Shhh! Don’t Tell Anyone…

“Can I tell you a secret?”

According to some experts, these six words will turn an acquaintanceship into a friendship. Self-disclosure, they say, is the defining trait of BFFs.

When a new friend trusts you with private information, it’s flattering. Clearly she thinks you are good stock. Reliable. Loyal. She sees a future in your relationship.

Sometimes I think I should spew out secrets to everyone I meet. It could speed up our bonding process. Except for one small problem: I don’t really have any secrets.

I’ve noticed, however, that when there’s a promising connection with a new friend, I’m more willing to mention my father’s death. I don’t go out of my way to bring it up, but I don’t avoid the topic either. When a girl-date is going just ok, I fear that kind of info might halt the already forced conversation.

Though the fact that my father died is clearly not a secret, it’s a personal memory that I only share when I’m comfortable with someone. That single piece of info doesn’t catapult us to capital F Friendship, but I think it makes clear to my friend-suitor that I feel like I can talk to her.

But there’s another side to this coin: When someone reveals the most intimate details of her life upon first meeting, there’s part of me that wonders, “Why are you telling me this? I hardly even know you.” Is there a too soon for self-disclosure?

I recently came across an old New York Times essay by Ann Patchett (whose friendship memoir Truth & Beauty is on my to-read list) about Sex and the City, and whether the ladies’ close friendships are realistic. She writes, “That’s my idea of real intimacy: It’s not the person who calls to say, ‘I’m having an affair'; it’s the friend who calls to say, ‘Why do I have four jars of pickles in my refrigerator?’” This sentence sums up what I am looking for in a local BFF better than anything I’ve ever written. I don’t need someone with whom to discuss the deep stuff—it’s the minutiae I’m interested in.

Sometimes it takes talking about everything to get to the place where we can talk about nothing.

What do you think? Is self-disclosure the fastest route to friendship? Or should we hold off from revealing too much until we’ve reached a certain level of intimacy – a three-date rule, perhaps? Also, do you agree with Ann Patchett’s definition of friendship intimacy?

17 Comments

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17 responses to “Shhh! Don’t Tell Anyone…

  1. Oh my gosh, this made me laugh. I agree with Patchett! I always think about that Sex and the City episode where Miranda eats cake that she’s thrown in the trash and then calls Carrie to admit the shame.

    THAT is the kind of friend I want!

  2. Suzannah

    the only problem, I have encounted with sharing the intimate situations of your life or hearing the struggles others have had is……people have strong opinions on how to handle most problems….and while a person is still making an opinion regarding your character, you can share something, that they disagree how you handle the situation….
    Recently a lady was opening up about her child’s struggle with drugs in front of a small group of other moms, you could see some agreed with her choices – some not…but none of us really knew her well enough to really have an understanding of her decisions….so my point, her sharing, I felt, stunted some budding friendships….
    Another thought provoking post, Rachel!!!

  3. I always feel closer to someone who knows they can seriously confide in me, but having a friend with whom I can randomly burst into songs from that week’s episode of Glee, or exchange nonsense text messages, is the real “stuff.” I love it all.

    (Truth and Beauty is one of my very favorite memoirs. At the end of it I wanted so much more.)

  4. Ana

    I have to say that oversharing can make me uncomfortable & turn me away from a potential BFF when done too soon. There is, indeed, a time & a place for such confessions. Mentioning the death of a parent, to me, doesn’t count as “oversharing”. Nor is revealing that you have an illness, for example. It is a fact of your life; it happened, and there is nothing to be ashamed of or secretive about. Telling me, when I hardly know you, that you are thinking of cheating on your husband (seriously) with a co-worker & then proceeding to vent your feelings about your marriage & discuss your complex psychological issues..TMI, too soon. You need to really know someone’s character before you can respond to something like that with empathy and without judgment.

    • san

      Although in general, I agree with you, Ana, that mentioning a parent’s death or revealing that you have an illness, shouldn’t count as “oversharing”, I do believe that those kinds of information should be saved until you know someone better.
      It might turn potential friendships into never taking off… just because the other person might feel overwhelmed.

  5. Thank you for the great book reference! I clicked and ordered it within a minute! Not that I have time to read it right now, during my hectic last semester of grad school, but it will go on the stack of ‘to read for fun’ books that I cannot wait to start once school reading is out fo the way! If I get to it before you I’ll let you know how it is :)

  6. Lorrie Paige

    I read Patchett’s, Truth & Beauty, years ago and it remains my favorite book on friendship. Last year, I saw an off-off Broadway type of play here in Portland, OR based on her book! I LOVED it! I’d see it again.

    BTW, those who have read the book, and especially those who have not, you may want to first read, what I would call the prerequisite book to Truth & Beauty, and that’s Patchett’s late best friend Lucy Grealy’s book, Autobiography of a Face, which talks a lot about her medical issues, and how she meets Ann Patchett….When I also heard about Grealy’s book, I didn’t read Patchett’s until I read Grealy’s first. I’m glad I did, as it served to understand a bit more about their unique and rare relationship prior to reading Truth & Beauty.

    I totally agree with Patchett’s statement, and with people like her and you Rachel, I feel better at holding on to my high friendship standards in my search for genuine friends. Others (including my boyfriend) have told me I’m too idealistic and friendships like that only exist in Hollywood films.. It can grow weary…but people like you give me hope. :)

    Regarding disclosing real private things to potential friends…Hmmm…Tough question. I think it depends on what kind of private matter it is and the person you’re talking to. If you were to meet a very outgoing, lively person, you can probably say anything private to this person and they wouldn’t judge–they may even like you more for being so open so soon! More subdued, quiet people, and you sense are the serious type, you may want to hold back on some private matters, especially if it’s controversial.

    I don’t mind early disclosure, and often do so myself depending on the sense I get from the person.

  7. Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors. On a side note, check out Bel Canto if you ever get a chance. Truth and Beauty is written well, but painful to see their process.

    I seek friendships that are deeper, wanting to confide and depend on that particular friend for more than just everyday stuff. I’ve learned though that through the years, you have different degree of friendships – you have friends that you just hang out with and friends that you can confide in – they may not be the same person. All friendships are not made equal. Different friendships speak to different parts of our personalities.

  8. I majored in Communication in college and disclosure/bonding one of the topics I studied. Opening up to someone helps them open up to you. But of course this depends on the context of the situation, the subject matter of the disclosure etc etc. There are certain topics that I don’t feel comfortable discussing until I know I can truly trust someone.

  9. I found the blog through BGSK, and this post was very meaningful to me personally.

    I agree that mentioning a parent’s death is not something to hide, but I’d never mention my own dad’s death to someone I wasn’t too sure about. I kind of think of it as a bruise that’s never quite healed, and I would never want to give someone I don’t feel certain of a map of all my vulnerable places if that makes sense. I’m so lucky to have a BFF that I can (and do) call about the ridiculous contents of my fridge, among many other things. I met her shortly after my dad’s death, so she was my first experience of sharing that. I shared it very early on, and she’s been my rock, right down to sharing his anniversary with me and helping me through it.

    Also, I loved Truth & Beauty, but would not have enjoyed it half as much without having first read Autobiography of a Face. So I would definitely recommend reading Grealy first.

    I love this blog – it’s definitely going to be in my regular rotation!

    • Lorrie Paige

      I think if Lucy Grealy was alive and wrote that book today, it would be called, “Memoir of a Face”.

      I don’t think the word “Autobiography” is used anymore.

      I’m glad you enjoyed both books.

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