Christopher Chelpka

Private Conversations in a Very Public World

Prof. Kate Klonick teaches her students about privacy with a “creepy assignment”.

She has them go to public places and then learn what they can about a person by watching, listening, and googling. What her students learn is that our privacy is protected in public partly by being unknown to others. But, with the power and accesibility of the internet and its tools, it’s like we’re all living in a small town. Which is why Prof. Klonick advises us to

“Treat every place as if it were a small town, and give everyone the privacy that you would give to your neighbor — and that you would want your neighbor to give to you.”

That’s excellent advice. Let me suggest three ways to do that.

First, when possible, move private converastions to private places. This applies to both viritual spaces and physical ones.

Second, keep your voice down. Just because that guy over there is wearing headphones or holding a book, it doesn’t mean he’s not listening. And if you’re sharing secrets, you can guarantee he is listening.

Third, start noticing how some public and semi-public places work well for private conversations and some don’t. As a pastor who does disciples people over a large metro area, I keep a list handy of the places I find that offer privacy. Here are some examples from my list:

  • “Wide, open park with paved paths. Not much decision making necessary for choosing which direction to go. Easy to see who is around you.”
  • “Free. Quiet garden. Take the path on the left and find the bench by the back wall.”
  • “Burgers. Loud music and kitchen noise. Open floor plan with lots of space between tables.”