Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Secret keeping

One of my favorite sites in the whole world is PostSecret – where people anonymously send their deepest and darkest secrets to Frank Warren on a postcard. Frank posts them weekly on his blog and the result is a beautiful, funny, sad and often dark piece of insight into people’s souls.

Secrets are tricksy things.  Keeping them inside can make you crazy, sharing them is almost always a risk. Finding the right person to share the right secret with can be a joy.

Can you keep a secret? When someone shares a secret with you, is it a burden or a pleasure? How do you handle it?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. Secrets are easy. Most are boring and hardly worth remembering anyway. I hold a top secret security clearance. What they use to determine that trust is a mystery to me. But the only top secret shit I ever saw was the briefing that told me I could see top secret shit.

    Nevertheless, accepting a secret is a moral contract that is not to be broken.

  2. Some secrets are very easy for me to keep. For example, my parents will never know that I used to invite boys over to the house while they were at work so I could have sex with them. Maybe someday I’ll feel comfortable telling my mom about that, but my dad will never know.

    Other secrets are really hard for me to keep. When I get a really great, awesome gift for someone, it’s really hard for me to keep the secret until Christmas/birthday/etc. When I order a gift for my mom on Mother’s Day, I try to avoid talking to her on the phone until the day she receives it, just so I’m not tempted to spill the beans. One year I surprised her by actually coming home for Mother’s Day, and it was torture to keep that secret.

  3. I find it difficult to share even my own secrets. I’m a pretty open and honest guy for the most part, but absolutely no one knows all of my secrets.

    It really is both a matter of trust (can I trust this person to keep the secret?) and a matter of burdening others (is it fair for me to ask this person to keep this thing secret?)

    Generally, with the kind of secrets kept by a neurotic such as myself, the answer to both is no.

    When it comes to other people’s secrets, I think I do an average job at keeping them to myself. It’s very difficult because I’m the sort of person who just likes free exchange of knowledge, and it is tricky to compartmentalize information and remember who has access to each compartment.

    And, I’m sure I won’t be the last (hell, probably won’t even be the first by the time I submit this) to quote Franklin, who famously said: “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” :-P

  4. As Dr. Joy Browne says, “Two people can keep a secret only if one of them is dead.”

    My answer to

    “Can you keep a secret?”

    is an immediate

    “No. Anything interesting you tell me will be on Facebook in an hour.”

    It is rare people ask more than once. Most secrets are gossipy, horrible things that make me feel dirty for hearing them. I absolutely cannot abide gossip. On the other hand this makes me extraordinarily good at not spreading what secrets I am privy to for fear of being complicit in the crime.

  5. I keep secrets almost perfectly. As davew has observed, a lot of secrets tend to be gossipy, and those things aren’t usually of very much interest to me. I just don’t get the thrill some seem to get out of spreading gossip, so it’s easy for me to keep quiet. Secrets that are not gossip tend to be important, so not spilling the beans is a matter of trust and self respect.

    For example, I have never said anything here about that incident with Sam.

    Three may keep a secret if one is dead and one is a Hedge.

    I am a Hedge

  6. I worked for a company that was contracted with Lucasfilm when they were making Phantom Menace. We signed a huge NDA that made us promise never to whisper anything to anyone about anything we were working on. For three years I knew that movie was going to suck.

    Then I went to work for Apple, and the secret keeping mentality remained. I didn’t enjoy working in that kind of paranoia very much.

    On a personal level, I hate secrets. I’m annoyed by them. It’s not that I won’t keep things to myself, but when I do it’s because it’s generally something that isn’t relevant to anyone else. If you need to know, I’ll tell you.

    If however you’re planning a surprise party, I’m not going to be the one to blab about it.

  7. I like keeping secrets, it makes me feel superior. I do know a honking great secret about a friend and they don’t know I know. Because. unlike me, my wife cannot keep a secret to save her life and she had to tell *someone*.

  8. I signed NDAs constantly for the work I do. Most of it would only be interesting to a stock trader and not even really with the level of access I have to results.

    On the other hand, the personal secrets are an entirely different ball of wax. I’m a real secret keeper. I’ll take ’em to my grave.

  9. Yes. It is neither a burden or a pleasure it is just something that needs to be done. For whatever reason people need to tell me things and then ask me to not share that information. So I don’t. I’m like a black hole of secrets, once they pass the event horizon they can’t escape.

  10. Yea. I am good at keeping secrets. I wouldn’t want people to share my secrets so i don’t share theirs. My reaction really depends on the type of secret it is. I don’t want people telling me things that may put themselves or others in danger. Those secrets are the hardest to keep, but i’ve never been told any secrets like that.

  11. Like many jobs keeping nearly everything I do confidential is a requirement. Interpersonal gossip is another matter and I tend to tell my wife nearly everything I hear anyway because she’s my best friend, unless I’m asked not to for a good reason. I can’t really understand the whole ‘keep a secret’ thing anyway. I mean if you’re having a private conversation with a friend then having some trust and confidence that your friend won’t throw your dirty laundry around is a good thing and that’s a hallmark of a good friendship. But why tell someone something just to be sharing a secret? It’s no longer a secret then is it, and what momentary pleasure you may get seeing the expression on someone’s face can hardly be worth the potential consequences of dishing dirt.
    (I did an edit! Woohooo!!)

  12. No, I tend to say whatever pops into my head and if it happens to be a secret, oh well. I usually tell people to just not tell me things they don’t want repeated. I don’t really have any secrets and don’t really understand why other people do…

  13. There’s various things that I’m supposed to keep confidential in my job (I work in the exams office at a college) but sometimes just can’t help telling people about.

    Anything serious I’d never blab about, but if I didn’t tell people about some of the funny things, I’d walk round with a strange smile on my face all day and people would think I was crazy. I may well be crazy, but I don’t want people to know about it!

  14. I also have to handle confidential data in my work. I’m a government policy analyst so I’ve had to handle sensitive (though not secret) government information in the past.

  15. Having held security clearances in my past, I’m excellent at keeping secrets. As long as you’re perfectly clear that it’s a secret. I hate when I keep my mouth shut about something interesting and then the next person comes along and wants to chat about it. I feel just as betrayed as if it was my secret to begin with. It wasn’t ME that opened her mouth.

    And as much as I tell just about everything about myself on my blog or podcast, I still have a couple of secrets.

  16. I can keep one, and frequently do–but I am happier spilling my gut. I had amazing/freaky stuff happen today, but because it’s work related, I can’t talk about it.

    Um. Unless you call me on the phone, anyway ;p

  17. @The Skepdick: Reminds me of the discussion I had at the star party with a guy who used to work for a company where he needed a top secret clearance. He was horribly disappointed that he never saw anything interesting.

    Yay! there’s edit functionality!

    And I am adding this text as edits, I’m a freakin’ nerd.

  18. I had a secret a couple of weeks ago that was killing me. I really needed to talk about it… so I told the Skepchicks. Because you know, if you have a secret and you promised you wouldn’t tell anyone and you don’t want it to get out, you should totally email it to 14 bloggers.

    When I told a fellow secret-knower that I told the crew, the disclosure was met with a stunned silence. My reply was, “But who are they gonna tell?” And that statement was met with a long pause and, “The internet?”

  19. If the secret is someone else’s, I will keep it for the rest of my life if necessary. If it’s my own, well, there is roughly a 90% chance it will leak out to someone. Coincidentally there is also a 90% chance that I’ll be under the influence of alcohol when it does.

  20. Doesn’t anybody know of PostRejects?

    I can keep secrets very easily. I think there are things that are delicate or not convenient to spread further. Counseling comes to mind – there are things in which you can help up to certain point and then… You cannot “know” anything that happens beyond that or cannot tell other people involved in a conflict.

    Perhaps its comparable to quit smoking, but then again, I am happy to say that I managed that pretty easily also.

  21. I believe I can keep secrets pretty well. In general I’d just as soon not be exposed to them, but any information I deem sensitive, I just chuck into that deep dank pit in the back of my mind and forget it’s there. Like all of those lectures I attended in college. :/

    Also, there have been times in the past where someone convinced me to talk about something I was keeping secret out of fear of people’s reactions to the info. I was dumb, and gave in, and quickly realized that I was right to both keep it to myself, and fear people’s reactions to the info. Unfortunately, it is a mistake I have made more then once, but not in a _very_ long time, and not one I expect to make again.

    Plus, I have an inherent distrust for anything that speaks. Usually this is people, but it also applies to certain machines and parrots.

  22. It is easy to keep a secret, don”t spread gossip for any reason. Easy to keep everything straight. I know so much about people that would shock others but since I don’t gossip, people have always shared secrets with me. I don’t share mine though. I don’t trust people.

  23. I think everyone carries secrets. There’s always something we know isn’t appropriate to tell certain people. Whether it’s the PIN to your ATM card, your nickname back in seventh grade, or the location of those missing hitchhikers you’ve buried, self-preservation supports selective disclosure on many topics, to the point that we don’t even consider them “secrets.”

  24. My best way of keeping secrets is to just forget them. Or better yet, never learn them in the first place. Or maybe I should just reveal them, then they’re not secrets any more! >;->

  25. In my experience when someone is telling me a secret, they are telling me either for advice or help in some manner. Sometimes its a cry for help, sometimes it’s just gossip. I’m told I’m a good friend to confide in, I used to have a friend like that however she’s not speaking to me. lol

  26. Like magicdude20, I get people confiding secrets for support, so I keep them. I’m the perenial big brother, and get the occasional wet shoulder.

    I’m lousy at keeping my own secrets.

    But I also have the advantage of having a widespread group of very diverse friends, so if I get a secret that’s just too funny to keep, I can spill to one friend knowing that they will never meet the other friend anyway. Though just to be safe I never use real names.

  27. Like some other people here, I have a job (system administrator) that requires me to have more access to “delicate” information than most people at our company. Although despite being able to look into people’s personal folders, I have no desire to do so. My own life is much more interesting than that of someone else.

    In my previous job in particular, I had full access to people’s mailboxes, and would on occasion be asked to turn on their out of office because they forgot. Pretty much the only way to do that is to log in on their mailbox and turn it on manually. On a few such occasions, I noticed some e-mail subjects that I knew right away were not to be talked about, like job application e-mails, and once I even found out my boss was having an affair, which is something I really didn’t want or need to know.

    But they’re secret, so you just keep them because you have to, or talk about them with people who will never be able to spread it to those who must never know. Which is why it’s so good to have a lot of friends in the US.

    As for my own secrets, it depends. A while ago, I was having an e-mail conversation with Jen, and she just happened to be in the right place at the right time as I needed to get something off my chest, so I told her something quite personal. It could have been anyone else, but she was just there when I needed to talk about it, and far enough removed from anyone who wasn’t supposed to know that it seemed safe. Although I’m not sure she was really happy having to do so.
    Anyway, that was a few months ago, and now the secret isn’t really important anymore. I think a lot of secrets are like that. Their importance quickly fades.

    I think spreading your secrets around is also safer than storing them all in the same place, but maybe that’s just me …

  28. For some reason I don’t fully understand, people seem to trust me with information that they don’t tell others. I have so much potential blackmail information inside my head that if I had fewer scruples, I’d be a rich man….. or in jail…. or both.

    It’s not really a burden to know, and I’m not into gossip, so I’m good at keeping secrets. I don’t do the “You didn’t hear it from me but….” thing. On the other hand I haven’t been told anything REALLY bad like “Don’t tell anyone, but I killed my wife” or “I’m embezzling and they don’t suspect a thing” I’m not sure what I’d do under those circumstances.

    The most uncomfortable thing I’ve had to keep secret was I was told by a friend of mine that she was pregnant, but she came clean soon after and I was never confronted about it.

    I’m not sure about the “morality” of keeping secrets. I know I don’t like it when the government does it and I think it is an abuse of our trust in the government when they tell us we don’t “need” to know something, but regular people…? We always keep secrets. Most of the time, they are silly stuff and they overreact to the idea of someone else finding out, or it’s just embarrassing and they don’t want to go through it. My “official” council is that honesty really is the best policy. I always urge people to come clean. I keep the secrets of other people because I don’t feel I have the right to go blabbing just because they didn’t ask me ahead of time. I just wish I knew what it was about me that makes people want to tell me things. I’ve been told I’m very easy to like, but that doesn’t always translate to radiating trustworthiness.

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