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If You Want to Share a Secret, Whom Should You Tell?

July 05, 2019DMT.NEWS

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Secrets.  Everyone has them.  The personal issues people keep to themselves range from traumatic memories, to embarrassing gaffes, to personal proclivities.  Yet in many cases, even with the most sensitive information, people crave the opportunity to share their secrets, in order to relieve stress

In a prior column I discussed the demonstrated value of sharing secrets.   Confiding secrets can be cathartic, liberating, and reduce emotional distress by affording an opportunity to talk through painful issues, problems, or traumatic memories.  The challenge, is audience selection.  

Because secrets, by nature, are private, personal, and sometimes painful, you must choose your audience carefully, in order to have confidence in your confidants.  

Confiders Beware: Audience Selection

When you want to share a secret, seeking an audience that is both receptive and reliable, attentive and trustworthy, is often easier said than done depending on your social network

As a starting point, when sharing sensitive information, trusted friends, family, and spouses can be powerful sounding boards and sources of social support; casual acquaintances are probably not your first choice.  And long gone is the antiquated “strangers on a train” phenomenon, where 30 years ago, we might have shared private details with someone we met while traveling, whom we never expected to see again.  Nowadays, people you meet on a train (bus, plane, Uber pool, etc.) will probably be Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections by the end of the journey.  

And given the networked world in which we live, after you have unloaded your private baggage, you don´t want to worry about your choice of recipient sharing the information with others (God forbid on social media), or using it against you in some fashion.  

So when you need to share a secret, whom should you tell?

Choosing Confidants with Confidence

Consider the people on your contact list, with their respective range of personalities and dispositions.  If you had to choose one of them to confide in, whom would you pick? If you can envision one or more good candidates, congratulations on having an excellent support system.  But if no one in particular comes to mind, especially if you have a secret that is particularly delicate, traumatic, or otherwise troublesome to think about, in narrowing the field of potential confidants, what criteria would you use to separate the trusted from the distrusted? 

Interestingly, there appears to be some degree of consensus regarding what types of people we choose to confide in. 

Personality Traits of Trusted Confidants

Michael L. Slepian and James N. Kirby in a piece entitled "To Whom Do We Confide Our Secrets?"(2018) explored the question of what types of people we are most likely to confide in.[i] They focused their predictions on four areas: compassion, politeness, enthusiasm, assertiveness, recognizing that research notes that most variation with respect to interpersonal behavior and experience is reflected in what they describe as their two higher level domains: extraversion and agreeableness.

In their research, Slepian and Kirby asked participants about secrets others had confided in them. They included 14 categories: “(a) infidelity, (b) sexual orientation, (c) abortion, (d) victim of sexual assault, (e) engaged in physical abuse, (f) dealt with mental illness, (g) having a sexually transmitted disease (STD), (h) cheated at work, school, or finances, (i) lost a large sum of money, (j) having a drinking problem, (k) drug abuse, (l) addiction (other than alcohol or drugs), (m) committed a crime, and (n) religious beliefs.”

The traits that positively predicted how many secrets the study participants were told were compassion and assertiveness.  The traits that negatively predicted how many secrets they were told were enthusiasm and politeness.

Breaking down these personality traits, they note that both compassion and politeness are related to agreeableness.  But the traits have very different definitions.  They describe compassion as “empathy and desire to help,” and politeness as “concern with social norms and social rules.”  

They further note that both assertiveness and enthusiasm are related to extraversion, but these traits are defined very differently also. They describe assertiveness as “having the agency and drive to help,” whereas enthusiasm is “positive sociality.” Many people might be reluctant to share a secret with an extroverted friend or colleague who is the proverbial “life of the party,” and be more comfortable disclosing to someone who is more serious and less gregarious.

Slepian and Kirby note that unlike assertiveness, enthusiasm specifically involves experiencing positive emotions.  They suggest that future research should examine whether people prefer not to confide in enthusiastic people because they perceive them as less qualified to handle a serious, unpleasant issue, or to avoid “bringing them down.” 

Receptive, Reliable Receivers 

Although apparently many people feel most comfortable confiding in compassionate, assertive individuals, only you are able to personally judge the individuals within your support system.  If you decide to share a secret, make sure you exercise caution in choosing confidants, utilizing both discretion, and discernment.

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Research reveals how to chose your audience carefully
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Do you have a secret you would like to get off your chest? If so, whom should you tell? Research has some answers.
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[i]Slepian, Michael L, and James N Kirby. "To Whom Do We Confide Our Secrets?" Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 44, no. 7 (2018): 1008-023.

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