The Decline of Etiquette and the Rise of ‘Boundaries’
For centuries, strict social norms dictated what people could politely talk about. Now we have to figure it out for ourselves.
This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
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 important, 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 In 2022, the idea that we should carefully control what personal information we share—and take in—might seem outdated, even dystopian.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.
The reaction to a disclosure has always depended, too, on the setting where it occurs. Different contexts—work, home, a party, a conversation with a best friend—come with different norms. Regaling the juicy details of your hookup from last week might be completely normal with your friend, slightly weird with an acquaintance at a party, and fully off-limits with your boss.
Overall, though, social stipulations have loosened up over time. Office culture is much more informal today than in years past; in many white-collar jobs, bosses even encourage employees to bring their “whole self” to work by sharing more about their out-of-office life. Parenting, too, has gotten less strict and hierarchical, with a greater focus on warmth and even friendship within the parent-child relationship. Even etiquette books are more relaxed. One 2014 study found that whereas early-20th-century etiquette books tended to dish out specific rules, today’s etiquette guides are much more general—advocating a set of “fluid ‘rules’ that help us interact thoughtfully,” as an updated version of Emily Post’s Etiquette suggests, rather than a one-size-fits-all directive.
That increased openness hasn’t happened without some backlash along the way. When the first postcards went on sale in the U.S. in 1873, for instance, many worried that the more casual format would encourage thoughtless disclosure. “In the old days a letter was an important affair, not to be lightly scribbled, and only sent when the writer had something to say,” a Boston-based magazine complained in 1884. The advent of talk shows and reality TV fueled similar concerns: Suddenly, the inner lives of strangers were packaged for a mass audience. One New York Times contributor lamented, in 2000, the rise of entertainment involving “people sharing and oversharing at the least provocation.”
New forms of communication always introduce “a kind of back and forth, pushing the boundaries to figure out where the lines sit,” says Jenny Kennedy, a research fellow at RMIT University, in Australia, who has studied oversharing. With each advance—a postcard without the protection of an envelope, a talk-show guest’s personal struggles beamed straight into your living room—private stories can spin out into new, more public spheres. Our context-specific sharing rules don’t work so well when those contexts start caving in on one another.
Today, the internet and social media have supercharged this kind of context leakage. “We all have this idea of who is viewing and consuming our content that we make online,” Kennedy told me. But that “perceived audience might be actually quite different from the real audience.” We’re inundated with very personal posts that may not have been written with us in mind, and it can feel like an intrusion. You might log in hoping to see a cat striking supermodel poses and instead find total strangers discussing their most intimate traumas.
More and more, though, people seem eager to reinstall some boundaries. Online, new privacy features, such as Twitter Circle and Instagram’s Close Friends, restrict the reach of certain posts so that only a preselected group will see them; users no longer have to risk their aunt learning about their shroom trip, or their child’s babysitter seeing photos from their night out. Meanwhile, many workers are realizing that they want to put up walls between their work life and their personal life; they don’t want to bring their “whole self” to the office after all. Critics of “permissive parenting” are spreading the notion that kids need rules and expectations, not friendship, from their parents—and that both parties deserve some privacy from each other.
This desire for emotional distance is even trickling into intimate friendships. In 2019, a relationship coach tweeted that anyone should feel empowered to turn down friends who ask for support. She suggested the following response: “I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity ... I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you.” The tweet quickly became a meme, but it gestured at a real issue. In an era of instant, abundant communication, how do you step back when you’re feeling overwhelmed? If it feels like there isn’t a clear answer, that’s because we’ve left behind the era of strict, clear etiquette. We’re entering a new one, in which the rules are bespoke and the arbiters are each and every one of us.
Of course, we shouldn’t return to where we came from—a time when “unpleasant occurrences,” much less mental illness, sexuality, and gender presentation, couldn’t be discussed. But without, say, social-engineering films to guide our dinner-table conversations, we all have to figure out how much of ourselves we want to offer our friends, family, and co-workers at any given moment, and how much we want to receive from them in turn. Perhaps someday we’ll each stumble into a rhythm: We’ll put up guardrails when we need to, open up when it feels right, and feel grateful that we have the choice at all. For now, we’re just living through the hard part.