Michael Slepian had just finished presenting his research on secrets at Columbia University when he glanced at his phone and realized he had missed two calls from his father.
The behavioral scientist is about to learn something his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles have known all their lives: that he was conceived by artificial insemination from a sperm donor. nameless.
In his new book, “The Secret Life of Secrets,” Dr. Slepian writes, “This… was revealed to me at the end of one of the most important days of my professional life. I did not sit down. “
He wondered, “Why is this secret kept from me?”
Slepian, now a professor of business and leadership at Columbia Business School, talked about the answer to that question in an interview and the broader meaning of getting over your heart and promised won’t breathe a word about something. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
What exactly is “secret”?
I define confidentiality as the intention to withhold some information from one or more people. Information itself is confidential. Even if you haven’t had to hide it in a conversation lately, it’s still a secret if you intend to keep it from others.
What is the difference between secret and private?
There are all sorts of things we don’t discuss that aren’t secrets. For many people, it’s their sex life. The details may not be anything they necessarily keep secret; they just got the idea that this is not what we’re talking about. But if I were asked a question regarding it by someone close to me, I would answer it. If you don’t answer that question, if you intend to withhold the information if it comes out, then it’s a secret.
Is it unhealthy to keep secrets to yourself?
The harm of secrecy doesn’t seem to lie in the fact that you have to hide it when socializing, but that you have to live with it alone in your thoughts. The more a person’s mind wanders with their secrets, the harder it is to get emotional support or advice. When we are alone with something important, especially something harmful or unpleasant, we tend not to develop the healthiest ways of thinking about it.
What kind of secret is the hardest to keep?
The secret that you are thinking about all the time is the hardest secret to keep.
There are three main aspects that people think about their secrets. One is what we call “social connections” – secrets involving other people. Another aspect is how ethical secrecy is. The third is how it relates to our goals, which often means our careers. Each dimension has its own harmful effects.
What is the best condition for sharing a secret?
If you pick the right people, you can talk about your secret and it’s still a secret, so it’s an effective strategy. It’s only when someone reacts very negatively that revealing a secret makes things worse; so basically if someone has a different set of ethics or if you think they will get scandalized by what you say to them, that’s not the person to confide in. The person who is more likely to keep your secret than the one who will think about it in the same way as you when it comes to the moral of the matter.
Do we need to worry about the burden we’re placing on a friend by telling them a secret?
People can feel good when someone feels comfortable enough to reveal something sensitive; it’s an act of intimacy that can bring us closer together. But if we’re both in the same group of friends, it can be difficult because the secret might be on our minds and we can’t tell others about it. If someone far away from you reveals something big, it won’t necessarily give you much thought.
If Reese Witherspoon called to say she’d picked “The Secret Life of Secrets” for her Book Club, could you keep it a secret until it’s announced?
With active secrets, there’s usually a plan for when they’ll be revealed – and because they have an expiration date, those secrets can be exciting and energizing. So maybe I’m not allowed to talk about this phone call in May, but once it became known to the public, I was allowed to talk about it in June. I think the question is, How can we steal the benefits from the positive secrets and apply them to the negative secrets?
How do our personal beliefs affect our relationship of secrecy?
One sociologist found that if you’re anti-abortion, you’re less likely to find out about people close to you who have had an abortion. People don’t want to reveal a secret to someone who will be scandalized or who will find it so morally objectionable that they will disclose it to a third party. But that means we don’t get the same information from our social networks; it means you don’t understand how common a particular experience is.
How does our relationship with secrets evolve as we age?
Even young children know the intimacy of sharing information. If you ask a child what makes someone their best friend, they might answer, “It’s someone you share secrets with.” This is because children often keep secrets of their childhood, and they also derive this positive social force from sharing those secrets with their friends and learning from their friends’ secrets. When things start to look different is when they start entering their teens and now all of a sudden they worry about social approval, and they could be in more trouble. That’s when secrecy started to become more adult-like, where people were more concerned with the consequences of disclosing information.
Do you think your work helped you navigate that conversation with your dad?
One of the hard parts about having a secret is, even if you do want to reveal it, when is the right time to do it? I think this is what my parents went through when I was an adult. There is no perfect time to reveal such a secret. Sometimes you’ll have to make that moment happen, and it takes a bit of bravery.
Knowing that I am not biologically related to my father was shocking, but it also made me think about how my parents would keep it a secret. Years later, when I was writing this book, I asked them how it was. Their experience is consistent with what I’ve learned in my own research: that even a secret that never comes up in conversation can be really heavy. Hiding a secret is the easy part. The hard part is everything else. The hard part is having to think about this and not share it with others.