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Seven times when it’s OK to keep a secret

Secrets can be slippery things. They have a tendency to get out, and trying too hard to keep them can push us into telling lies. But, as Mark Tully asks in Something Understood: is openness always the best option, or can keeping secrets sometimes be justified?

Psychologists have found that thinking about the secrets we’re keeping can make us less happy, and may even affect our physical health. So clearly, where possible, letting the truth out – or refusing to keep a secret – is often a wise idea. But this isn’t always the case.

1. When it’s nobody else’s business

No one needs to know about our embarrassing habits and private quirks unless we want them to. You might be a secret Jedward fan, perhaps you dance a Tudor jig each morning when you get up, or maybe you’re irrationally afraid of mushrooms. Whatever your idiosyncrasies, as long as they’re not harming anyone they’re no one’s business but your own.

2. When a friend tells you something in confidence

If we agree to keep information private for a friend, it’s a good idea to stay true to our word. Breaking a friend’s trust by telling others their secrets can damage your relationship forever. What’s worse is that even if you only tell one person, once the secret’s out of your hands you can’t stop it spreading.

This idea was illustrated particularly publicly when JK Rowling’s crime writing alias Robert Galbraith was revealed on Twitter in 2013. The closely guarded secret had only been known to ‘a handful’ of people. But when one of Rowling’s lawyers let it slip to his wife’s best friend, it wasn’t long before the world knew.

Nibbles doesn't think it's any business of his friends that he needs reading glasses.

3. When it’s a trade secret

Many businesses rely on secret formulas to give them a competitive edge over others. Coca-Cola is famed for keeping its recipe highly confidential. Only a tiny number of trusted employees know the formula, which is written on a piece of paper and kept in a locked vault.

Google is similarly secretive about the highly complex code behind its search algorithm, Hummingbird, which dictates whether websites get thousands of views or disappear into obscurity, depending on their ranking in results.

It isn’t just businesses that rely on trade secrets for their success. Legendary magician Harry Houdini built a career by concealing how he achieved incredible feats of ‘magic’. From escaping a straitjacket while hanging upside down, to unshackling his limbs and finding his way out of a dead whale, Houdini never revealed how he did it.

4. To protect yourself

Sharing personal, traumatic or difficult experiences with a counsellor, therapist or trusted confidant can be psychologically helpful. But it’s also important that we’re able to hold onto our own secrets until we’re ready to disclose them.

The mental health charity Mind says it’s OK to try therapy or counselling at any point in our lives. Before embarking on it, they say it’s a good idea to ask ourselves: “Am I ready to explore my feelings and behaviour?”; “Do I feel able to open up about things that are very personal or hard to talk about?”; and “Is there anything else I need to get help with first?”.

5. When you’re planning a surprise

Surprise birthday parties or gifts, can be very welcome and show that person just how much you care. (But make sure you check that the person you're planning a surprise for actually likes surprises). Committed romantic Mark Crayford spent six months secretly learning to ride a horse, and sourced a suit of armour from Germany, so that he could propose to his girlfriend dressed as a knight in shining armour. Unfortunately for Mark, he fell off as he dismounted, making it a slightly less elegant affair than planned. But Tracey still said yes, and she had no qualms about her fiance’s secrecy: “It is amazing... I knew nothing about it,” she told a news reporter. “You have got to say that it is a very romantic gesture.”

6. When delicate negotiations are happening

The early stages of international negotiations around issues such as peace and security are often kept secret so that both sides are able to speak more openly. As Dr Patricia Lewis, Research Director for International Security at the think tank Chatham House explains, by talking at all the two sides are often “taking enormous political risk.” And as a result, “to know that they can explore possibilities without being exposed is very important.”

Gary loves surprise parties.

7. To keep people safe

During World War II, many people carried huge secrets to protect others. In Nazi-occupied Denmark, the Kieler family helped smuggle 1,000 Jewish people to safety in Sweden as part of the resistance organisation Holger Danske.

In a single weekend, young Elsebet Kieler travelled all over Denmark secretly collecting over a million kroner (the equivalent of $168,000 today) in donations from supporters. The cash was used to bribe soldiers, and pay fishermen to carry concealed groups of Jewish people on the perilous sea crossing to Sweden.

Secrets can sometimes be vitally important when national security is at stake. We’ll probably never know how many terrorist plots have been thwarted thanks to covert investigations by MI5 and the police. But those that have been made public show just how vital secrecy can be when it comes to the security services, with long periods of time spent monitoring and uncovering plans in order to save hundreds, and even thousands of lives.