Sarah Todd: A private life is a happy life

A glance at the magazine rack in any newsagents or supermarket is enough to prove that the concept of a private life is a thing of the past.

There are no shortages of so-called celebrities willing to spout forth about everything and anything from bingo wings to bankruptcy.

Back in the 1970s of my childhood it was considered incredibly rude to ask a personal question. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to bump into a mere acquaintance in the doctor’s surgery and rather than a polite nod be faced with a full medical history interrogation.

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Last year’s Brexit vote and subsequent General Election are a case in point. People asked straight out “How are you voting?” when surely the privacy of the ballot box is something at the very heart of our society.

Expressing an opinion is part of this correspondent’s day job. Who wants to read the musings of a columnist who doesn’t share their own private thoughts and feelings?

Thankfully, flitting from a married moniker to a maiden name retained for work has helped keep the two personas pretty separate – the red-headed writer who will stick her oar in and the wife and mother who will (most of the time) play her cards close to her chest.

Even so, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep things under one’s hat.

Basic common courtesy, such as never questioning the value of a person’s home or the amount of money they earn, is increasingly a thing of the past. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned notion of minding your own business?

Yes, the lines surrounding privacy seem to be blurring and, no doubt, it’s a lot to do with the blessed internet and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

When our daughter got her GCSE results this summer, she came under tremendous pressure from her former classmates to post them on Snapchat (don’t ask, it might as well be a foreign language).

She was really pleased with her results. Most importantly, the much-dreaded maths was passed. But that was all that was needed to be said really. She didn’t even read out the whole list of grades to her grandparents. They were private. Boringly so. She also experienced the increasingly rare (these days) emotion of reserve. She’d done pretty well and wouldn’t like people to think she was showing off.

Yet the other children kept photographing their results sheets and posting them for all and sundry to read. How lovely for the egos of those with the top results, but what about those who hadn’t passed and were laying themselves open for everybody to give their two penn’orth worth and laugh behind their backs?

There, down in black-and-white and ready to come back and haunt them in the future. Online for eternity. Several friends and family asked straight out how our exam student had done and weren’t dissuaded with the reply of “very well thank you”.

They were after the whole list; each and every grade for all the subjects. It has to be said, we were the odd ones out. These thoughts on privacy – or the lack of it – seem very out of kilter with modern society.

Not one of the recent television programmes to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales were watched in this household. They seemed an invasion of privacy and just didn’t sit easy.

Princes William and Harry set the ball rolling. They are no doubt smashing chaps and, of course, it was their right to talk about the mother they remember so fondly. But, as for every Tom, Dick and other Harry having their say?

Person after person seemed to come forward to spill their guts about her and each revelation blew away a piece of the fairy dust that surrounded the late princess. The old-fashioned notion of social etiquette suggests that there are still some sacred questions that, for privacy’s sake, should never be asked.

We’ve covered salaries and the amount paid for a house, but the others include marital status or – more to the point – why somebody isn’t married. Arm-in-arm with this are any inquiries about why a person doesn’t have any children or whether they plan to start a family.

The next one fills me with shame. It’s about presuming a lady is pregnant. There was a lovely girl working in the Post Office and having not seen her up from behind the counter for a long time she was (incorrectly) congratulated on her happy news. What goes around comes around though and, not long after, a dental nurse made the same mistake with this indignant patient.

Religion and numbers of sexual partners are another two subjects that should always remain private. In a world where, increasingly, what somebody had for breakfast is public knowledge, how refreshing to learn that there are still some taboos. After all, as the old saying goes, a private life is a happy life.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a journalist specialising in country life.