I was talking to C today about the perils of teenage sex. One of her sons is sleeping with his girlfriend, and although she knew it was happening, she hadn’t seen (or heard) any evidence of it. That meant it was sort of okay. Girlfriend is shown to the spare room, everyone says goodnight, that’s that. I mean, I guess that’s how it’s been in many families for a fair few decades now. Centuries, even. Crikey, I sound like some temporal prude.
The point is, C was upset that after a supposedly innocent ‘sleepover’, she woke up one morning to discover that the girlfriend had left the spare room door wide open and was not to be found in the bed. C went into her son’s room where they were both asleep, spooning. And that had to be that; the rule was enforced, no more sleepovers. Why? Not because C actually really minds about them sleeping together under her roof (better there, she thinks, than in a graveyard), but rather because ‘form’ had been broken.
I think that it is one of the root causes of the social problems, inequalities and silos within this country. And many others.
Form. The awareness of what is going on and the associated refusal to acknowledge it in public, or sometimes even in private.
It’s feels so Victorian. Silent expectations of what to say or do, or not say and not do. Expectations that are learned through osmosis, held in common by a group of people, often unknown to outsiders. A secret code of conformity. A willing suspension of disbelief. That stuff works for plays and movies and books and other cultural things. But day-to-day interaction? In my mind it is one of the biggest social dividers. We all know that the mime artist isn’t actually in a box, that the Emperor doesn’t have new clothes, that the elephant is in the room.
Keeping form is one of the tenets of civility. As adults, we tend to get embarrassed if a kid asks why someone’s skin colour is different from theirs, say. But this type of colour blindness, or any other form of ‘civilised’ denial of difference reinforces social division rather than undermining it. But that’s the form. Teenagers should at least try to hide the fact that they are having sex under your roof. That’s the form. Professional women shouldn’t openly acknowledge that they spend half the day in serious meetings and the other half high-fiving their kid for peeing in the potty. That’s the form.
Earlier this week I broke form. I scraped off the professional veneer of my bio, and put some more candid truths in there instead. I did it for two reasons. Firstly, I was never the kid who liked to play dress up and pretend to be someone else. I just didn’t believe in it. I was never going to be some power player who liked feeling slick in a suit for half my waking hours. In fact, if you put my life roles in a pie chart (mother, wife, worker, daughter, friend, colleague, etc), I feel most comfortable when I don’t have to alter what I look like or what I say too much as I move between one and another. I would hope that if everyone who interacts with me in any aspect of my life came to my funeral, the picture painted of me would be clearly recognisable to all of them. That’s a morbid thought on a sunny day, huh.
Anyway, back to the candid bio 2.0. The second reason I did it is because I wanted to push myself beyond my own comfort zone. I’m pretty open and honest when it comes to talking to friends; I can confide in fellow mothers in a flash these days, even if they’re strangers; and there’s something very liberating in talking about personal (or professional) flaws to a potential sea of unknown folk. But to share that stuff with people with whom I’ve only ever interacted professionally? With whom, if I’m being really honest rather than pseudo-honest, I’ve tried to create the impression that I’ve totally got my shit together? That, that was tough. Put it this way: it wasn’t something I posted on my LinkedIn profile.
I’m not saying that I feel it’s necessary to acknowledge my kid’s bowel movements or my facial hair routines at the start of a meeting with an investor. But I am interested in exploring where professional and personal worlds elide—something that happens with increasing frequency in this hyper-digitalised world.
It’s about authenticity, I think. And authenticity is complicated. It’s not just about cross-pollinating different roles with each other, and sharing them equally. It’s also about being honest (rather than just pseudo-honest) about what’s really going on in them. I’m a long way from getting it right. I post on Facebook that I got offered a funded place to a conference; I don’t post that I got turned down by two funders the previous day. I instagram a photo of a windmill that I saw on a run, but I consciously chose not to photograph a dead duck on the road just before the pretty windmill came into view.
We’re in an age of open authenticity. At least, it has the potential to be that way. It also has the potential to be just a lot of pseudo-authentic noise. But what is exciting for me, especially having once taught Media Studies, is that our ability to make our lives public, instantly, can help us unpick and understand how others are putting themselves across in this world feed too.
The process of framing what we post or tweet or instagram or tumbl allows us to experience first-hand the ability to choose how we want to present ourselves and represent ourselves. It can make all of us more savvy when faced with big brands and their photoshopped products, with politicians and their tweet-friendly policies, with megastars and their tilt-shifted lives. There’s the potential for something hugely empowering about all of us being able to choose what to put out there, and what to leave out. But there still needs to be a lot of education around this—from the basics of privacy settings to a working knowledge of what big data means for us little guys.
I want to make sense of it for myself, and I also want to make sense of it so I can discuss it with the young people we work with through Spark+Mettle. The older generations (sadly, I’m now in there too) often say how young people these days don’t professionalise and screen their online identities enough. Like Paris Brown (see below). But maybe us oldies are a bit too uptight about delineating between the two. You have to be either a professional confessor (like many great mum bloggers, such as Pass the Gin), or a professional, full-stop.
So how do you challenge the ‘form’, and be authentic, without becoming some solipsistic hyper-sharer? I’m so far from having the answer. I don’t know where the sweet spot is for all this stuff, but I do know that it’s moving. Just as we now talk about the work-life blend, I think it’s a ripe time to look afresh at the professional-personal blend of the identities we have and the way we present them. And however we put ourselves across—either online or in the real world—I feel that the social and cultural sense of ‘form’ is shifting, albeit slowly. And I for one am excited about that. IMHO, the fewer invisible walls there are between each of us or within us ourselves, the better.