First things first: The winner of this week’s Amazon gift card is announced at the end of today’s post!
This week’s topic: Secrets
It’s Christmastime, which means lots of family gatherings and seeing relatives whom you
haven’t contacted all year. It also means meeting up with friends and seeing coworkers out of context. The entire month of December is an emotional powder keg.
For many revelers, Christmas also means alcohol – much more than usual. Binge-drinking goes hand-in-hand with letting loose and enjoying the occasion. Alcohol masks the anxiety and painful self-consciousness, low self-esteem, loneliness, and social anxiety. Alcohol does this by reducing inhibitions, quieting the critical arbiter inside. Normally constrained by our conscience or social norms, we – under the influence of alcohol – willingly expose our flaws and become vulnerable. The mutual reassurance of secrecy arises out of our communal bad behavior. Vegas rules apply: what happens at the Christmas party stays at the Christmas party.
Alcohol is a truth serum. The inhibitions that kept Aunt Sally’s from voicing her marital dissatisfaction are gone and she tells off her husband during dessert. And though a romantic confession to a coworker at the company party is usually a bad idea case the feelings are one-sided, nothing appears farther away in time than Monday morning when you’re three glasses into Christmas cheer. A lack of vigilance exposes the truth about a taboo lover, starting with an clumsy, impulsive response to the question, “Are you seeing anyone these days?” Guarded secrets are exposed. And thankfully alcohol provides future plausible deniability: “Come on, I didn’t even know what I was saying – I was so drunk!”
What makes a secret a secret?
What is a secret, exactly?
Secret: a piece of information that is intended to be kept private, and may only be shared with a select few
The reason I’ve underlined “intended to be kept private” is that, in actuality, the secret may already be known by many people. For example, sexual orientation is frequently kept “secret” in families and communities, despite obvious homosexual inclinations: Frank is gay and everyone knows it, but he’s not “out.” This information about sexuality is very publicly hidden away, avoided as a topic of discussion, and questions answered with obfuscating answers. A secret may be known by few or many, but it is always treated as private information.
Why do we keep secrets?
- Fear that others will misunderstand the information or will not be able to understand it
- Fear that others will misuse the information in a way that a) degrades the usefulness of the information (i.e. writing a newspaper article about a secret, hidden restaurant) or b) exploits or damages the ‘owner’ of the information (i.e. revealing medical records)
- To experience a perceived increase in power (the increase in power might be real or imagined)
- To create or enhance hierarchies based on exclusion (those who know vs. those who don’t)
Psst… do you want to know a secret?
Knowing that a piece of information is a secret will change our experience of that information. A mundane fact, such as “The wingspan of a southern royal albatross can reach 3.3 meters,” gains moral and social significance when it’s shared through a guarded whisper into a friend’s ear, to the obvious exclusion of onlookers. As a woman, I can tell you that girls know the power of secrets on the playground, and masterfully exploit its use to bring others to tears. In another example: millions of people have cheated on their spouses, but the (at one point in time) secret knowledge that Bill Clinton cheated has political significance and changes our experience of that knowledge. Compare his cheating with your local 7-11 clerk Jim’s infidelity – you probably felt more outraged about Clinton’s cheating.
Secrets can be used to reinforce hierarchies, separating the privileged from the excluded. If someone asks you, “do you want to know a secret?”, it’s likely you’ll say yes. Even if the information is not useful to you, you’ll want to be in the privileged group.
For many reasons mentioned above, we need secrets and we love to know secrets. So why is keeping secrets is hard? I’d like to suggest that this preoccupation with a secret comes from the simultaneous desire to remind oneself about the secret and the need to suppress one’s thinking about the secret. In other words, if you want to feel the power of privilege, you need to keep reminding yourself that you’re part of the privileged group that knows the secret.
- What is one secret desire you have? Why do you keep it secret?
- What would it feel like to get it off your chest? (benefits & drawbacks)
- Is it a duty to keep secrets for family members or friends when asked?
- If someone asked you, “how do I keep a secret?” what instructions would you give?
- Everyone picks their noses. Certainly, you keep your own nose-picking a secret and would probably deny it if asked. What happens to a secret when everyone starts talking about it?
- Some people have kept lifelong secrets. Does time make secrets easier to keep, or more difficult? (Can you keep a secret for a day, month, year or more?)
- What is the difference between a lie and a secret, and how are they related concepts?
Giveaway: Thanks to everyone who followed, like, and commented! The winner of last week’s $20 Amazon gift card is “ajaffer7”. Congratulations!