Why Can’t We Keep Secrets Anymore?


Benjamin Franklin said that three people can only keep a secret if two of them are dead. Except for NSA agents and sex workers, I think he was right. If I had a dollar every time somebody told me that Freddy got molested or don’t-tell-Liz-I-told-you-she-said-Bessie’s-a-bitch, I could put a down payment on a party bus.

It’s not like I’m the wheat and they’re the chaff, either. I really regret telling a high school acquaintance that my friend killed himself. I mean I guess it wasn’t a secret, but it’s a good example. I was chatting with his ex on Facebook and she was like I wonder what happened to Jake. I said he was institutionalized for a mental disorder and he ran away and got hit by a truck. And this is what she told everyone else.

What she forgot was the part when I said he tried to fight the social worker’s boyfriend after he hit her in front of the patients. She called the cops and Jake ran off because he knew nobody would believe his side of the story. His mother told me Jake was in love with that woman, and why the fuck was she bringing her boyfriend in there anyway? If there’s a God I hope Jake is a hero in his eyes.

I told for the right reasons. I wanted his ex to see him the same way I did. I wanted to save him, too little too late.

Sometimes people tell me other people’s secrets to save me, too. I told this guy I was seeing (let’s call him Shawn) about something traumatic that happened to me. He said “See how pretty and together Annie looks? She got raped last year.” He thought that if his intentions weren’t malevolent, like oh look at Annie, she wore a Forever 21 crop top and some guy dragged her behind a 7-11 then the fact that he’d slightly raised the world’s victim-to-perpetrator ratio in my eyes outweighed the fact that he’d betrayed Annie’s trust. He thought he was doing a good thing. But I can’t trust him now.

People also tell other people’s secrets so someone will tell them how to feel about the information. Say Fran told you Sue has genital warts. Chances are Fran doesn’t know how gross she’s supposed to think warts are, so she gets a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth. Maybe the grapevine will tell her it’s not that bad and then Fran will have increased sympathy for/sexual attraction to Sue as a result. In that case, Fran will have accomplished the same thing Shawn set out to do, with an added bonus of enlightening herself.

But if people aren’t sympathetic towards whoever Fran is talking neutrally about, then the secret just becomes gossip. The information gets to Linda, who is malevolent. “SUE HAS WARTS!” bellows Linda to anybody who’ll listen. Chances are Linda has a vendetta against Sue because Bessie said Sue said she was fat or something.

You might think the worst person here is Linda, but I think it’s actually Fran. Fran can’t get information elsewhere? She doesn’t have a shrink? She doesn’t have Google? I used this example because it would become big news real fast. If you say that kind of thing really needs the feedback of the world then fine, the secret can be anything from Sue’s Thought Catalog penname to Sue owing $200,000 in student loans. The point is that Fran has no faith in her own convictions. Linda at least has malice, which takes conviction.

Maybe you’re the kind of person who tells other people’s secrets to get closer to whoever you’re telling them to; i.e. “I tell my boyfriend/grandmother/coke dealer everything.” If you do this then you’re stupid, because if the person you’re telling is smart, they won’t tell you anything in return.

“But it’s human nature to talk about people,” you say. Well yeah, maybe people do feel a need to vent about a friend who does annoying things in front of them. But that’s different than outright betraying someone’s trust.

Or maybe you want to start shit, because you have no real interests and no hope of ever being satisfied by anything that is happening in your life. I bet you’ve accomplished nothing. Your only pleasure is momentarily being better than just one other person on the planet.

A gray area is if somebody is doing something to somebody else and you’re a lot closer to one of the parties. Say a close friend tells you she is cheating on her adoring husband, whom you like but aren’t as close to. Chances are you keep her secret even though he’s probably a better person than she is. If you’re close to both people affected by the secret, then the heinousness of the secret should dictate whether or not you keep it.

There’s much trickier situations than those. What if your friend works with you in a small store and she’s stealing merchandise, and the owner needs to sell every item to support her three kids? What if your friend has something more serious than warts and you’re not sure if she tells her partners? What if you’re one of the doctors in that House episode where the girl risks her life to give a piece of her liver to her partner who is secretly planning to leave her? Don’t ask me the answer to any of these, because I don’t know.

And don’t use human nature as an excuse for anything. If you can’t keep my secrets then I don’t want to be your friend. I have higher standards for you than Ben Franklin did.

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