It’s often said that information is power. But in our everyday lives, information is more likely to be a source of pain and
conflict than of power. I’ve been thinking over the distinctions, so please indulge me in some hair-splitting.
Confidence: Someone else’s private information shared with you for you to help them.
Secret: Your private information that you don’t share with either someone who can help or someone directly affected by the information.
Gossip: Spreading private information to increase your image of “being in the know” or to damage others. In some Christian circles, it often wears the label of prayer request (seen this happen too much to be able to let it go).
Private information: Information that a reasonable person would not share with acquaintances or strangers, such as the pin number for your debit card, hemorrhoids, or your sex life (unless, of course, you’re an adolescent male — it’s my understanding that in some cultures, it’s almost mandatory, although often fictitious). Broadly, you could characterize these as financial, health, relationships and other random embarrassing facts. Or, more succinctly, any information that could damage your finances, relationships or reputation if shared with the wrong people. Once it’s in the news or you’ve made the mistake of posting it online, it gets harder to say it’s still private.
Keeping confidences is healthy. Keeping secrets is not. Gossip is destructive. Having healthy boundaries about with whom you share which confidences is wisdom.
It’s fairly easy to figure out which is which by asking yourself the following questions:
Am I dying to share this information? It’s probably a juicy confidence and, particularly if you learn of it in the course of helping someone, you should not share it.
Do I think I might die (literally or figuratively) if someone in particular or people in general found out this information? Then it’s probably a secret, and keeping these kinds of secrets can destroy you or others involved. The first presentation I ever went to about incest referred to it as “the family secret.” and I’m sad to say that my experience in working with victims of sexual abuse, particularly incest, it’s often true that everyone in the household knows, but they don’t want to speak it, as if saying it makes it more real. Find someone you can trust to keep your private information safe and tell them.
Sometimes the “secret” is innocuous to most people, but the insistence on keeping it secret gives it disproportionate power. One of the Big Secrets in my family was that my grandmother was older than my grandfather. I still don’t see what the big deal was, but they didn’t want anyone to know. In this case, the secret was transformed from private information into a secret because of the power conferred upon it.
Does sharing the information provide help to the person whose information it is? If not, then it’s probably gossip, particularly if it’s something that would damage the reputation or standing of the person in the shared community. If it’s private information that was given to you as a confidence, stand on your tongue before sharing it with anyone without the individual’s permission.
EXCEPTION: If the example can be used to help others and can be described without giving any information that could identify the person to whom it applies, then it may not be gossip. My main experience of this is in the context of legal education; often explaining a situation helps clarify the problem.
If you’re asking why this is showing up in a blog mostly dedicated to fitness, motivation and CrossFit, you’re not alone. I’m not entirely sure why I’m including it here. I can come up with a justification (perhaps that people sometimes are emotional or become emotional working out and so you may learn information you should keep confidential). But, if I’m honest, it’s because it’s been on my mind, it’s important in all walks of life, and I felt compelled to write it … and it wouldn’t fit in a Facebook post.