Those of us who watch crime and espionage movies and serials have heard this line often: “It’s on a strictly need-to-know basis.”
We accept this without question in matters of national security, international diplomacy, major crimes and such, but don’t you sometimes wish we could apply the same principle in our daily lives as well?
Do we need to know, for example, what a close friend has discussed with another close friend about a third close friend’s doings? Do we need to know exactly what reasons swayed a decision in favour of or against the type of wedding or funeral that was organised — and who attended or did not attend and why?
Within a family or among friends, there are always a few who are garrulous and love to share what they have learned about other people’s doings. So, essentially, we are back to that question: How much do we need to know about family/friends/acquaintances? And do others also need to know about them just because we do? Are we dragging other people’s lives into our conversations to support a theory or to draw an analogy or are we just repeating stuff because we wish to fill the silence with words?
I was under the impression that as we grow older we forget things easily, so when extra-chatty friends filled my ears with the minute details of how exactly this person or that had fallen and broken a hip or how someone’s daughter’s husband’s brother/sister (or some such convoluted relationship that really did not need to be elaborated upon) had made their way across the globe despite family opposition or with family support, I listened with half an ear and was pretty sure that before I said my farewells to my friend, I would have forgotten all those many things I really did not need to know.
There was less and less data space available in my head and I did not want to fill it up with stories that made no difference to my somewhat single-minded everyday purpose of trying to write; so my solution was this “half-listening” — and for a time it seemed a great way to keep friendly relations going and keep the unnecessary information out.
Then, to my horror, I read the results of a study that shows that choosing to forget something uses more brain power than trying to remember it. This applies not only to the painful memories we try so hard to erase, but to all those half-listened-to facts and figures that somehow worm themselves into one’s memory for no good reason other than we have heard them.
This would not do, I thought, and desperately tried to bat those “I-don’t-need-to-know” facts away, suppress them, discard them, but they still hung around and smirked at me and refused to get out of my head.
So the next time I got the beginning of a totally unnecessary set of details from a friend, I tried to nip it in the bud: “Stop!” “Don’t tell me!” “I don’t want to know!” “Keep those details to yourself!”
Some — or all — of these stern warnings came bubbling out.
And yes, the informant stopped short. But to my consternation, so did the easy banter that had marked our relationship — and I miss it!
Perhaps it would be better for our beleaguered, overburdened and failing memories, then, if when we are privy to information we asked the person concerned: Do you mind if I talk about your latest achievements/adventures/experiences? And then also ask the person with whom we are tempted to share our information whether they want third party information that makes no difference to their lives.
Because in the end, how much do we really need to know?
—Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.