Personal Vs. Private

Myths, Misconceptions, Misnomers and Mistakes

There are people who have mastered the art of using the wrong word. To some, this may be a mute point. (How’s that for an example?) While a wrong word here and there may seem harmless and unimportant, it has consequences. The words “personal” and “private” come to mind.

“I don’t like to share my personal life… it wouldn’t be personal if I shared it.” — George Clooney

Sorry George. One’s thoughts, words, and actions are always personal, whether or not they remain private. The concept of “personal” denotes the characteristic of ownership. People may feel violated when their privacy is breached, but they have not forfeited their lives regardless of whether or not they remain private.

“If there’s anything unsettling to the stomach, it’s watching actors on television talk about their personal lives.” — Marlon Brando

Again, we see confusion. Is Brando implying that everything personal should be private? Certainly not his career, which is personal and necessarily very public.

With this new perspective in mind, read and enjoy the following quotes.  Then reread them replacing the word “personal” with “private” and see if the meaning of the following quotations is changed, masked or distorted.

“A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.” — Winston Churchill

“All personal achievement starts in the mind of the individual. Your personal achievement starts in your mind. The first step is to know exactly what your problem, goal or desire is.” — W. Clement Stone

“Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask why me? Then a voice answers nothing personal, your name just happened to come up.” — Charles M. Schulz

“Success is the progressive realization of predetermined, worthwhile, personal goals.” — Paul J. Meyer

“Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment, and learn again to exercise his will – his personal responsibility in the realm of faith and morals.” — Albert Schweitzer

“I dare not exercise personal liberty if it infringes on the liberty of others.” — Billy Sunday

“And obviously, from our own personal point of view, the principal challenge is a personal challenge.” — Richard Branson

“There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home.” — John Stuart Mill

The following quotation would seem to indicate that the late Jim Morrison recognized the difference between the two words:

“We fear violence less than our own feelings. Personal, private, solitary pain is more terrifying than what anyone else can inflict.” — Jim Morrison

“Personal” and “private” have been used interchangeably for so long that we can usually understand the intended meaning from the context. However, the larger point is that “words mean things.” Using the right words is foundational to effective communication. Improving communication skills begins by adopting a belief that this is important. So, let’s explore the consequences of confusing a set of words? In most cases, it might be a minor and forgivable error. In others, it has noteworthy consequences.

Imprecise communication is a distraction. While someone is sorting through sloppy words and phrases, he can miss the important points or important ideas of a conversation.

Imprecise communication projects an image of ignorance. We judge people’s character by their words. Since we can’t get inside their minds to assess their thoughts and intentions, we are left with their words and deeds. When their words are confused and imprecise, we have even less to go on.

Imprecise communication can cause conflict. Using the wrong word can escalate the emotions present during a conversation and cause communication to break down.  Radio talk show personality Rush Limbaugh claims he was misquoted when he said, “I am an expert on my own opinion.” Well, isn’t everyone an expert about their own opinions?  The conflict occurred when the reporter allegedly replaced the word “on” with “in” and changed the entire meaning of the quotation.

Imprecise communication distorts the language. One of the challenges we face is recognizing and applying context. Many, if not most English words have multiple meanings which we interpret from the context of the conversation. This can be challenging enough without unnecessarily adding to the confusion of poor word choices.

Just within my lifetime, I have seen a change in what is private. Consider how the WWI generation talked about pregnancy. “In a family way” and “with child” were common expressions describing pregnancy. Compare that with the language of today’s women, who frequently share in a very graphic way, in mixed company, the intimate details of their labor and delivery. Childbirth is always personal.  But to some, it’s not very private.

Religious beliefs fall into the category of personal. But, are they private? Some would say, “yes” and others “no.” In the case of Christianity, what does the Bible say?

“Sing to the LORD, bless His name; Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.” — Bible, Psalm 96:2

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” — Bible, Matthew 28:19

“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” — Bible, Mark 8:38

Apparently, Christian beliefs are not intended to remain private.

Some may consider these thoughts about personal and private as a peevish, nit-picking rant and an utter waste of time. I accept and acknowledge that personal opinion, while suggesting that it also remain private.

One thought on “Personal Vs. Private

  1. I came across this the other day and was thrilled that someone has taken the time to clearly state the difference between personal and private. Of course, it helps your ideas match mine. I went searching for an article when I had to explain that in Novell Vibe, a product we’re deploying, a ’Personal Workspace’ is publicly accessible and only if you change the security settings will it be private. I had not realized until then how confused the two words have become in people’s minds.

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