Under the Rosebush

We humans are, as a rule, ridiculously bad at keeping secrets. There’s a reason for sayings like “two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead”. It comes from us being social critters who like to belong to something – and to some extent need to belong to something. Whether that something is a tribe, or a fandom, well, that’s a cultural thing, but all of us have this built-in need to belong to some group of humans.

Which of course means that the secrets of the group, whatever they might be, are shared with its members, and – almost inevitably – leak out sooner or later. Because another big part of the social critter thing is the mix of curiosity and communication that goes along side the social aspect. In other words, we gossip.

It’s totally human to hear a conversation, listen in, and pass on the juicy bits to a friend who you think would find it interesting or needs to know it. That particular trait is why the fastest way to find out what’s going on in any organization is to plug into the gossip chain.

And, of course, to remember that each tale gets a bit distorted in the telling so you’re going to get a different perspective if you’re hearing it fifth-hand than if you hear it direct from the source.

One of the best uses of this was in Pratchett’s The Fifth Elephant when Vimes was traveling to Uberwald and his carriage was stopped by a couple of highwaymen (I think. It’s a while since I last read it so I may be off on the details. And more, because I’m just as human and fallible as anyone else here). He kills one of them and reflects that by the time he arrives it’s likely to be a case of him single-handedly fighting off a small army, killing them all, and a dog that happened to be in the vicinity.

He’s right, of course, with the result that “… and a dog…” finds its way into the book in multiple places. Which, given how much werewolf clans play into said book, is yet another layer of Pratchettian artistry (Of course, Pratchett was the kind of writer who could take a running joke, flesh it out into a tragedy, and still use it as a joke afterwards. I only aspire to a measurable fraction of such greatness).

So, we suck at keeping secrets, but we absolutely have to keep a lot of them. There’s business confidentiality (something that the trad publishing industry unquestionably sucks at – which is perfectly understandable given how all the editors know all the other editors and they lunch or otherwise meet at venues involving alcohol frequently enough that secrets are going to spill. Collusion doesn’t need to be inferred when the field is small enough that human nature will give you the same result (which does not necessarily exclude collusion, incidentally. It just means that collusion isn’t necessary to get the bizarre skewedness and almost incestuous behavior)), private things between friends, employer-employee confidentiality, contractual requirements to keep one’s mouth shut about certain topics, not to mention the various things that go through a person’s head which would have Very Bad Results if said thoughts were to be aired in public.

And yet, sooner or later, most of them do find their way out to the public. Even the very private thoughts.

And then, because we filter things we learn through our experience, they get passed on and distorted, so what ultimately becomes public knowledge is, absent high quality primary sources, rather like the end result of passing a novel though an MMORPG session of Telephone (I knew that game as Chinese Whispers).

Sadly, I don’t see this happen too often in books, probably because of fact that life doesn’t have to make sense, where stories usually do (even if the sense they make is only to their own internal rules).  Well, that, and it’s bloody difficult to do.

I hope to get it right eventually. Until I do, it shall only see the light of day in shitty fanfic forever hidden on my hard drive.


  1. Gossip the foundations on which we build social cohesion, and the root of all misunderstanding and confrontations in society. I may have over-egged the definition, but I have a love-hate relationship with gossip. YMMV.

    1. Well, yes. I’ve learned a lot from listening to others gossip, but it can be so damaging. There’s no need to weaponize gossip because it’s already weapons-grade. Trial by media and all the nastiness that follows is just gossip write very large.

  2. Of course, sans gossip, we are reliant on “respectable” sources for information.

    Also not ideal.

    1. I find it useful to look for more precise words– ‘gossip’ tends to be applied to even GOOD things like “so, what’s your family up to these days?” type news exchange.

      Since I can call to mind why that would be on my mind, and he gave a link, here!

      Monday Evening blog on having vocabulary for the different forms of bad speech, and why they’re bad.

      1. I like the phrasing in the Catechism– “unjust injury.”

        Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury.278 He becomes guilty:

        – of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

        – of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;279

        – of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

        Partly because to figure out justice, you’ve got to put yourself in the mindset of what your neighbor deserves, which means you’re thinking of them as a person and thinking about the standards you’d want to be judged by, so it stops a lot of stupid pissing matches and just plain old mis-speaks were one person says a suspicion they have, and the other person hears it as “this is gospel truth.”

  3. And yet, sooner or later, most of them do find their way out to the public. Even the very private thoughts.

    Oh, curse that word choice… now I’m trying to figure out how to even QUANTIFY the number of secrets, because I’ve got Peter Whimsy’s demented clone in my head talking about secrets that are so secret nobody REALIZES there’s a secret!

    I shall inflict it right back:

    Categories of secret:
    Open, that is, everybody knows it but we all pretend we don’t. A surprise party where the guy who slips up was told.
    Hushed: the grape vine has partly dispersed it, but not everybody knows. Surprise party where the guy who slips up WASN’T told.
    Know Secret: Only the people involved know it, but people know there’s something TO know. Say, ship’s landing time. Folks who make money off of sailors will notice the orders put in and show up, but don’t know the actual docking time.
    Theorized secret: There may or may not be an actual secret TO expose. Project Blackbook, Roswell.
    Really secret secret: where nobody but the folks holding the secret KNOW there is a secret. Like that little old lady in the UK who passed away, and when they went through her belongings they found her service revolver and found out she hadn’t been a secretary, she’d been some kind of secret squirrel job. Nobody had a clue, and even the post-death thing only takes it to the Known Secret level.

    1. Peter Whimsy in one of Sayer’s books was arguing crime stats, and pointed out that in addition to the unsolved murders there’s an unknown number of unidentified murders.

  4. Gossip also becomes a way to bring up controversial things to a more vicious, backstabby in-group, safely removed with a layer of plausible deniability.

    “A friend was talking about…and they said/did/thought…”

    If the group accepts and mulls over it, then this is redundant, but if they violently reject it, the questioner can still prove ingroupness by denying the friend. “Yeah, he’s pretty crazy, isn’t he? I don’t even know why I put up with him!” Followed by a nervous laugh.

    And then there’s the infamous “Asking for a friend.” Okay, not sure how infamous that is outside of aviation, but when dealing with potentially capricious bureaucrats (who, historically, often aren’t, but a few bad apples ruin careers willy-nilly) and a labyrinthian set or conflicting regulations… a high percentage of questions to authority start with “Asking for a friend”, for a fig leaf of plausible deniability.

    “So, asking for a friend, if someone were to develop asthma, could they still keep their second-class medical? No? Oh, bummer, guess I’ll have to tell my friend. No, I’ve never been diagnosed! I’m fine!”

    Pilots gossip a lot – my husband was surprised at how much we gossip, but it’s a great way to pass on vital information right along with the trivial fluff. You know, vital things like which airport has good food, where to get cheap gas, where has great ground service, the way the MU-2 has to be flown fast, because it gets squirrely at the bottom edge of the envelope, the way Mystic Pass tends to develop weather in the middle even when it’s clear at both ends, which brand of bug dope works great but takes the colour right off airplane interiors, too!

    1. … which airports the Feds like to visit to do “surprise” ramp checks. (I see two guys in ties and no corporate jet. FAA ramp check in three, two…), Where not to get the $75 hamburger, if the officially open runway is still closed, what did become of That Dude, the one with the Problem (yeah, him,) and if it’s safe to go back to his airport, if the sign about the golf-balls at Thermopolis is a joke (no, it’s not.) You know, vital-to-safety stuff.

  5. There is a sin called detraction, which means saying true things that people don’t have a right to know, or just in order to hurt someone. I think this helps to sort out gossip, and it takes care of the situation where someone repeats something nasty and then insists she didn’t really believe it.

    My mother who never repeated anything any one told her, claimed that Emily Dickinson said, “The suburbs of a secret
    The strategist will keep.”

    And since my November effort at writing was 30,000 words about a school teacher, it does feature a whole episode about gossip….

    1. No idea if Dickinson said it, but it’s good advice. The Navy calls it “sensitive information”– stuff that isn’t secret, but might with a bunch of other not-secret stuff let folks get the shape of a secret.

    2. A whole lot of “journalism” these days seems to be reporting on what someone claimed with no real attempt to determine if it is true or not. Or making a news story out of “people are afraid of the draft” and making the fear the story rather than even addressing the actual likelihood of there ever being a draft.

  6. “We humans are, as a rule, ridiculously bad at keeping secrets.”

    Which is why I’m very suspicious of conspiracy theories.

    1. But there is strong evidence, as seen in court, that the mafia at least existed, even if there isn’t scientific proof.

    2. Well, yes. My personal rule for apparent conspiracy is that if the same outcome can be explained by stupidity – even if it requires breath-taking, gob-smacking stupidity of the sort that facepalms and head->desks can’t even – go with stupidity every time.

      Also known as “Sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice.”

    3. I thought I was suspicious of conspiracy theories. Then one of my husband’s acquaintances went off the deep end and started sending him videos and websites for nearly every half-brained idea anyone’s ever had.

      Now… I’m wondering if I need a new term in order to separate out the halfway reasonable, milquetoast conspiracies (JFK assassination, moon landing, etc) and the purely, completely crackers (every country in the world has been conspiring to keep safe, lossless, can’t-be-used-for-war nuclear under wraps so we can all make bombs, which conspiracy is all tied up with how the US bullies every oil producer who might disrupt US energy hegemony into accepting US dollars for fuel, and this is allowing a global top-down elite to install 5G telephones to give everyone cancer, and there’s documentation of all of this which is why they had to blow up the Oklahoma City state building, the Pentagon, etc, and we know all of this because the CIA tried to kill this guy when he refused to accept the contract to blow up these things and Ayn Rand and Oppenheimer met once and…)

      (…yeah. I’m not sure how accurately I’m actually transcribing–this sort of crazy tends to run together–but trust me when I say the “time zones are made up so that the airlines can rip you off” is downright sensible by comparison.)

      1. I think conspiracies are real, and that there are loads of them, but the vast majority will only become known once they’re ancient history – if then

        Any actual conspiracy bruted widely, is a distraction and any true elements are pure happenstance.

        Great for plots and Game settings though.

  7. Way back when I had a job that required a Top Secret clearance. I was never actually working the particular part of it that had access to anything interesting but I still got the briefings and they tended to go like this… tell people you’re “admin”. If anyone asks what you do, say that you’re “admin” you make coffee and type up forms, because if you say that you’re a “communications operator” they know what you might have access to. And you never talk about what you did or didn’t do at work, not even when you made coffee and typed up forms, because if you usually talk about your job and then you *stop* talking about your job, then people know you have a secret.

    What’s sort of funny is that now I’ve got a private sector job that’s almost as hush-hush. There’s a geology seminar I’d sort of like to go to but the subject matter is almost too much to the point and I wonder (and I’m sure that my boss does, too) if someone would notice.

    1. My husband and I were on a Navy ship, in the Indian ocean, and had clearances– duh, like most of the ship did.

      We both got (different) geekdoms that MIGHT suggest we were involved in high clearance stuff we weren’t, and while I don’t have a clearance anymore he could be looked at funny for that– but if he suddenly stopped, that would be a thing, too. Especially since he did it across multiple jobs.

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