It’s only natural that we share what we know about the people around us. Just as we talk about developments in our own lives – like a new job or new baby, how the kids are doing and things like that – we pass on updates about friends, family and co-workers. Keeping others posted this way keeps us all in the loop when we’re not in day-to-day contact.
As nice as it is to hear about the people we know, sometimes this sharing goes too far and confidences get violated. Then the line gets crossed into gossip, ugly things happen, and lasting damage can be done. That’s true even when no harm was intended.
Once, a few years ago, a friend revealed to me that a woman we both knew had had an abortion. I’m pretty sure this woman wouldn’t have wanted me to find that out, and of course I didn’t tell anyone else. Doing that could have caused more harm, and as it was, the only damage that came of it was the trust between my friend and myself. I still check myself with her, and I’m cautious about what I say. How could it be any different? When someone violates a confidence with a revelation to you, you’re naturally doubtful about what they will tell others.
However, there was one thing that struck me the most about this incident, and that was the casual, indifferent way she said it. I’d be surprised that anyone didn’t understand that an abortion was the kind of thing most people keep quiet about and that having one could be controversial with some people. My friend had been entrusted with private information but it seemed so easy for her to betray a confidence. Nothing on the outside revealed any tension or hesitation, no indication that she understood how provocative she actually was. I’m convinced she didn’t intend to do any harm. Oddly enough, I even think that she told me because she’s sure that I’m not the kind of person to pass something like that on.
My friend is a decent person, I know, and normally sensitive, but she is one of those people who are too free with what they reveal. In my profession we are governed by strict legal and ethical mandates about confidentiality. Every day people tell me their difficulties and secrets, intimate revelations that can be embarrassing to make and even more so if they were to be further revealed. It’s made me pretty sensitive as to when I should pass on anything I know.
I think probably everyone would benefit if they adopted the “need to know” standard. If information isn’t public, and has any level of sensitivity to it, don’t share it unless necessary. Develop the skill of self-monitoring and be vigilant about possibly damaging someone’s reputation and relationships, sensitive about what the right boundaries are.
This may seem like an obvious point and that I’m belaboring it with repetition, but what prompted me to write this was that someone I recently met let me know about an upcoming development in a family I am moderately acquainted with; a development that will inevitably be painful and damaging. And while this information was circulating widely enough to have reached me, I was told to keep it on the hush because several members of this family are as yet unaware.