Secretaries Day

A day to honor keepers of secrets

April 23, 2003|By Alexander E. Hooke

IN TODAY'S employment section, there are few advertisements for secretaries. Employers instead seek administrative assistants, office technicians or multitasking receptionists.

This embellishment of titles is unfortunate and misleading, for it erases the meaning of secretaries and their invaluable tasks.

"Secretary" shares etymological roots with "discreet," "discern" and "secrete." It derives from the word "secret," since secretaries have been expected to be discreet with all the information given them. Indeed, secretaries were centers of information long before the age of information. Notices of furtive interviews, rumors on new hires or firings, plans for surprise events, birth and death announcements and confidential memos -- all pass by the secretary's desk.

Regardless of how salacious the news, the secretary has learned when to bite her tongue and seal her lips.

The secretary is a master of silence, in sharp contrast to her supervisors. Lawyers, doctors or teachers, for example, are professionals paid to talk about what they know.

A secretary is paid not to talk about what she knows. As a result, an odd paradox ensues. With increased trust comes increased knowledge, so there is always more she must be silent about. This silence can be interpreted as an absence of advancement: She does the same work as before. Meanwhile, other professionals prattle on about the latest thing read, written or experienced, giving the impression that they are always advancing.

The effect of this paradox highlights a twofold injustice. First, it creates a common perception that secretaries have lesser intelligence than the ones for whom they work. Second, their pay is comparatively low, so they invariably look for better positions where their qualifications and education seem more profitable.

Yet the secretaries I have worked with the most -- Loretta Reynolds, Valerie Hollis, Debbie Blake, Carla Owens, Nicole Reese, the late Bernie Cochran -- show an enviable amount of smarts.

They know how to make newcomers feel welcome, quickly learn the latest computer programs that confound their supervisors, enlighten the room by finding the right word that brings a smile from others and deftly handle tasks dumped on them when one of those inevitable crunch times hits the office. Many times do they exercise their informed judgment and catch mistakes.

That secretaries' wages rarely match the value of their contributions suggests another of capitalism's bad jokes. Thus, cynics are tempted to dismiss Secretaries Day, which is today, as a symbolic but feeble gesture that glosses over this imbalance. These cynics believe that we should skip the cards or flowers and raise the pay instead. But this attitude overlooks that designating a day to honor someone -- parents, veterans, laborers, presidents -- has nothing to do with financial equity or compensation. Marking such a day is rather a cultural effort to express gratitude.

Philosopher Sissela Bok notes that secrets are an essential component of being human. Sharing a secret solidifies a friendship or initiates a sacred bond. While having the potential for harm, bearing secrets also involves some of our most positive virtues: trust, privacy, loyalty and practical wisdom.

In professional ethics, these virtues are often discussed about lawyers, doctors, scientists, teachers and clergy. In fact, secretaries best embody these virtues. They enable our workplaces to thrive and the rest of us to carry on with our work. As bearers of secrets, their tasks are often shrouded in silence. Secretaries Day gives us an opportunity to appreciate the positive value of that silence.

Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Villa Julie College.

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