The Shift from Norms to Boundaries Explains the Problem of TMIHistorians in the News
tags: social history, cultural history, Manners, Etiquette
In 1950, family dinner in America was a minefield of social rules. According to one etiquette film from that year, children were expected to arrive promptly with hair combed and faces scrubbed; daughters should have changed from school clothes to “something more festive.” Most importantly, conversation topics had to be chosen with care. Discussing financial issues, the narrator declared, was a hard no; so were long personal anecdotes, the mention of “unpleasant occurrences,” and any references to “disagreeable news.” “With your own family you can relax, be yourself,” the off-camera voice assured viewers. “Just be sure it’s your best self.”
For centuries, strict social norms dictated what people could politely talk about—and, consequently, how much they knew about one another, even those closest to them. Yet by the close of the 20th century, films like A Date With Your Family, the 1950 guide, had begun to resemble artifacts, detritus of a socially rigid era. Conversational taboos were falling away. Etiquette manuals had lost their cultural cachet. Sexuality was being more openly discussed, thanks in part to the sexual revolution of the ’60s and the efforts of HIV/AIDS activists in the ’80s and ’90s. And books such as Prozac Nation that dealt frankly with mental illness were trailblazing a new, raw form of memoir. In 2022, the idea that we should carefully control what personal information we share—and take in—might seem outdated, even dystopian.
Or maybe it doesn’t. Today, a disconcerting question seems to be on many people’s mind: Do we know too much about those around us? Advice columnists are fielding questions about how to protect against overshares, as well as what constitutes TMI (“too much information”) in the first place; psychology websites are advising readers on how to deal with “TMI-prone friends”; the personal-essay genre is caught in a never-ending discourse about its own self-indulgence; TikTokers are accusing their peers of divulging life details to the point of “trauma dumping.” As society-wide norms have loosened, individuals have taken on the burden of navigating their own boundaries—and it isn’t always easy. The result, it seems, is a new backlash against oversharing.
Our modern concept of oversharing can be traced back hundreds of years. From the 17th to the 19th century, a crop of “civility manuals” detailing conversation rules began to sweep Europe, as the historian Peter Burke outlined in his book The Art of Conversation. One French manual warned against using “dishonourable words,” such as bosom; other writers felt that direct questions like “Where have you been?” were impolite. Discussing dreams was generally frowned upon as a gratuitous overshare. These rules weren’t just theorized in books: Some communities developed tools to enforce them. Around the turn of the century, federal laws prohibited people from writing “lewd” or “indecent” letters, and were often used to target women who discussed contraceptives. In the French navy in the 1920s, enlistees would place small objects—such as a miniature boat hook or a tiny ladder—on the dinner table to warn people that they were on the verge of a conversational faux pas.
Then and in years since, our understanding of what constitutes an overshare has typically depended on who’s sharing. Rachel Sykes, a literature professor at the University of Birmingham, in England, points out that the writers most famous for spilling personal information are the “confessional poets,” including Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. “The person who coined the term confessional poetry”—a literary critic named Macha Rosenthal—“largely excused it in men, but in women, he found it disgusting,” Sykes told me. Critics tend to chastise women, especially women of color, most harshly for their personal disclosures. Discussions of queer sex, meanwhile, are much more likely to be called “gratuitous” than discussions of heterosexual sex are. What we deem an overshare is a way of “indicating whose subjectivity is valued, and who is allowed to take up space,” they said.
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