The paradox of secrecy: It breeds suspicion, but also trust

March 18, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Tabloids and headlines tell the tale: There's nothing quite as alluring as other people's secrets, unless it's their skill at keeping them. Lately, we've marveled over master of deception and CIA agent Aldrich Ames; bank robber Kathy Power, who spent 22 years with an assumed identity and even Jack Nicholson's mother, a woman who pretended for 37 years to be his sister.

Americans are fascinated with secrets because we weave our daily lives with them, says Eytan Bercovitch, assistant professor in anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He says the tangled skein of human relationships often requires concealing things from our closest friends as much as sharing confidences with them.

Most people, he says, withhold information from others to protect themselves -- and those they love -- from the hurt, anger and awkwardness that can come from learning a close friend has broken a long-anticipated lunch date in order to meet someone else.

"Secrecy involves lying, it involves [giving out] somewhat misleading information, it involves partial disclosures and knowingly letting people form the wrong idea that you would like them to have," Dr. Bercovitch says.

The anthropologist became fascinated with secrecy when he spent several years in the Star Mountains of New Guinea studying life in a small village. In a community of one-room huts -- a place devoid of the concept of privacy -- Dr. Bercovitch discovered that people had become masters at concealing things. The society emphasized the virtues of full disclosure and of sharing equally and openly. However, villagers maintained their intimacies by playing favorites -- and being tight-lipped about them.

The anthropologist found, for instance, that villagers hid food from one another. In public gatherings, they dined communally on sweet potatoes and other garden food that was readily available. When a villager killed a wild pig, however, he might distribute only some of the prized meat to his neighbors.

Concealing the meat -- or lying about its existence -- also allowed villagers to give special food gifts to their closest friends without damaging their other relationships.

It is a situation with obvious parallels: In the United States, Dr. Bercovitch notes, people rarely discuss what they give as gifts to others. Such disclosures might reveal too much about the sliding scale of their allegiances.

"A really good friend is someone to whom you give something that, in a sense, puts you in a more awkward position in relation to everyone else who might find out about it," he says. "In order to be close to one friend, we're at least potentially in conflict with our obligations to others."

Avoiding such confrontations often leads to lying.

Most people lie

In the recent book "The Day America Told the Truth," researchers James Patterson and Peter Kim report that 91 percent of Americans not only lie regularly but also are most apt to lie to those closest to them: 86 percent admit to lying regularly to parents; 75 percent to friends; 73 percent to siblings and lovers and 69 percent to spouses.

Fewer people -- 58 percent -- lie regularly to their best friends.

Although the survey found Americans consider most of their lies relatively harmless, they were also more apt to tell "serious" lies to the people to whom they were closest. Americans define "real" lies as those that hurt other people; those that violate a trust; those that involve crime or legal consequences and those that are completely self-serving, masking the truth about who -- and what -- the liar is.

The researchers also found that hiding the truth often gives liars an illusion of control over others as well as a feeling of power.

Dr. Bercovitch says secrets are, by their nature, potent. To conceal information is to make it important.

"In New Guinea, anything that matters has a quality of concealment about it. And anything someone is going to tell you openly is insignificant."

It's an observation which lends new perspective to celebrities' admissions on such subjects as their abused childhoods and tortured romances; perhaps this material is not as "up close and personal" as the public might think.

Popular culture scholar Karen Stoddard, a professor of communications at Notre Dame College, also believes that the shocking confessions of tell-all talk shows say little about what Americans are willing to expose about themselves.

"When you see people on Oprah and Geraldo revealing the most outlandish and embarrassing things, that leads us to believe that people will say just about anything for the attention. It might make us draw the false conclusion that the average American is willing to reveal those kinds of secrets."

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