Confidentiality of Communication

Communication between any two people must always be confidential. This is such a natural thing, that it is remarkable so few people understand this or appreciate this. It is an indisputable fact, however, that people who cannot keep a confidence usually come to grief.

There are several reasons that people who really value communication, prefer to keep it discreet. To understand this, we must first understand what communication itself really is.

What is Communication

Most people think of communication as an exchange of information. Whether that information is something important like my future plans, or whether it is mundane, like the movie I watched last night, all these are pieces of information. In some cases, the information may be speculative, like whether it will rain today or not. In other cases, it might even be patently false, like I might lie to you about what I like to eat. Whether true or false, important or unimportant, these are all pieces of information.

But if we were just exchanging information with each other, why can’t we simply just write it down, in say a blog, and let anyone read it at their leisure? Or even simpler, write it on a post-it, and then just throw away the pile of post-its at the end of the week? Or, to put it another way, why are Newspapers not considered a means of communication in the usual sense? (If I read an editorial and then claim to have talked to the editor, most people would consider me crazy.)

This shows that there is something more to communication. And that “more” is the feeling that is attached to it, the particular interpretation that we give to facts and events. In fact, it would not at all be inaccurate to say, that communication is more about these nuances – the interpretations, the pauses, the emphasis – than it is about the facts themselves.

On Sarcasm

This is easy to see, in fact. Consider for instance sarcasm. Here, we say one thing, but mean completely the opposite. See for instance, this excellent example,

“Sometimes I need what only you can provide: your absence.” – Ashleigh Brilliant

At first glance, it appears that the speaker is grateful. But in reality, he is being contemptuous. How does a single sentence convey such a range of meanings?

Fundamentally, sarcasm relies on a kind of mimicry. To construct sarcasm we mimic the grammatical and sentence structure of a more usual exchange. For instance, consider the sentence,

“Sometimes I need what only you can provide: your love.”

This sentence differs from the preceding one in just one word – and yet, unless delivered with a sarcastic tone – most people would consider it an expression of love.

So that is the first thing – that sarcasm copies. It is a mimicry of language itself.

We mimic sentence structures and words, but use it in a different setting. This unexpectedness often produces humor, which is the reason why sarcasm is often considered humorous. Like these examples:

“I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.” – Groucho Marx

“I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.” – Fred Allen

Sarcasm and Humor

But there is definitely more to sarcasm than just the humor. But let us just concentrate on this part first. Why does it arise – the humor?

Part of it arises from how sarcastic statements are constructed. This is the mimicry aspect  about which we talked about – about how the sentence appears to say one thing, but ends up saying something quite different. Something unexpected always makes us laugh. Surprises break the monotony of life, and make us happy, happiness that gets expressed as laughter.

Many people, especially children would consider this image of a chimp working on a typewriter funny. This is because most would wonder why a chimp would bother with a typewriter at all. There is an element of unexpectedness and surprise to it, which imparts humor to the whole situation.

But there is more to humor than surprise.

Consider for example, how few people are known to have laughed in the midst of a robbery or terror attack. For sure, these events too are surprises and unexpected. Even general human clumsiness might occur in such situations as well. Yet this surprise or clumsiness does not generate any humor.

On the other hand, when one is with friends and family, one tends to laugh even though nothing humorous may be going on in the usual sense. Why?

This is because people tend to laugh only when they feel safe. Humor is something that people indulge in when they are relaxed, and in fact, only when they are relaxed.

The secret of sarcasm

And this also reveals to us another aspect of why sarcasm is considered funny. The fact is, the structure of sarcasm itself is such that it also relaxes us, puts us at ease.

To see this, let me draw attention again to the fact of how sarcasm mimics usual grammatical structure. Why does it do this?

You see, the mimicry of usual grammatical structure is essential to sarcasm. For it creates an element of not only unexpected surprise, which is crucial to humor, but also the element of stealth. And this is what I’m onto now.

Consider again, our first example,

“Sometimes I need what only you can provide: your absence.” – Ashleigh Brilliant

Here, until we reach that last word – we have no clue whats coming next. As we saw earlier, if that word were “love”, for example, the sentence would have quite a different meaning.

And in this stealth, something else is created – a trust. Mimicry of usual grammar creates a kind of secret bond between the speaker and the listener. It is a secret code – an inside joke – I “get it” because I know you, I won’t if I didn’t.

To see this, consider what one could call “Stronger” examples of sarcasm – in all of these, the element of stealth is heightened even further:

[When something bad happens] “That’s just what I need, great! Terrific!”

[When you expected something to happen, especially after warning someone about it] “Well what a surprise!”


In both these examples, it is, in fact, impossible to judge sarcasm or its absence by simply reading the sentence. That is why, we put the situation in square brackets – without that context, these phrases are just like any other.

And this is where the aspect of confidence comes in – for unless I know the speaker intimately, I would not know what she considers bad. Only when I know something bad has happened, and she says “Terrific!” does the sarcasm work. Even if I did know what had happened, but was unaware of how she felt towards it, the sarcasm would not work.

Sarcasm is crucially dependent on us knowing and being able to relate to the person making the sarcastic comment. It is this background that generates the element of surprise. We know that the words & actions of the person are not in consonance; this mismatch generates the humor. If we simply knew the facts, but yet were unable to fathom how the other person “felt” about these facts, sarcasm would not work.

And so too for all of Communication!

Ultimately, if we think about it, this is what communication is all about – being able to relate to other people, and about making ourselves relate-able. It is an attempt always to understand what the other person feels, and an attempt at exposing our own feelings, ambitions and fears.

But Beware!

The world, however, is a much more complicated place than that. And that is simply because we do not keep all people equidistant from ourselves. No – we have all kinds of relationships – we have parents, significant others, brothers and sisters – some older than us, some younger, we have colleagues, old friends with whom we just like to keep in touch, current friends, who are our co-conspirators, immediate bosses, and so on.

And with each of these people, we reveal a different aspect of our personality, a different side of ourselves.

  • We do not reveal our porn to our parents.
  • We do reveal our secrets to our partners.
  • We do not reveal our secret hopes to a man on the street.

These differences do not at all mean that we lie – it just means that we relate to different people in different ways. We do not look upon our boss the same way we look upon our brother, upon our sister the same way we look upon our wife, upon our friend the same way we look upon on our colleague in the next cubicle. Even though each of these relationships are important to us, they are not the same thing.

Good fences make good neighbors

One can think of all the different people in our lives as our neighbors – teachers, bosses, old friends and new, significant others, parents – all these people are indisputably a part of our life – even though some of us are closer to us physically than others. And just as from the beginning of time to now, good fences always make good neighbors.

The Berlin Wall. While definitely a hated structure in its time, we should not forget that it kept the peace between the two Germany’s for over 40 years. With clearly demarcated boundaries both sides felt safer from the other.

How to have good relationships

At the end of the day, all we really want is to have good relationships with all the people in our lives – whether it is our parents, our siblings, our partners, our friends or our professional collaborators. But there are two problems to this.

  • Each of these people make conflicting demands on our time.
  • Each of these people often want to have very close relationships with us.

In fact, if one is a likable person – as in fact, each of us should aspire to be – then we will naturally attract people. But given that there are only 24 hours in a day, are we then to start ignoring our partners, our parents, friends as we separate? Are we then to become just a particle of dust in the air, floating around from here to there, with no ability to give ourselves direction, simply because we are so liked?

No! We need to be able to give ourselves direction; it is in fact a necessity!

The way to reconcile these things is effective communication. And communication, as we saw, is only partly about the exchange of information – it is about creating a secret bond, a confidence, a pact.

In other words, we do need lies in our relationships – not big ones – just the teeny tiny ones.

  • I agree with my boss on how basketball is a great sport, when in fact, I detest it.
  • I pretend to be a Liberal when I’m with colleagues, but with friends, I’m a conservative.
  • I allow my parents to bitch about technology, when in fact, I love it.

None of these are really lies in a sense – what I’m really trying to do is create a bond between myself and these people – for the moment, I’m pretending to be someone else, just so that I can be friends with this person. And I think, that’s just politeness – after all, being friends with someone, and not being unpleasant is the least I can do – I’m just being civilized.

Why Secrets?

Ultimately, what this accomplishes is a series of partitions in our lives.

And these sets of partitions are what enable us to be happy – happy in our parents’ company, happy in the company our friends, happy in our professional environment. For happiness is not something you delay, for the weekend, for when you retire, or some late hour of night. No! Happiness is something you need to be able experience all the time in all situations. A delayed happiness is no happiness at all.

The India – Pakistan border. The entire border is floodlit so that the boundary between the two countries is visible from space. The flood lights ensure that even at night, both countries have the confidence that neither is attempting to infiltrate or attack the other.

Learn to keep secrets

But the other aspect of these partitions is that there are secrets. My friends, for instance, know that I’m crazy about technology. But my parents feel happy to share their tech troubles with me, and to bitch about them to me. And by indulging in this bitching, I make friends with my parents, and achieve happiness for both themselves, and myself.

Now if my friends were to tell my parents about my tech prowess – do you think that my relationship could continue as before?

All this will accomplish is a lot of heart-ache and pain – and for what reason? If I bitch about technology for an hour a day – do I break some holy oath? There has to be perspective – ultimately technology is not all that its touted to be, people both old and young have problems with it. I may be good at it, but I can certainly relate to someone else who is not so good at it. What’s the big deal?

To take another scenario, I may curse my boss all day, but whenever I’m with him / her, I’m the best behaved person on all the planet. This way, I achieve happiness for both of us – professional peace and good relations. But if that same person were to start standing outside my house, listening to me speak in the privacy of my home – a boundary is crossed. And it will be painful not only for me, but also for the person who did this.

Man at the library
Part of being an adult is being able to manage relationships, and giving others the freedom to manage theirs. In particular, we should be objectively able to estimate our own position in another person’s lives, and if we are not their significant others, we should ourselves try to keep a distance. Boundaries, once established, must be respected for happiness to reign.

golden-gooseUltimately, all we really want to say is a very simple thing – don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. People who bring happiness in our lives are rare. Value them, cherish them. But never presume too much on your friendship with them. For indeed, it might all be an act, and were the curtain to be lifted, the truth may turn out be something entirely different – something you may not be able to bear.

Secrets are Useful!

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