There are many things I would dearly love to write about on this blog, for the sake of the writing process, the feedback, the crowdsourcing potential for knotty problems. I can think of a half dozen subjects I could pour my heart and soul into: they’d make for good reading and good conversation.
But those subjects won’t appear on this blog, and probably won’t appear anywhere in print, at least not anytime in the next ten years.
You’ve probably heard bloggers say this before: they have topics they’d like to write about, but they can’t. Or they won’t. As to why not, the usual explanation goes something like this: it’s not my story to tell. (What usually follows is a rousing discussion of Anne Lamott’s quip: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”)
I disagree with Lamott on this one. Some stories aren’t mine to tell: they belong to someone else. (More and more, that “someone” is one of my kids. I ask permission to blog about them these days.)
But I’m realizing that when I decide what to write—and not write—about, it’s not just about whose story it is to tell. That question has an equally important corollary: whose story is it to hear?
When my therapist explained the four levels of relationship to me last year, it changed the way I thought about my interactions with others. (I’d encourage you to go read that post before reading on.)
The four levels of relationship in a nutshell
There are four possible levels of relationship, ranging from shallow (our acquaintances) to deep (our intimates). Every relationship we have can be plotted on that sliding scale. The status itself is emotionally neutral. We run into trouble when our behavior and our relationship status don’t align.
This happens all the time.
It explains why it feels horrible to find out about your best friend’s engagement on facebook, and why it feels horribly awkward when a new acquaintance overshares and bares her soul to you. The behavior should match the relationship status: we expect our best friend to treat us like an intimate; our new acquaintance shouldn’t treat us as a confidant.
The four levels of relationship on the internet
When my therapist and I talked about the four levels, we were talking about in-person, three-dimensional relationships: the people you see at work, or yoga class, or Thanksgiving dinner. She wasn’t talking about blogging or social media.
But lately I’ve been thinking about the four levels and the online world, and it’s been eye-opening: the internet is a place where our behavior and our relationship status diverge all the time.
One example: I often find myself cringing when someone airs their dirty laundry publicly—whether it’s a facebook friend or a celebrity on E! Online. But not just because of the lurid details: it’s because, lurid or not, I have no business hearing them. I am not intimate friends with the teller. It is not my story to hear.
On the other hand, when a close friend tells me a sordid personal story, it’s likely I’ll cringe at that—not necessarily because she shouldn’t have told me, but because it was just that kind of story. (She’s probably cringing right along with me.) An intimate relationship can handle the heavy stuff. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s important.
Once I recognized the significance of this, I started seeing it everywhere. (Vaguebooking is annoying, but Facebook oversharing is downright uncomfortable, and this is why.)
This isn’t to say one shouldn’t talk about personal stuff online, not at all. Many bloggers treat their blogs like online journals, and I love memoir as a genre. Those formats work (when they work) because they are highly edited. The writers are careful about what they share, and especially about how they share it. (The best ones do this so delicately you don’t even notice how careful they’re being.) If they weren’t, reading them would feel horribly awkward.
My family is starting to work through a murky problem-of-sorts right now. (We’ll be fine, nothing major, and whatever you’re thinking it might be, it’s definitely not that.) I would dearly love to hit you with it here on the blog: I want to know who else has experienced something similar, directly or peripherally. I want to crowdsource your ideas. I want to be able to talk about it, here.
But I’ve thought about the four levels, and I’m convinced that—at least for now—this isn’t the right place. (Even though I’m thankful to get to call many of you friends, some of you close ones.) Instead, I’ve been reaching out to friends over coffee, to far-flung friends by phone and email, looking for advice, support, and a sounding board.
It’s not the same as writing about it here; it’s not the same as sharing it with you. But it’s good.
I welcome your thoughts and observations in comments. I’m very curious to hear what your personal experiences surrounding this topic have been like.