Public, Private, Professional, Personal

It’s that time of year again, and conversations in various parts of the internet have cycled back around to questions of image and identity, professional presentation and authenticity.

It’s a perennial favorite for people in public life – or those, including seminarians, who are moving into the public sphere: the fine art of navigating the tricky passage between the Pointy Rocks of Unprofessionalism and the Sucking Whirlpool of Inauthenticity. Perhaps I’m being a little flippant; on the one level it seems absurd that something as superficial as presentation should even matter, and on the other it does matter so very much.

It is a source of no small anxiety. What does it mean to show up as your authentic self? To show up as a professional? As a minister? How, as the song goes, do you know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em?

One of the places we get tangled up is around boundaries: the boundary between the personal and the professional, the boundary between the public and the private. Which is which? How do you know where to draw those lines? Historically there’s a strong tendency to conflate the public with the professional and the private with the personal. It seems important to me to tease these ideas apart because the conflation is no longer useful in the age of social media and instant connectivity.

I don’t feel like I have solid answers but I’ve been teasing and tumbling the questions around for awhile now, and it’s time to turn out some of the work in progress.

 

Public vs. Private

Square divided vertically, left side blue, text reads "Public"; right side yellow, text reads "Private"

For me, the distinction between public and private has to do with control: of image, of content, of contact. Things we put into the public sphere – like this blog – are those open to any audience. This “no control” part is especially true in digital media, where a photograph or video can make its way around the world in a few minutes and keep popping up, weeks or months or years later, in entirely unrelated contexts. What is public is on stage, on display, and available to be seen, considered and talked about.

I think of private as those things where we have (or at least expect to have) some measure of control over the distribution and use of content, information or contact. Private runs the spectrum from the secret paper journal kept in a lockbox under the bed to a “closed” online forum with hundreds (or thousands!) of participants; so obviously there are degrees of privacy and control and sharing.

It’s fairly easy to release something from the private sphere into the public, but exceedingly difficult to put the public toothpaste back into the private tube; that’s the motivation behind privacy laws and expectations of confidentiality. “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead,” wrote Benjamin Franklin.

This distinction – public versus private – is what makes paparazzi photos and political scandals so compelling: something intended to remain in the private sphere has gotten loose in public and is streaking down the road with its pants on its head yelling about the bees or something.  It’s out of place, it has the smell of the forbidden, and thus it’s very hard to look away.

 

Professional vs. Personal

Square divided horizontally; top is pink, text reads Professional; bottom is yellow, text reads Personal

The distinction between professional and personal, for me, centers around whether something relates more closely to your vocation – either in the sense of livelihood, or of life’s work – or to your context. “Professional” has connotations that are both normative and performative – the standards of “Am I doing it right?” are determined by the external norms of one’s vocational role, and one is evaluated according to one’s performance of those standards. Professional life is externally-oriented: there’s a [vocation]-shaped hole in the world, and you fill it with you.

Personal is… all the rest of it. Your family. Your friends. Your health. Your hobbies and interests beyond the nuts and bolts of your livelihood. Pictures of your cat, or dog, or iguana, or prize tulip garden. Everything that isn’t about your work. “Personal” at its best has to do with self-differentiation, self-expression, identity and authenticity. (Sometimes, “personal” turns out to mean living into a different set of expectations than “professional” does – but that’s another sermon.) To put it another way, the personal is the “you” that goes into – and exists outside of – the professional box.

Frankly, all this can be really, really blurry for people whose lives and work blend into each other and overlap – including writers, creative and performing artists, entrepreneurs… and ministers. If you blog in your down time about your job at the hardware store, that’s probably not part of your professional life – although it could impact your livelihood, if you post things that your employer finds offensive.

But if your job includes managing the website and writing a blog for the farmers’ market co-op, that’s different: your writing, your online presence – at least on the co-op blog – is part of your professional life, even if you do mention your home-grown organic tomatoes.

Next post: A Model for Navigating Public Presence. When spheres collide… and overlap.

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