Full disclosure

by Kristin on July 8, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Angela Tchou

I was looking at the submission guidelines on literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog, and I noticed a comment left by an Anonymous reader. The reader complains “I was reading along, enjoying your blog, until I realized that you represent primarily Christian books. I wish you would have stated that more prominently so I wouldn’t have wasted my time.”

S/he goes on for a while about Christians who seem intent on “hiding” who they are, concluding “If I wanted to read Christian books (or consider a Christian-slanted agent) I would go in search of them, I don’t appreciate having them ‘sneak up on me’.”

The idea that Rachelle is in any way trying to hide who she is on her site strikes me as ridiculous, but that’s beside the point.  The comment got me wondering: How explicit should we be about who we are, whether it be our religious beliefs, our political leanings, or our sexual orientation? Where can we draw the line—at disclosing our favorite magazine or kind of music? Who deserves this level of information? And at what point—within five minutes of making acquaintance?

Complexity does battle with labels

As you can see, this issue isn’t clear cut because we, as individuals, are not clear cut. If you’ve ever tried to write a super-succinct profile that sums up who you are, like the 140-character profiles on Twitter, you knows how tricky it is. Not only do you have to think through what to include and what to leave out, you have to struggle with labels—especially those you might gravitate toward yet still have issues with. (I once wrote about my ongoing struggle with the label “Christian.”)

But I think there’s another, larger problem—one beyond the practical issues of how much to disclose to whom at what point. We take huge steps backwards as a culture and world when we take all of our complexities, divide them up into neat bundles, put labels on them and hand them over to everyone we meet. While we might feel like we’re being transparent, open and up-front, it’s possible we’re actually shutting people out—shutting down important interactions and conversations before they even begin.

Leaving the door open

In a society that’s as polarized as ours, do we really need to accentuate the lines in the sand? Is “keeping the peace” all about preventing interactions with people who see the world differently from me? Or is true peace about creating inroads of possibility—interactions that have the potential to birth and cradle moments of understanding, compassion and common ground?

Here at Halfway to Normal, I’m not trying to craft a certain angle or reach a certain audience or trick anyone into ingesting my propaganda—I’m just trying to be myself. In my “real life,” I interact with all kinds of people who are like me in some ways and very different from me in others. I value those differences, even when they require more work or make me slightly uncomfortable.

When I meet someone new I don’t say “Hi, I’m Kristin, I’m a Christian” or “I’m a Liberal,” because that would either shut our conversation down or drive it headlong into a choir-preaching session or all-out debate. But when it’s natural to bring what I believe into the conversation, I do. At least by then we’re in a conversation—one that is bound to enrich how we each see and understand the world.

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  • http://unraveldideamill.com Patrick

    Excellent article. I agree with everything…

    To think that I, as a christian (just so anyone reading doesn’t get surprised) need to immediately disclose the foundation of my values and beliefs any time I discuss something based on those values or beliefs is a bit ridiculous. I have friends who are vegans and they don’t go around stating that everywhere. SOME people find it annoying when we’re out eating and they say “I’m a vegan, what dishes do you have for ME!” So is it full and relenting disclosure, or just living our lives as us that people want.

    I think it all comes down to when someone feels inconvenienced. The poster on Rachelle’s blog seems to have felt inconvenienced by finding out someone was a speaking with a christian point of view. Would they want everyone who labels themselves as something to wear a sandwich board with “I am a ________”? If we all did that can you imagine the judgement each and every person would face?

    I, however, don’t like discovering someone has a hidden agenda. I think the best we can do is always honestly disclose who we are if someone asks and try to live in a way that is true to who we are.

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Hello world: in the interests of full disclosure: I’m a squishy white heterosexual Christian male from Hickville by way of Chicago who watches FoxNews. Now you don’t have to waste any time getting to know me.

  • http://captainestes.blogspot.com/ Chad Estes

    Ray watches FoxNews? He’s one of those? Brother… I wish he’d told me before this. ;-)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Patrick, I think you’re right about it coming down to people feeling inconvenienced. I find it really sad that our lives are so focused on efficiency that we can’t take time to learn and explore along the way, even if detours are involved. There’s always a take-away, even if it wasn’t the one you were initially after. Anyway, I like how you stated this: “I think the best we can do is always honestly disclose who we are if someone asks and try to live in a way that is true to who we are.”

    Ray, you’re too funny. I want you to start wearing a t-shirt that says “Hello world, I’m a squishy white heterosexual Christian male.” To be safe, maybe you should have that printed up on all of your t-shirts. Humor aside, your comment makes a great point. In fact, I honestly think I would have stayed away from connecting with you on Twitter if your bio included the FoxNews bit. Yes, that’s probably a shameful thing on my part, but it also goes to show how important it is to push past that stuff to get to know the full person.

    Chad, exactly. :)

  • http://compostermom.blogspot.com Daisy

    Labels. I hope readers wouldn’t feel like they’d wasted their time on my blog (Compost Happens) if they didn’t agree with my political leanings or faith. I like the sense of humor shown by the comments here! No matter how many lines are drawn, I hope we’ll all look at them as guides, not guarded borders.

  • Nicola

    I think the problem, as we all know, is that labels don’t really tell the truth about who a person really is. Why do we want the shorthand description? So we can put people into a box right away and feel comfortable “knowing” who they are.I actually think that we should try to not label people, including ourselves, at all.

    To put a different spin on it, as a parent of a 6-year-old girl, I try really hard to not label her developing personally as a certain type. I hear parents talk often of their children (and in front of the children) of them as: shy, wild, difficult, sweet, etc. To me, it seems like one of the worst things you can do is to label your kid and have them associate with that label as they are still exploring themselves and developing. This tendency in parents seems most pronounced during adolescents, so I’m working on it now so I don’t fall into the habit later. I want to respect and honor my child and all of the amazing facets of the person she develops into.

    A bit off topic, in a way, but something I’m thinking about a lot!

  • http://divinest-sense.blogspot.com Jen Rose

    I agree with what Patrick said… be honest if you’re asked. otherwise, just live true to your beliefs and who you are. I work for a local Christian ministry, and I have to admit… I often brace myself for a weird response when I answer the “where do you work/what do you do?” question.

    Usually, it’s not bad, and if it’s someone that shares my faith, then the bond that happens is pretty cool. But there have been a few instances where I felt like I was treated differently after telling someone I’m a Christian. (Like the college prof that started directly apologizing to me every time he dropped some profanity in class. Kind of thoughtful. Mostly awkward. :)) That’s what I find frustrating.

    So, I’m pretty much in favor of gradual, less-than-full disclosure. Getting to know people beyond labels takes work, but it’s much more rewarding.

  • http://www.creativeguidetolife.com Susan

    It’s interesting how someone would feel entitled to know this sort of information. Or that you would have to be a Christian to represent Christian work. I guess my literary agent must be an avid traveler (she’s not), since she gets me travel writing contracts. Or an interior designer. Since she also reps coffee table books. Hmmm…

    It’s like asking, immediately, “What do you do for living.” To me, all of this isn’t much different than meeting someone and saying, “Hi. How much do you weigh?” (which when I moved to GA when I was 8, my 6 year old neighbor did ask ;-)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Daisy, a big YES to this: “No matter how many lines are drawn, I hope we’ll all look at them as guides, not guarded borders.” As others have mentioned, we shouldn’t go out of our way to hide truths about ourselves, but I think doing our “research”—whether we’re on a first date or looking for a literary agent—is part of the process. We shouldn’t expect the other person to just lay everything neatly out there.

    Nicola, I like your hard core anti-label stance, and I really wish it was more practical to live that way. Unfortunately, there are always going to be those moments and places that require a “brief bio” or categorization of who we are. I think the best we can do is to be ultra aware of how limiting these labels are, and to do our best to bring up label-free kids, as you wisely pointed out. (The other evening at a performance of S’s play, a parent did the very thing you described, telling me her son, who was right there, was too shy to ever be interested in acting. I tried to “fix” it by saying to him “sometimes we all feel shy about certain things and not shy at all about others.”)

    Jen, I can relate to being asked questions that sort of force you to reveal your faith right off the bat, and worrying that people who really don’t know you will put you in a box and treat you differently. I don’t work directly in a faith-based field, but I often am asked where I met my husband—and the answer is at church! It strikes even us as really unexpected, but there’s no way around the answer. In some ways it has helped me just be more “here I am, take me or leave me” about myself, and to be more comfortable with the faith issues I write about on my blog. (The story about your college professor makes me cringe—I had a boss like that once.)

    Susan, it’s really interesting to trade out faith in this scenario with other qualities and characteristics, like you did regarding your literary agent. Patrick (above) mentioned being a vegan…there’s also political affiliations to consider, sexual orientation, various hobbies, whether someone speaks another language, or whether they’re funny or dull. Where do we draw the line? Clearly religion/belief can be a particularly volatile topic that makes people feel uncomfortable and potentially manipulated, but in the end systems of belief are still labels with all kinds of unfair baggage attached.

  • Nicola

    Well, I wish I COULD actually execute a hard-core anti-label stance…as you point out, it’s actually not that practical. I’m just trying to be more aware of how using labels can close us off from one another, not bring us together… It’s an ongoing process of awareness!

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    I don’t like the idea of drawing lines around people or putting others into a box any more than anyone else does. It over-simplifies the fact that as humans we are very complex.

    At the same time, as someone who loves organization, I can understand our need to want to label things as a way of trying to understand them. We move through the world that’s based on labels – the genus and species of plants or animals; the periodic table of elements, the sections of a bookstore or a grocery store, even the colors in a box of crayons – we label because without labels, everything would just be floating around as it is. As much as I don’t want to be labeled in a certain way, I understand that in one respect, it’s simply a way of trying to understand something that’s otherwise too complicated to break down.

  • http://www.unraveledideamill.com Patrick Bowen

    I can’t say I don’t love labels myself. I think the other half of what I wrote before is that labels add convenience to life. Can you imagine trying to find the right kind of milk without labels? And that’s just looking at something as simple as one item at a grocery store.

    As many people have said the problem is when we think that labels are the last word. As a marketer most of my job is about labeling groups of people and trying to help businesses correctly approach those people. Finding these demographic and psychographic profiles is extremely important. The danger is when we become complacent and start to think that everyone fits every characteristic of that label. The fact of the matter is we don’t know what we don’t know.

    Like I said before I try to live by what I believe and answer honestly when asked. When I meet other people though I do try to label to find common ground and then explore from there to find the individual beauties and differences that make life worth living beyond the label.

    BTW, Kristin, I love conversations like this that none of us would be able to have without someone asking the questions you ask in a public forum. Thanks.