A Matter of Integrity

Elizabeth Bernstein asked—and she was serious—the question of when it’s appropriate to violate a confidence.

A while back, my sister, Rebecca, called with a request: she wanted me to book a flight to come and see her immediately—and not tell anyone.

Rebecca explained that she was having a breast biopsy the next day, was terrified to hear the results, and wanted me there for support. But she didn’t want to worry others in our family.

I jumped on a plane but wrestled with a dilemma. Many members of my family are doctors. Rebecca herself is an internist. Our father is an orthopedic surgeon and another sister is a gynecologist. I knew they would have advice for Rebecca—and would want to know if she were sick. But my sister asked me not to share what she told me. And I didn’t.

How do you decide whether to keep someone’s secret when there are good reasons to tell?

There are no good reasons to tell this sort of secret.  There are no good reasons to tell anyone’s secret of any sort, to violate any confidence, with a single exception.  Either the person being told the secret has honor and integrity, or he doesn’t, and giving up someone else’s secret is a terrible dishonor. There isn’t any middle ground.

Two days later, while I was sitting in Rebecca’s living room, I got a call from my mother. My sister, overwhelmed with worry, had told her about the biopsy she’d asked me to keep secret, and my mom was angry with me for preventing the rest of the family from supporting Rebecca. Then my other sister, the gynecologist, called, hurt that I didn’t seem to value her expertise. Too late, I realized that in keeping Rebecca’s secret, I might have betrayed others.

Not even close.  Those folks were completely out of line on two counts. One is directing their ire at Bernstein: she was keeping a confidence, as integrity demanded.  Their beef was with the sister for insisting they not be told.  That’s the other count: their beef was bogus.  The secret was the sister’s to tell, or not; it most assuredly was not the others’ to demand to hear.  Full stop.

“Essentially, you become a co-owner of the information,” says Sandra G Petronio, a communication professor and director of the Communication Privacy Management Center at Indiana University[.]

No, you don’t.  You become a co-keeper of the information, but ownership in no way, shape, or form, changes hands or gets diluted.

“Just having to think about someone else’s secret makes it harmful to our wellbeing,” says Michael Slepian, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School….

Having integrity, honoring obligations, isn’t all roses and sugar plums.  Doing the right thing isn’t always going to be easy, and rarely will it be comfy-cozy in the short term.

Here is the single reason a confidence can be violated: if the one passing the secret and asking for secrecy is describing her victim status in an abusive relationship. Then, and only then, can a confidence be violated, since the person’s life is in the wind.

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