“If you have one, you want to share it, but when you share it, you no longer have it.”
I’m not actually any kind of expert on how people tell each other secrets. My impression on the matter is based on a relatively small amount of observations of reality and fiction. That’s why this article won’t primarily be about what people usually do, but rather, in the philosopher’s manner, about what to think and do if someone acts in a certain way or you find yourself in a particular situation.
The possible situation that I want to talk about is of the following sort: A has some secret that she wants to keep, but it’s not secret enough that she wouldn’t want to share it with anyone at all. She tells it to B on the condition that B won’t tell it to anyone. But later, B would like to tell the secret to someone else as well for whatever reason. He thinks it will be all right as long as he tells it selectively only to C and D, as long as they also promise not to tell it to anyone else. But C and D think the same way as B, or perhaps they just don’t care as much because they don’t know A (or whomever the secret is about) so well. And the next thing you know, everyone knows the secret.
Okay. It should be clear what can be said about this. Firstly, if you promise not to tell something to anyone, that means that you break your promise if you tell anyone. It’s no use pretending that it makes a difference if you only tell it while saying that it must not be passed on — especially as you yourself are then setting an example on basis of which it can spread indefinitely in spite of promises. If you want an exception to your promise in order to tell a certain person, ask the person you promised for it. (The exception can, of course, on rare occasions be obvious for both of you, but that’s no excuse to be used at other times.)
Secondly, there’s no point passing on your secrets if you want them to remain secret, unless it’s to a person whom you can really trust and who you make sure understands the situation. This holds at least provided that my guess that the above described way of treating secrets is common is correct.
Thirdly, it could be pointed out that one shouldn’t even agree to listen to secrets about other people if it appears that the one whom it concerns would not like it made known. (The exception here is if it concerns misdeeds the person would like covered up that are not somehow so distant that bringing it up again is merely unfair.) If someone starts to say to me “I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but…” my response is often (should perhaps be even more often) “Well, don’t tell me, then.” One’s own curiosity is not more important than another’s privacy. Neither is the desire to pass on gossip. If you wouldn’t want it done to yourself, don’t do it to others.