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Privacy for a price

I just read Dr. P. M. Forni's book "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct." The book is Washington County Library's selection for its "One County, One Book" program.

Reading the following 25 rules is a good reminder for everyone on how to be civil.

Pay attention, acknowledge others, think the best, listen, be inclusive, speak kindly, don't speak ill, accept and give praise, respect even a subtle "no," respect others' opinions, mind your body, be agreeable, keep it down (and rediscover silence), respect other people's time, respect other people's space, apologize earnestly, assert yourself, avoid personal questions, care for your guests, be a considerate guest, think twice before asking for favors, refrain from idle complaints, accept and give constructive criticism, respect the environment and be gentle to animals, and don't shift responsibility and blame.

I agree with Forni's rules, except when it comes to rule No. 18 "avoid personal questions," I have reservations.

Here is a selection of questions listed in the book many people perceive as intrusive and personal and should be avoided:

"How old are you?"

"How much did it cost?"

"For whom did you vote?"

"Do you believe in God?"

"Are you ill?"

"Have you lost/gained weight?"

In the 18 years I have lived in the U.S., this is the one rule I often question.

Coming from a different country and culture, I was used to the custom of asking personal questions.

Asking an elderly woman, even a stranger on the street about her age was nothing uncivil or embarrassing. On the contrary, it showed respect, because you expressed an interest in her, in her life, in her experiences and her wisdom as an aged person.

Americans are very protective of their privacy and their right to privacy. I understand its importance in this time and age for the reason of identity theft.

But other than that, I also see a high price we pay for the overprotection of privacy and avoiding personal questions.

We treasure our own privacy and respect others' privacy so much that we become afraid to ask questions, because we don't want to "unsettle, embarrass and sometimes even anger" people.

I wonder if that's the reason why there are countless books published in the U.S. with the title "Everything You Wanted To Know about ... But were too Afraid To Ask."

People wonder about something but they are afraid to ask.

There is the fear of invading somebody's privacy and thus to embarrass both parties. The result is no questions, no real communication; no communication, no real relationship and friendship; no relationship and friendship, loneliness and depression.

I may be generalizing or oversimplifying things here. Let me give you an example to illustrate what I mean.

Some years ago while in my first week on my first professional job in Chicago, I went with my colleagues to a memorial service for a quite successful woman.

She committed suicide by throwing herself under a train. The event shocked the professional community in the area.

I didn't know this woman personally. I wondered how such a terrible tragedy could happen. In my mind no one would end their own life in such a way if not in a hopeless and desperate situation.

Everyone who spoke at the memorial service talked about her as a wonderful and happy person who always had a smiling face, and often cheered and comforted others. It was a surprise for everyone that this tragedy happened.

After the memorial service, I still didn't get the answers I was looking for. I was even more puzzled. It made me just wonder how much these former colleagues really knew her.

What did they know about her behind the smiling face, the hidden mask? Did they really know anything about her life besides her professional life?

That was the first time I started to question the privacy issue.

Are we so concerned about our own and others' privacy and are we so afraid to ask personal questions that we don't really know people around us, in our offices, in our neighborhoods or even in our own families?

In the name of protecting privacy, we have lost touch with other fellow human beings. We have superficial conversations. We work and live next to each other, without really knowing each other.

I have an inquisitive mind and like to ask questions. Among my Chinese friends, I feel comfortable asking such personal questions listed above.

I think you can only know people well by getting personal and asking personal questions.

But I don't ask my American friends these questions, or I try not to, because I am afraid to embarrass people.

When I travel on an airplane, I like to talk to strangers next to me. Most times people are not interested in conversations.

Last year on my way to Seattle, I struck up a conversation with a woman seated next to me. She was a very nice person, a teacher and had a good family.

Because I asked her a lot of questions, about her job, her kids, her life experiences, she shared with me a lot of things I think some of her families, friends, or neighbors might not know, such as her struggle with her son's drug use.

We truly enjoyed each other's company and our conversation. When we arrived, she offered to give me a ride to my hotel. I was very thankful for her offer. I didn't ride with her just because I could share a cab with an acquaintance to the same destination.

When we departed, we didn't leave contact info for each other. She said to me, "I told you so much about myself, because I know we will never meet again, and it's safe."

It's kind of sad that many of us feel safer and are willing to share with a total stranger than with people we know.

It was not important for me what her name, her address and her identity was. What important for me was as travelers on this trip and on this earth, we had a two hour chance encounter and shared a little bit of our lives with each other.

We opened our hearts to each other, made our journey together more enjoyable. I felt good to be trusted by someone I met for the first time.

The experience was so much better than reading a paper or doing anything else.

I am sure had I not taken the initiative to ask her personal questions, our conversation wouldn't have taken place and it would just be another very boring plane trip for me.

I used to read "Ann Lander" and "Dear Abby" columns. I remember readers often complained about people asking personal, insensitive or dumb questions.

It is hard for me to understand the problem, because I don't consider that as a problem. I think most people ask questions without any bad intention. They want to have a conversation, to get to know people better, to show their interest and concern.

Why complain about people asking some questions? Let's "think the best of others" as rule No. 3 in the book states.

Yes, we have more privacy in this country, but we also have more silence, isolation, loneliness and depression.