The German privacy paradox

As a group, Germans are more private than anyone I know. My German grandfather-in-law used to lecture me: “People do not need to know that.” Germans complain about Google Streetview taking pictures of them … in public. They’re going after Facebook on privacy. They say that Google Analytics violates privacy. They even enable convicted killers to expunge their names from Wikipedia out of privacy. And now they’re up in arms about airport body scanners.

Yet go into a German sauna, and there the Germans are, male and female, together, sweaty and naked. Germans protect the privacy of everything but their private parts.

I do think we have something to learn from their sauna attitude. On my last trip to Germany, I got addicted to the sauna — no, not to gawk and, since my surgery, certainly not to show off anything (as I’ve revealed, I’m in a chronic state of shrinkage, or should I say, Sternage?). When I first visited a German sauna, I had the surprise Americans have and just decided to go with the flow: When in München….

But when I was in a Davos sauna (a very cool one in a log cabin outside the hotel) with a bunch of sweaty and naked Russians, the door opened and an American couple almost came in, until the wife saw me and shrieked (I do hope it wasn’t for the reason above). She slammed the door and pulled out and we heard her husband pleading, “No, really, it’s OK, honey. Yes, it’s supposed to be co-ed.” She came in after all, hermetically wrapped in her towel (a violation of German sauna etiquette) and sitting as stiff as a church lady, looking only at the ceiling. It was not relaxing for her. I suspect it was not going to be a relaxing evening for her husband, either.

So what’s the more mature attitude about privacy and publicness and the body? I’ll vote with the Germans on this. And that makes me ask why what’s private is private — a question worth asking as we hear so much about privacy in the internet age. One way to pose this question is to ask what harm could come from something private becoming public.

Start with the Germans: What’s the harm of being naked — especially when everyone else is? As I’ve written here before: In the company of nudists, no one is naked (I’m still trying to convince my editor thats a book title). So you have breasts and I have a penis. Surprise, surprise, surprise. Perhaps you could blackmail me because of the current state of mine, but when I went to a public sauna in Munich, I saw every possible body flaw. Even the Germans know there’s no harm in revealing one’s body.

What’s the harm that can come from revealing something else about oneself, as adults fear young people are doing in excess in Facebook and the web? The issue, I’ve long said, is not privacy but control: We have a right to control our information and how it’s used. But all this talk about privacy could make us withhold more than ever; it could make us downright antisocial. So I’ll ask again, what harm will come from publicness? Where’s the line?

* I don’t want to reveal anything about myself that robs someone else of their control of their privacy. So even though my current state of things may be obvious, I’m not going to talk about my sex life because that would violate my wife’s privacy. I wouldn’t make all my email or phone conversations public — as if anyone should care — for the same reason. I should pull no one into my glass house.

* I’m hinky about revealing what I make – most of us are. But why? I suppose I fear someone trying to scam me or beg me for money. But teachers don’t make much. You can easily find out what professors at CUNY earn since, if you live in New York, you’re paying me (up to $90k is the answer). I’ve revealed what I make from my blog (average of about $15k). For some reason, the publishing industry likes to leak what is paid for book advances. I reveal my consulting and speaking gigs. So you could probably come close to guessing my income. I have no reason to publicize it but I also am not sure what the harm is.

* I don’t want to reveal anything that would enable someone to steal my identity for financial ends or to impersonate or attack me or my familiy. So, of course, there’s no gain to be had and much harm to be gained from revealing passwords, account numbers, addresses, and the like.

* No one wants to be embarrassed and so we don’t want to reveal embarrassing things. But who to say what’s embarrassing? It comes out of our fear of what others will think of us. So others do. As a journalist, I’m embarrassed to make mistakes, but I’ve had to learn in blogging and Twitter that correcting mistakes enhances credibility. It’s not the mistake that matters but what you do about it. And, yes, the argument is made that young people will regret putting their drunken party pictures online when it comes time to apply for a job. But I say that as we shift generations, the bosses will have their own embarrassing party pictures and they will find themselves in a state of mutually assured humiliation. In What Would Google Do?, I hope that this stand-off might yield a more tolerant society.

What else? Is it possible to say that anything else is fair game for public sharing? Put that way, and it smacks of exhibitionism: My life is an open blog. So I prefer to turn the question around now and look at the benefits of publicness that we lose when we make something unnecessarily private. I’ve said that revealing my prostate here brought me great value: support, links to sources of information, incredibly candid and helpful previews from patients who’ve gone before, and the opportunity to spur others to check for the disease. Without revealing my cancer in public, I’d have received none of that benefit. I also argue in WWGD? that there’s value in the aggregation of our knowledge: if we all chronicled what we were doing 24 hours before the onset of my other condition, heart arrhythmia, would doctors find new patterns? If we all shared and could analyze our repair records for our Toyotas, would we surface dangerous flaws earlier? Not revealing such data may indeed someday be seen as antisocial.

So the Germans inspired me to ask about the line between private and public and why it’s there: merely cultural convention or self-interested reason? Fear or legitimate concern? And what is the cost of privacy?

They also inspired me to come home and try to install a sauna.

[Photo: mag3737]

: LATER: In the comments, Howard Weaver nacks me for saying “merely cultural convention.” I didn’t mean to belittle but to separate whether the cause of a convention is purely cultural or whether here are practical reasons (e.g., women in some culture hide their laughs out of convention but there’s nothing obvious bad that is going to happen to you if it is seen; but someone taking my credit card data can have real impact).

The more important point I meant to emphasize is that, of course, decisions about what’s properly private and public often are cultural and it’s fascinating — using the Germans and their saunas as a starting point — to examine those differences and use that to make us question our own assumptions. In the comments also a Scandanavian points out that there, you can indeed look up what your neighbor makes

: The other point I should make is about those body scanners. Some say that it’s different choosing to take off your clothes in a sauna vs. being denuded in a machine. Yes, but my point is that if we all as a culture saw exposing our (formerly) privates as no big deal, there’d be less of a hubbub about using the machines and perhaps we’d be safer as a result. In the U.S., we giggled about the guy with the bomb in his underwear. That embarrassed laughter could, in the extreme, cost lives.

Similarly, at Davos, I spoke as a patient at a dinner about prostate cancer and I said that our skittishness about talking about things having to do with the penis (or fingers up our asses) is keeping men from the doctors and killing some of them. Privacy can kill.