Privacy and Self-boundaries

As part of the Social Media Committee, I was behind the scenes for Dr. Ethan Bernstein’s interview at the Academy of Management for his Outstanding Publication in OB award*.


One thing he said that got me thinking was:

“Privacy [in communication] is how far we want ourselves to go, set where the boundary is.”

I realize that my self-boundary is very wide and includes pretty much everyone while those of others are very restricted, which makes us come into conflict at times because we define our privacy and self-boundary differently. This issue has implications for information sharing: I tend to share most if not all information about myself or what I heard others say as it becomes part of myself and my experiences (unless it’s a confidential issue obviously).

However, others do not like to share information especially about themselves because they are “private.”

So the issue here is not about “privacy” per se but more where the boundary is.

Here’s another example of where the privacy definition breaks apart. A friend of mine feels uncomfortable showing pictures of herself in a bikini on Instagram and Facebook because her family and close friends are on it. But she’s ok with walking around in a public beach in the bikini. I would think if anyone had an issue it would’ve been the opposite! Here, it’s not just where her boundary is, but who she includes as part of the sphere for the boundary to be in the first place (i.e., strangers are not part of her sphere at all, so they don’t count in the privacy issue).

Moreover, there could be a belief (for those with restricted boundaries) that the information will be used in a malicious way. In this case, it also comes down to trust: how much do you trust random strangers?

I am a proponent of Couchsurfing and Airbnb, which pretty much bring strangers into your personal space and vice versa. Those using these services probably have a high level of trust in general although there are plenty of skeptics (don’t get me wrong there are cases of CS and Airbnb gone wrong, too. High trust doesn’t mean lack of safety sense).

Next time you come into conflict with someone about privacy and information sharing, it would help to learn about the other’s self-boundary before you get upset with the person.

*Bernstein, E. S. (2013). The transparency paradox: A role for privacy in organizational learning and operational control. Administrative Science Quarterly, 57, 181-216.


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