When Should I Tell A Friend’s Secret?

Q. Is it ever appropriate to spill a friend’s secret? 

A. Think back to fifth grade, when Jennifer Green told your crush that you liked him. It felt mortifying, right? You wanted to crawl under a rock. And Jennifer Green was from then on barred from your sleepover parties. To this day, you don’t even want to be her Facebook friend.

Things aren’t much different for adults. That’s because breaking a confidence—even one concerning the most trivial of topics—can destroy the trust in a relationship. As an example, I’ll share the story of my (formerly) secret beef barley soup.

I have a friend who likes to make soup. Her soup is OK. But mine is great. “Oh, your soup is so much more delicious than mine,” she would often say, wistfully. “Please, please, tell me how you do it.”

“Promise not to tell anyone else?” I asked.

“Not a soul, ever,” she said. I believe she went so far as to cross her heart, playground-style.

I leaned in. I looked over my shoulder to make sure no soup-loving spies were lurking in the vicinity. Then I whispered: “I buy ‘homemade’ stock. It’s the expensive kind that the gourmet market sells.”

At my next dinner party, as I was ladling soup to serve a roomful of guests, including this friend, she spoke up loudly from the end of the table: “Oh, Michelle, is this the soup you make with the stock from that fancy food place?”

Reader, I think we can all agree that the soup secret was one she should have kept. And I’ll tell you another thing: If I live to be 100, she will not get my chicken noodle recipe.

OK, so maybe this blown secret wasn’t worth losing sleep over. But that’s not the point. Nine times out of 10, whether a secret is insignificant or life-altering, you should keep it to yourself. The exceptions? If the secret involves a major ethical breach or could truly cause harm to someone. Let’s consider two possible examples.

Your cubicle-mate admits to you that she lied on her expense reports. You can’t keep this to yourself. For one thing, her actions could hurt the company. Plus, you risk guilt by association if it comes out later that you knew all along. I realize this may make for a terribly awkward conversation, but you need to let her know that the manager will be informed of this wrongdoing—by her or by you.

You also need to take an unpopular stance if your friend tells you she has been drinking excessively and doesn’t want her husband or kids to know. Tell her, gently but firmly, “This is not a secret I am willing to keep. You may be endangering yourself or others if you drink and drive. Either you open up to your family or I will have to tell them the truth.” You won’t win any awards from your friend, but you may save her life.