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Thursday, August 17, 2006

I'd tell you if I could, but it's a secret

By Dick Hirsch
Do I know any secrets? Maybe, but I am not sure. I have never been sure. Over the years, people have often indicated they were telling me something that was unknown to everyone else in the whole wide world, but it seldom, if ever, worked out that way.
Telling secrets was certainly a major childhood pastime. If you didn’t tell at least two or three secrets each day and hear a couple of new ones yourself, then you weren’t leading a very interesting social life.
The dictionary says a secret is “something kept hidden or unexplained; something kept from the knowledge of others or shared only confidentially with a few.”
I suppose that is as good a working definition as you can find, but it gets a little flimsy at the end when it resorts to use of the word “few.” How many is a few? I’ve always understood that “a couple” is two, but how many is “a few”? Is it more or less than “several?”
Defining few, my dictionary says: ”consisting of or amounting to only a small least some but an indeterminately small number.”
That doesn’t really help much, either, especially when dealing with the issues of defining, learning and keeping secrets.
Years ago, one of my early editors gave me his definition of a secret. It related to whether or not certain material could or couldn’t be published in a newspaper. He was not the professorial type; most of what he learned about reporting, about news judgment, about contacts and confidences, sources and secrets, he had absorbed on the streets, not in the lecture halls. That was probably the best way.
He was trying to convince me to write a story, a story that seemed important at the time. Today I don’t have any recollection of what that story might have been about, but the rationale used to eventually get it into print still lingers.
“It’s a secret,” I explained. “I was told about it in strict confidence, so I can’t write it.” That was a rare attitude for me because I was usually eager to get any reasonable story into print before the competition.
“That’s not a secret,” he said, “and I’ll tell you why. “If three people know it, then it isn’t a secret. “Now you know it. The guy who told you knows it. And who told him? That’s at least three people, probably more. If it ever was a secret, it isn’t a secret any longer. You can write that story.”
So I did write the story and it caused no great uproar that I recall. I also don’t remember whether the source ever complained about seeing it in print.
Secrets are important to the people who keep them but less important to those who disclose them. In addition to that secret which ended up in print, in a lifetime I haven’t known many real secrets, but I can understand the temptation to reveal them must be difficult to resist.
Some self-styled authorities claim that the ideal number of people required to keep a secret is one, meaning just you and no one else. I reject that position as elementary and simplistic. Of course the risk of disclosure increases as soon as another person is told the secret.
I realize that I risk offending a large segment of my readers, but I must say that gender plays a critical role in the whole issue of secrets. Can you see where I’m heading? If you said “trouble,” you are probably quite correct.
It would be my contention that women always know more secrets than men. I say that because there have been many reports, both professional and popular, comparing the communication patterns of women vs. men. Women are known for their open and frank relationships with female friends. The operative word is usually “share.” Women share. Men don’t operate that way. They may have friends with whom they bowl, play tennis or attend a ball game, but the exchange of information and feelings is usually far different. Men are likely to keep things to themselves. The operative word there might be “closed.”
If it’s true that women know more secrets than men, how are they at keeping them? A poll of a few random bystanders yielded men who thought women were the best keepers of secrets and women who felt the same about men. I wish I knew the answer. You know that I’d tell you if I could.



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