Conversations About Others

A woman is seated with her preteen daughter having lunch. At an adjourning table is a man having lunch with his two preteen daughters. The adults exchange pleasantries about how they will both remember back to how fleeting was the time they had raising their children. The father says something about his daughter. The woman says to him that his daughter could remind him that she was sitting there. The daughter scrunches her shoulder to indicate she had heard both her father’s remark and the woman’s remark. The father says “She knows”, which indicates that his daughter both knows that what he was saying was innocuous and that she knows the rule of social behavior that says you do not talk about people as if they were not there. So I was in the presence of what can be considered a very strange yet necessary custom or social construction, which is that we do not engage in talk about people as if they were not there because, in general, we do not reveal what other people say to us about third parties to those third parties. Sometimes there are exceptions. You can confide in a close friend what a girl said about him because you think he is entitled to know that she dissed him and that loyalty overcomes the general rule. On the other hand, you convey what a third party said about someone even if it is insulting because you yourself are so angry with the person you are talking to that you will let out the information. What is most interesting about this custom, rule, or social construction, or whatever else you choose to call it, is not its exceptions but how it contributes to our understanding of how people manage to deal with one another by setting up limits to behavior so as to cope with the fact that people are inherently unknowable to one another except through words and so have to simplify what might otherwise be a kaleidoscope of information coming at them in any number of directions. People are rational and so they protect themselves so that they can each individually prosper as conscious entities.

Here is an example of when the third party rule does not apply. Friends can think that whatever was said in confidence to a close friend might well have been told to a spouse. Married people are free to exchange confidences entrusted to them to their spouses and a friend cannot regard the revealed communication as sacrosanct, even if it is about very delicate matters such as sex or having committed illegalities. This is the social equivalent to the spousal privilege awarded by the law. Husband and wife  cannot be forced to testify about what they have learned within the marital bond about their spouses. Similarly, spouses are relieved of the need to maintain the confidentiality of what they are told by third parties because the openness within the marital bond is taken as having a kind of sacred priority. It is no wonder, then, that breeches of confidentiality take place among friends who are considered usually trustworthy but only have to meets standards of friendship rather than the more absolute standards of spouses.

Imagine if this rule/custom/convention/structure whereby people keep confidences were not in place. Then everybody would know everybody’s business because people would nonchalantly pass on whatever they had heard. There would be no privacy and there would be a group mentality, all people onto everyone else and so there would be the creation of a group mind or a single mind, as that is known to philosophers. We would be in the kingdom of the Borg or the hive mind where no one had a mind of his or her own because everyone’s thoughts so fully infect everyone else. If this seems an exaggeration, then consider what happens when the rule is violated. A friend passes on to you that a girl who is just a friend of yours thinks you are cute. That is an acceptable privileged communication because it might spur you on to ask her for a date. On the other hand, what if a friend told you that a girl she knows and all the other people in the crowd thought you were gross but did not have the nerve to tell you but were laughing behind your back anyway? Then you would be indeed deflated, have your self image injured, and not want to appear in public again. Out of gaggles of pre-teen girls experimenting with how far they can break the rule of keeping confidences arises teenage suicides, which is not much different from what Iago does when he tells Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Why would he say such a thing if it were not true? Iago appears to be a friend of his. Iago not only betrays Othello; he does so by violating the principle that would protect Othello. Why Othello trusts Iago in the first place remains a mystery in that Iago has been bad mouthing him since the first scene in the play, announcing that he is a villian out to find bad things to do to Othello and looking for a way to do so. But Othello trusts Desdemona to the care of Iago’s wife. Othello is blind to how badly people might treat him however much he goes on about how hard a time of it he has as a Moor. What Shakespeare does is find Othello’s vulnerability not only in his character but as well in the way in which the rule that one does not speak badly in front of people about even and especially their loved ones can be violated and cause incredible harm.

A real life example of the same phenomenon of people not confiding what they say about others except under extraordinary circumstances is available from political history. When FDR communicated by letter with Winston Churchill, they both referred to Joseph Stalin as “Uncle Joe”. They trusted that these communications would not be intercepted and that neither one of them would betray the confidence that Stalin was being treated so derisively, though Stalin would not have thought much about the mild insult and presumed, anyway, that FDR and Churchill were ganged up against him. But the correspondents were speaking slightingly of their supposed ally and their relation to him was not, as it is with Trump, just a matter of name calling. They had more important issues at stake. Nevertheless, they were mildly breaking a rule of conduct whereby you try to be respectful of the people who are your mutual interlocutors, the people who are the third parties not in the room, just as you are both polite to the people who are in the room and so do not act as if they were not there which, if it were the case, would allow you to say things you would not otherwise say because you know that your confidence will be respected.

Violations of what might be called the rule of non-disclosure occur all the time but they are still violations because they are recognized as such and people are called upon to judge whether the violation is justified or not. A friend tells a friend that an old girlfriend had said nasty things about him that did indeed point out one or more weaknesses of character. Should the friend have told these tales out of school? Perhaps yes, if the motive had been to convince his friend that the relationship was indeed over, in which case the teller of tales was trying to do his friend a favor though at the risk of hurting his feelings, while if the tale were told just to get a rise out of him, then it would be unwarranted, the gratuitous infliction of pain, which is just the thing that the non-disclosure rule is designed to avoid. If a friend tells another friend that some other friend never said or says a bad word about him, then that may be a forgivable violation of the disclosure rule because it will make the absent person look better rather than worse, but it may be hurtful because it makes the absent person morally superior. It all gets very complicated when you get down to cases and people are forever taking slights from inadvertent comments or saying things that they don’t know might be taken as slights. People might take that as an instruction never to say anything when all it means is that the safe way to proceed is to honor the rule of non-disclosure unless one has good reason not to.

There is therefore no need to distinguish the various things that non-disclosure might be. It is a custom in that we learn it young and persist in obeying it because not to do so seems dishonorable or even shameful. It is a moral rule because society would not be able to proceed without such an injunction. It is a convention because it is always being constructed and reconstructed, recognized for its usefulness in the course of everyday behavior even if it does not have a name. It is part of social structure because it is a stable aspect of social life that makes sense in the context of all the other structures that characterize social life, such as friendship and gender, girls keeping one another’s secrets, for example. And that is perhaps is the way it is with all social phenomena: that they are customs, morals, conventions and social structures, the difference is only a matter of which tradition, whether anthropological or philosophical or sociological, generated the term, all attesting to the fact that people choose what they will do in their interactions even though they fall back on time tested ways of doing things because they either are unwilling to test authority or, even more likely, just can’t think of a fresh way of proceeding. We are “prisoners” of custom and social structure only in that we freely adopt them.

There are other such rules of verbal etiquette which structure social interaction and make it recognizable for what it is. For example, we are all reticent about sexual and bathroom practices, disclosing these to spouses but not to friends, even if Freud tried to break that taboo at least within the confines of the psychoanalytic interchange between patient and doctor. That was a radical enough step to get Freud seen as something of an outlaw, though apparently Viennese and other late Victorian doctors found ways to convey that they might stimulate their female patients to orgasm as a therapeutic measure. Freud remains with us as a student and practitioner of the breaking of conventions because his insights have not grown stale, people regarding what he said as old hat but, rather, newly offended when his insights are invoked. That suggests that he was on to something.