I told my sister's deep, dark secret

First she informed me, then she asked for confidentiality. By then, I was trapped!

Published August 4, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

A few months ago, my sister volunteered some personal information to me ("I have some news," is how she began the story), and after sharing that news, asked that I not tell other family members, since she wanted to tell them herself. (This information was serious and upsetting -- about the level of a cancer diagnosis, although that wasn't it). However, she wanted to tell them in person, and since our family is far-flung, we see each other in person no more than once a year, if that. (This information was already six months old when my sister shared it with me.) At that point, I felt that I had no choice but to agree that I would keep the information confidential.

In the months since then, in the course of conversations with other family members, the situation arose where I wound up either having to lie, or to refrain from responding in such a manner that would inevitably lead to revealing the secret information. I chose not to lie, and now my sister and especially my mom (who also knew this information), are mad at me for "spilling the beans" to other family members.

I am annoyed because I was put in this no-win situation without my consent. Isn't the time to extract a promise of secrecy before you share the information, so that if the person doesn't want to be put in the position of walking on eggshells indefinitely, they can decline that honor and ask not to be told the secret information until its owner is ready to share it with all and sundry? Part of me wants to apologize for not keeping the secret, but part of me thinks my sister owes me an apology for not making it clear at the outset that she was sharing not "news" but top-secret information. However, I understand that my sister was upset herself, and probably wasn't thinking clearly about the secrecy aspect of this information when she told me, and I don't want to add to her stress.

I'm not sure what can be done to fix the current situation, but at least I've learned this lesson: If someone asks me, "Can you keep a secret?" I'll say, "No, thanks, keep your own secret." And if someone tells me something and then asks me to keep it secret, I'll tell them right away that I don't consider myself obligated to keep that information secret.

Thanks for any advice you can offer.

Coerced Secret-Keeper

Dear Coerced,

I think you're exactly right. The time to say that something is off the record is before divulging it.

Viewed as an economic transaction, it looks like this: Your sister first gave you something of value. Then she announced its price. The price was too high. But at this point, you could not return it.

Secrets are not like money; they can't simply be refunded. Once someone gives you a secret, you are in unwilling possession of it as long as your memory is intact.

So you were in a sense entrapped.

The surest way to disseminate information is to tell it to others. To expect information not to spread is to expect the impossible.

Your failure to keep the secret is understandable. When we ask someone to keep a secret, especially a juicy secret, we are asking them to perform a fairly sophisticated act of social finesse, which requires quick thinking and an iron will. Not everyone has the required skill. Your failure to keep the secret is not a moral failing, as I see it. It's a lack of a certain skill whose very acquisition, for some of us, has the taint of the devious.

It's unfortunate that folks are mad at you now. I hope you can resolve this matter, as it sounds like something truly important is at stake, and this secret business is just a sideshow.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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