you sneeze, please be prepared to make a stronger case than “Huh?” when I ask you to explain why you thought your childhood pet history was any of my concern.
We have the right to remain silent on any issue we please, and we are not obliged to explain our silence. But if we do feel compelled to articulate a reason for why we choose to withhold certain tidbits, we ought to articulate a more plausible one than the trite red NOYB herring, if only to guard against insulting the intelligence of our audience and coming across as either dishonest or delusional to boot.
So anytime we are tempted to serve up the trusty NOYB excuse, what’s the real reason why we opt to withhold information?
Pain avoidance. NOYB stands for IAPM (“I am protecting myself”). We exercise revelatory restraint in order to shield ourselves from potentially unpleasant consequences (= pain) we might incur if we revealed too much. That the information withheld may indeed be none of anyone’s business is irrelevant, because that never stops us from sounding off as long as we esteem the information itself harmless enough so as not to reflect unfavorably upon us or come back to haunt us in the future.
(“Off-topic” and “out of context” are very different in kind from NOYB, as they denote a concern for economy of communication rather than a fear of the bothersome repercussions of releasing information on account of its substance. I suppose we could characterize such concern for economy as a fear of painful communicative anarchy due to its tendency to frustrate the speaker’s objectives.)
Why would what I looked and felt like as a four-year-old be anybody’s—let alone everybody’s—business? Beats me, yet I posted a picture which discloses precisely this information at the top right of this page for the world to see. And what you are perusing right now is my personal perspective on a particular subject. Any of your business? I see no reason why it would be. The title speaks for itself. In fact, I dare you to locate a single scrap of information on my entire website that is your and most other visitors’ business. Entertaining, perhaps. Edifying, God knows. Business, hardly.
On the other hand, there are lots of things I would never make public, and if I shared them at all, I would select my audience very carefully. Why? Because these things are nobody’s business? Clearly, that can’t be it. If my personal data sluice were governed by such business considerations, I’d be posting hurricane and tsunami warnings for the Eastern Seaboard and the latest data regarding the projected flight paths of meteorites on a collision course with Planet Earth, not cute little snaps of myself as a toddler or accounts of clumsy mice falling off my kitchen counter. The reason I refuse to air certain information on principle—as opposed to out of laziness, time constraints, or because I haven’t yet thought of a way to de-dullify the information so it won’t cause the valued reader to doze off in mid-sentence—is that I fear unpleasant (i.e., painful) consequences if I did.
For instance, on my About page, under “Miscellaneous,” I could post the size of my manhood in inches, but I am not going to post it. Nobody’s business? Of course not, but neither is much else on that page. Nobody wants to know? Hard to say. Would I personally mind if the world knew? Quite frankly, I don’t really care. I’m European. Had I been born and raised in Smalltown, Alabama, I may feel differently about it.
Still, I am not going to post it, even if I felt like doing so in a fit of frolicsome exuberance. First of all, doing so would raise questions about motive and invite speculation that I may be some sort of pervert. Drawing visitors to one’s website is difficult enough. It would be highly counterproductive to display information that would instantly drive some of them away. Conversely, I might attract the wrong crowd and be flooded with obscene and idiotic comments. Moreover, this kind of stuff could easily turn into a small (no pun intended) skeleton in my closet and snowball into a career killer down the line. (Not like I have a career to kill, but the HR department of a potential employer may take a look at my website prior to calling me in for an interview. Stumbling across certain disclosures might prompt them to disconsider my application.)
In the end, I fear a farrago of painful outcomes if I publicly disclosed my inchage, and I don’t see any possible benefits to offset the downside. Point being, the fact that it is “nobody’s business” has zilch to do with why I won’t disclose it.
I propose we put this whole NOYB nonsense to bed with a shovel and either give honest and valid reasons for our behavior or no reasons at all. And if, from time to time, we deem it necessary to peddle asinine explanations or make phony excuses for the sake of expediency, at least let us not delude ourselves into believing that they aren’t precisely that.
This is how I feel about it, and how I feel is NOYB.
I told you anyway.