I haven’t posted here in some time. I just finished a new piece and was ready to hit Publish when it occurred to me that it might be more à propos to reflect on why I haven’t written anything in a while.
Sure, I’ve been busy. I wrote a feature script. It was such a delight to immerse myself in the world of the story that I just couldn’t switch mindsets (more on that experience soon).
But there’s another reason I haven’t written, one that’s harder to pin down or even admit to. In this age of maximum personal exposure, with its increasingly blurred line between public and private, I confess to feeling a generalized reticence at putting myself out there, especially on the Internet. I’m not talking about self-promotion, but even the most benign online public behavior: I rarely comment in forums, I don’t upload my photos, I don’t do status updates. I started this blog a few months ago but still find it hard to post my thoughts and have barely let a few people know about it. Geez, I can’t even bring myself to put my face on Facebook! The whole thing gives me the heebie jeebies, and that in turn annoys me to no end because I see how counter-productive it can be. So I thought it might be a useful exercise to dissect this “digital modesty” of mine.
First, where does it come from? Is it because I’m a digital immigrant, having come to the Internet 2.0 as an adult? Not necessarily, plenty of folks my age or older don’t have this problem. Is it my temperament? Maybe. I never liked to be the focus of attention. (In seventh grade, I was named Detachment Leader in the Pioneers, the communist youth organization in Romania, and turned it down. My parents were summoned to the Party Secretary’s office for this seditious act.) Is it plain old insecurity? Not exactly. I have a healthy dose of confidence in my abilities. Digital modesty isn’t about feeling inadequate, it’s about finding it distasteful to put oneself forward. It’s a cultural value that was instilled in me while growing up and is now so deeply ingrained that it has become almost a physical reaction.
In comme il faut Bucharest circles, it was considered coarse to let it all hang out or toot your own horn, especially for women. Let me say that again: especially for women. It’s what Romanians call pudoare. Also decență, bună-cuviință, politețe, jenă, delicatețe, finețe – we have many words for it! Some of the English translations are: modesty, decency, propriety, bashfulness, decorum, gentility, tact. (I find it fascinating that there’s a semantic overlap between shyness and good breeding: the old debate of nature vs. nurture.) At any rate, all these terms have a whiff of the old-fashioned about them, a trait no longer relevant to our modern times.
So is there anything good about this old-school modesty or is it just a pain in the – ahem – derrière? Both, I think. The bad news is that not only does it get in the way of putting oneself out there, it can also be an obstacle in the creative process. After all, being exposed is what art-making is all about. Even when our work is not directly autobiographical, we have to be willing to reveal ourselves through it. As artists, we have to touch on the things that make us uncomfortable, the things we care about deeply and the things we still haven’t figured out. And that can be even harder for those of us with an overdeveloped sense of propriety.
On the plus side, I would argue that digital modesty is a nice corrective to the contemporary culture of whoever-yells-the-loudest-wins. It preserves something valuable that might be getting lost nowadays, like penmanship in the age of computers.
So to other sensitive souls and reticent self-promoters out there, I say this: I believe it is possible to enter the public sphere on our own terms and be part of the conversation without violating who we are. We can honor our reticence, but also test its edges in the process of self-expression. Modest people of the Internet unite!