Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

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 PostSecret.com 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.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that secrets are always best kept, or that we always need to know what we feel before we speak. I don’t envision a world in which everything we say to each other is carefully rehearsed before it’s articulated, like Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry as arising from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” What he describes first, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” sharing raw emotions, transgressions, or rough ideas, is a beautiful way in which we show ourselves to one another. I suggest only that we keep in mind the value of both kinds of communication.

Secrets are not simply facts withheld. Pieces of information as diverse as a Social Security number, a tremulous hope, and an illicit affair are all secrets because their existence increases the secret keeper’s vulnerability in one way or another. Because of this, secrets can isolate us, connect us, and help us make sense of our lives and our choices. This power of secrets, to both harm and help us, demands our respect.

When we speak before thinking and share more of ourselves than we should, we devalue our experiences and miss opportunities to make meaning of our lives on our own. It is the care we take with our privacy that gives secrets their value, both for our private understanding of ourselves and for the intimacy of those times when we confide in, or earn the confidence of, others.

In the end, my love-at-first-refusal relationship didn’t last. But that moment of being told no, of witnessing one man’s assertion of a private self in the midst of that raucous room, stuck with me. He knew then something I’m only beginning to understand: that secrets are a currency, and how we exchange them can help or hinder our self-awareness and affect the depth of our relationships. The trust that ultimately developed between us was stronger not only because of the secrets we shared, but also because of the ones we allowed each other to keep.

Excerpted from Oregon Humanities (Spring/Summer 2007), a magazine aimed at enriching understanding and stimulating conversation, published by the Oregon Council for the Humanities. Subscriptions: free (2 issues/yr.) from 812 SW Washington St., Suite 225, Portland, OR 97205; www.oregonhum.org.

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