Wednesday, August 15, 2007

privacy in writing

Writing is paradoxical: on the one hand, it can be the most public form of communication. Anything you write - particularly in your business life - can have a long shelf life and it can travel to unpredictable places. That's why we hear horror stories once or twice a year about email that went to the wrong people. It's why we have all heard stories of people who lost jobs over lies on their resumes that were uncovered years after the resume was created. What you write may or may not be true, but if it is true that you have written it, then you had better be able to commit to it.

On the other hand, writing offers a remarkable degree of privacy to the reader. We write, in part, so that people can read when they have time and space to consider what we are saying. We use a few words to sketch out complicated situations, and rely on them to fill in gaps in our information and process (all language uses only a few words to reflect a reality that contains billions of bits of information - all written language has only those few words to convey the entire reality). We are not there to observe their responses.

For instance, I might write this paragraph:

Think of a tough situation, a situation where none of the choices seemed right to you, or where each of the available choices seemed to cost more than it was worth. Go back in your mind to the time when you were actively struggling with the situation. Collect all the information you would need to write a report on your decision making process: include your environment, the people who were helping or obstructing you, and the background expertise you used in making your decision. Now ask yourself: "if I knew then what I know now, what would I have done differently?"

As you read that paragraph, you will inevitably become aware of a particular situation in your own life. As the writer, I have invited that response, but I have not controlled it and I am not aware of what situation each reader will choose. If we were to meet for coffee tomorrow, I would have no idea what particular sequence of thoughts and feelings were prompted by your reading. I would, however, know that if you had read what I had written, you would have been thinking about how you made a tough decision and what you would change about the experience. We would have lots of common ground for approaching a new decision without having been crowded or pressured.

Writing is often associated with micro management: in fact, it's impossible to micro-manage in writing. You cannot force anyone to read and you really can't force them to read well. Writing is an invitation to collaborate - to add individual understanding and experience to a situation with the time, space and privacy to process before commenting.

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