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Thursday, 13 January 2005



oooh, good one!

i think a secret is information that you intentionally and willingly withhold from someone without the intention (or even maybe the anticipated willingness) to tell them later. i think a guilty secret is one you withhold because you think the hearer's opinion of you would be significantly and negatively changed by hearing it. so like, the identity of the boy's father is a secret, something i don't tell people and won't tell most people, even if they ask, but it's not a guilty one.

about the tacit agreement stuff i'm not as sure. i think if you aren't sure whether to tell it's better to err on the side of revelation for the people that you expect to love you warts and all (i.e. family, especially siblings/spouses), and to keep your mouth shut in most other cases and particularly if there's a chance of it progressing further (i.e. schoolyard, work).


My husband & I are struggling with this one daily. My pregnancy (27 wks) was scary & aweful for 4 mos. - lost triplet at 11 wks, twin at 19 wks - now have one healthy & growing normal baby. I should be able to share my excitement & joy with, say, the women in the prenatal yoga class without traumatizing them with my story - right? They are there to relax. But I feel I am keeping a secret from them. I feel compelled to tell people, even it it will make them uncomfortable. By telling them I am seeking something: A). Sympathy for me. B). Punishing them for their easy pregnancies C). Seeking a genuine level of intimate sharing encouraged by the class. D). Providing a foil by which they realize how lucky they have been in their normalcy. E).Therapy. Not telling them alienates me further, as I paste a smile on my face & nod knowingly about how fun pregnancy is.
For now, mums the word. Troubling is right.


Both Anne and Vickey have it spot on. Whether a secret is a guilty one or not is entirely subjective, if one feels guilt about a particular act it has nothing to do with the observers of the act. Guilt is the sole preserve of the perpetrator. Therefore your opinion of whether a secret is of the guilty species or not makes not a whit of difference to the secret keeper.

In other news, saying "I love you" to get in to a girls pants is not performative, in my experience anyway.

Finally, from a theological viewpoint, God is performative as his every word enacts, "...and god said..." therefore, in the Christian canon, Jesus is performative by his very nature.


after having dropped out of graduate school, I have pretty much done a brain wipe on all this knowledge I used to have, but it seems to me that what you're getting at is a very thoughtful exposition of what Austin called "perlocutionary acts" -- speech acts defined by their effect on the hearer. the idea is that any single utterance can constitute several different kinds of speech acts: if I say "I love you," the basic "locutionary act" is just the simple fact of my physically saying the words, but the "illocutionary act" is that I am making a statement. the "perlocutionary act," though, might be to seduce, to reassure, to shock, etc. etc., but what kind of perlocutionary act it was would depend entirely on context. so if A says "I love you," and B says "Please pass the salt," B's utterance has the illocutionary force of a request, but the perlocutionary force of a bucket of cold water.

as for secrets, hmmm: for me, a fact I know becomes a secret when I believe that someone's opinion and/or worldview would change if they knew that fact, but I don't say anything. if it is a fact that I have a weakness for hostess cupcakes and I don't tell my boss, I don't consider it a secret because I don't believe it'll perceptibly affect his opinion of me. if it is a fact that I suck my thumb (which I promise, it is not!) and I still don't tell my boss, I'd more likely consider that a secret because I believe that his opinion of me would change if he knew it. in neither case is it any of his business, but the thumb-sucking would feel like a secret in the way the cupcake-gobbling doesn't. (of course, if I has been presenting myself as someone who would never sully her digestive system with such garbage, the cupcakes might well be a secret.)

okay, that's meant to be an utterly trivial example. but I also think that vickey's comment speaks exactly to this, in a profound way: she knows that the women's view of pregnancy -- and, also, of her -- will necessarily change if they know her story, so *not* telling them feels like keeping a secret.

I love your blog!


societal interaction is all about the sharing and withholding of information; language facilitates the sharing, but a lifetime of experience teaches us what is important to withhold. The savvy retention of information that would be harmful, painful, or detrimental to others is an important part of character, and has nothing to do with the value of the information we keep, or the feelings this information invokes in us. Guilt is about empathy and putting ourselves in other people's shoes, and shouldn't be viewed as "good" or "bad." Some of the most crass and selfish people in the world feel no guilt because they simply don't care. While others torture themselves needlessly, when in fact, they are showing good character by keeping information to themselves.

Interesting post, Jill.


Had to come back and read this a few times before I was ready to comment.

I wonder how the concept of entitlement comes into play, here. I agree that often there is a notion of a secret changing someone's opinion of the secretkeeper... but (to borrow a previous example), is a boss entitled to know of one's proclivities for processed desserts? Debatable. On the other hand, if I am involved in what is assumed to be a monogamous relationship and I stray, I'd argue that becomes a "guilty" secret because of the presumption of other party's entitlement to be informed that I have "broken the rules."

That's an extreme example. But I think the notion of what others "have a right" to is an important piece of this puzzle.


And I think sometimes people share guilty secrets precisely to help absolve themselves of the guilt they feel, to get validation that, despite the existence of the secret itself that they are still decent and worthwhile people, or to hear that their 'guilty' secret isn't really something they should feel guilty about (or, in my case, all three.)

It also presumes a responsibility on the part of the secret-receiver to tread carefully when responding to the revelation - as in 'if I'm agonizing over this enough to keep it secret and I'm choosing to tell you, I'm doing so because I trust you enough not to tromp on my feelings with your response, no matter how you might feel about the secret itself.

So it's a covenant that the secret-sharer seeks to enter into with the secret-receiver. And if the secret-receiver doesn't treat it with the same kind of reverence, or feels offended by the presumption of trust when no previous relationship existed? She's left holding this bag of stuff that's impossible to deal with in a forthright and honest way, oftentimes (usually in the latter case) - or doesn't care enough to respect the covenant.

It's a tricky business, this sharing and hearing of secrets. And I keep re-learning that I ought not to tell them if what I'm looking for is absolution or validation or reassurance that I am, in fact, a decent person.

Especially when what I hear after revealing a secret is 'gee, I think that's a lousy thing for a decent person to do.'


Hello Jilbur,

made my way here via a comment on Mir's blog long ago. Fascinating post, and a marvellous collection of commenters too. Most impressive. I'll be back!

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