Commentary

Privacy, Please

Most Andover students know their stir-fry order by heart. Teriyaki, sweet chili and white rice, please. But when I order stir-fry, I don’t get rice or sauce – just cooked meat and vegetables. Then I sit down at a table and inevitably receive confused glances at my plate until someone asks why my stir-fry is so plain. “I have allergies,” I say, but that’s not enough. My interrogator wants to know more: What am I allergic to? Gluten? Milk? Nuts? And then she wants to know why I have these dietary restrictions. “I have stomach problems. It’s complicated, okay?” I finally say, frustrated.

When something doesn’t seem like a serious or personal matter, it can be difficult to know when an inquiry is overstepping. The story of my health is a long, complex and personal one. I don’t have the desire or energy to recount it every day at every meal simply because someone is curious. To other people, these conversations may seem insignificant, but to me, they are actually inappropriate invasions of privacy.

The Andover community is large, which means that it is impossible to know everyone’s histories and sensitivities. While this general ignorance of one another is inherently unavoidable, there are ways we can ensure that we are not prying into the personal lives of our peers. We must be aware of the signs of someone else’s discomfort. We should avoid asking intrusive questions and making tasteless jokes, even if such humor may seem harmless. Personal conversations about my health are usually frustrating and awkward, and when someone makes a joke about it, they are inadvertently laughing at my most painful experiences.

This isn’t just about food, and this isn’t just about me. If someone has a scar, unless we believe them to be in immediate physical or emotional danger, it is unnecessary and inappropriate to ask how they got it. Witnessing someone swallowing a pill or going to the Wellness Center doesn’t entitle anyone to demand details.

If we’re going to prod a peer with questions, we must first ask ourselves why we are doing so. Do we really want to understand what is going on with this person because we genuinely care about their health and wellness? Do we have a relationship with this person that might make such a conversation appropriate? If so, try to ask with as much sensitivity as possible, being aware that the person might feel uncomfortable.

On the other hand, if we are asking the question for the sake of small talk or simply to point out someone’s differences, it’s always better to refrain from doing so. If someone isn’t forthcoming about an issue, it’s probably not our business anyway.
Forcing someone, intentionally or unintentionally, to recount or reveal personal information is unacceptable and unkind. Someone’s personal life should not be an item of entertainment, despite how awkward the conversation might be at dinner or how uncomfortable a silent moment might be. So please, let me eat my stir-fry in peace.

Jan 15, 2016