Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

In praise of the private life

| November / December 2007

You might call it love at first refusal. About a year ago, I fell head over heels for a man who refused to tell me a secret. We were in the midst of a raucous party in a high-ceilinged, echoing loft and had hit it off instantly. As the evening went on, the voices swelled around us, so we leaned in close to talk. Somewhere in our conversation, he’d mentioned something in passing that had piqued my curiosity. I tried to ignore it but in the end couldn’t resist: I asked what I now realize was a presumptuous question given that we had known each other only a few hours. He easily could have brushed off my question with a glib response or even lied. Instead, he told me, quite affably but in no uncertain terms, that the answer was private.

I was immediately taken with him—but taken aback as well. I am nosy by nature; as a child, I was a shameless snoop, always looking for clues about people before I understood the mystery of their private selves. As an adult, I seek permission for my curious questions and get the green light more often than not. My dismay in that moment made me realize how rarely my prying is met with rejection.

As a culture, we share too much. At best, our tell-all tendencies are rooted in rejection of the solitary suffering that some secrets cause; a quick perusal of demonstrates the poignancy of catharsis. At worst, though, we are a society saturated with secrets offered unbidden and to no one’s benefit: on reality TV programs, on confessional talk shows, in autobiographies by celebrities barely out of their teens. The question of quality aside, this vast quantity of unveiled information has fetishized truth, as if experiences are made real by, and only have value in, their telling.

I worry that we are giving too much of ourselves away. We control our secrets, those private parts of ourselves, only so long as we don’t speak them or put them in writing. Our experiences become most powerful in private spaces, because in reflecting upon them, we imbue them with meaning. Disclosing details of our private lives is how we come to know each other and create intimacy with someone we trust. If we fail to first make sense of a secret for ourselves and instead quickly confide it, that intimacy is compromised.

I have a friend who narrates his life constantly via cell phone and e-mail. I know the rhythms of his workday—his lunch plans, his boss’s unreasonable requests—and the rhythms of his personal life. He forwards tortured e-mails from his ex, replays for me the snarky voicemail from a mutual friend, and sends me text messages while his date is in the bathroom. Are the stories he’s sharing worth the time he’s lost, the silent moments during which he might have had an epiphany, a second thought, or a few minutes of contemplation? These undigested divulgences haven’t helped me know my friend in a more intimate way. What’s more, I think, something is lost in transferring experiences so immediately from the private to the public domain. If he kept his secrets, even if only for a little while longer, might he understand his choices and his reactions more deeply?

Once a secret has entered the public sphere, we feel compelled to incorporate our confidant’s response and interpretation into our understanding of our own experience. Our secret—that experience or memory or tiny, titillating fact—comes before us in rough paraphrase from someone else’s lips. It is difficult enough that technology has transformed how we think of privacy and of the spaces that once were private—a solitary walk in the park or my house at midnight as I write. Perhaps we should keep our secrets safe for longer in the truly private spaces of our minds.

12/6/2013 9:50:06 AM

In my befuddled 20's, with questions breeding questions in my mind and heart, I was offered a notion: that in the absence of answers I could "learn to love the question." This made no real sense to me at the time, but I've come to interpret it as a way of stepping back from the compulsive inquisitiveness, stepping out of the stream both as a form of relief and as time to reframe the situation such that an answer is no longer crucial.

Dayna Boyd
3/31/2009 7:55:58 PM

loved it! but what is the tone of this essay?

Dayna Boyd
3/31/2009 7:55:13 PM

whats the tone??

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