Advice Goddess: No Surveillance Cameras please

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surveillance cameras
Roommate is way too into 1984. Photo by Ibrahim Rifath.

New roommate dislikes ‘Big Brother’ surveillance cameras in the living room

Q: My new roommate is uncomfortable with the cameras in the living room and kitchen. This became an issue for her after I saw a video of her being careless with my furniture and asked her to stop. My last roommate had no problem with the cameras, which I got after my home was broken into. My current roommate knew the deal when she moved in, but now she’s uncomfortable and complains about this constantly. She wants the cameras either removed or turned off when she’s home.—Annoyed

A: Sure, Socrates said at his trial, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But this reflected his love of the pursuit of wisdom, not a desire to be under constant surveillance by his roommate.

Consider why your roommate might take issue with living in a two-person police state. Privacy, as explained by legal scholar Alan Westin, involves people’s right to choose what information about themselves gets released to others. Our longing for privacy comes out of our evolved concern for protecting our reputation—others’ perception of the sort of person we are. This became vital when ancestral humans started living cooperatively, improving their chances for survival by sharing food, work and defense against the elements and strangers. Having a rotten reputation could get a person booted from their band and made to go it alone.

Our reputation has a guard dog: shame. Contrary to popular belief, shame is not “unhealthy” or “toxic.” Cross-cultural research by evolutionary psychologist Daniel Sznycer suggests shame is actually a social-status management tool that helps us avoid being downgraded by others. Sznycer and his colleagues explain that the desire to avoid shame motivates us to “conceal damaging information” about ourselves and deters us from behaving in dishonest or unfair ways so we preserve our social standing.

The need to guard our reputation makes us behave differently when we have an audience. Knowing we are on camera removes a measure of freedom from us—freedom to relax and be ourselves. Consider the mealtime version of “Dance like nobody’s watching”: “Eat lunch like a member of the Donner Party.” 

Your roommate knew about the cameras before she moved in, but a good deal of social science research finds that we’re bad at predicting how we’ll actually react to things. Also, we can’t just choose to power down the reputation-driven anxiety we feel when we know we’re being watched. Ultimately, it seems fairest to turn the cameras off when she’s home or only have them in the entryways and outside windows. The cameras should be for safety purposes, not so you have indisputable proof that your roommate has been chipping away at your leftover Chinese takeout.

Q: My neighbors, a lesbian couple, are my best friends. We have keys to each other’s apartments and just walk in and out. I love this, but I don’t want them walking in when I’m with a guy. If I call them to tell them I have plans and it’s just a hookup, I’ll get disapproving looks and lectures about how I won’t be able to handle it, will be miserable, etc. How can I keep them from walking in and from knowing what I’m up to?—Downstairs Neighbor

A: There are things your friends don’t need to know about you, and “Who wears the Jimmy Carter mask when you’re in bed?” is one of them.

You can hang some item on your doorknob to signal to your neighbors, “Now is not a good time!” (and, of course, let them know this new code). To solve the other part of your problem—unsolicited opinions about your sex life—consider using “strategic ambiguity.” Organizational communications researcher Eric Eisenberg points out that clear communication is not always in our best interest. Sometimes, being purposely vague, leaving room for “multiple interpretations,” is ideal, reducing conflict and preserving relationships.

Basically, you need to pair a clear message about when it’s a bad time to come in with an unclear message about why. This transforms a sign that would’ve meant one particular thing—I’ve ordered in from Tinder Eats—into a sign that could mean any number of things: I’m sick. I’m napping. I’m spread-eagled over a mirror trying to decide whether Martin, my mole, is cancerous.

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