Introvert Superpower #4: Keeping Secrets
The fourth post in a series on introvert strengths, delving into why introverts are particularly good at not broadcasting other people’s secrets.
“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1753. Perhaps we should update Franklin’s witticism as follows: “Three may keep a secret, if all three of them are introverts.”
According to Columbia University psychologist Michael Slepian, who has surveyed more than 50,000 people in the last decade about the secrets they keep, introverts do indeed outshine extroverts in guarding information that was confided to them. In our tell-all world, this difference is significant. As with my previous posts about the introvert superpowers of creativity, listening and trustworthiness, let’s list some reasons why introverts enjoy this safe-vault advantage.
The Introvert Edge on Secret Keeping
1. Introverts don’t blab. People who feel compelled to keep talking in almost any situation or who often speak without thinking usually are extroverts. For introverts, maintaining a stream of inconsequential chatter requires strain and effort. When more intention is directed at what gets said, secrets are much less likely to spill out along with general blather. In Stephen Booth’s crime novel, Fall Down Dead, a police inspector reflects on this personality difference in suspects:
“The quiet ones were often the most dangerous. It was harder to tell what they were thinking. He much preferred the suspects who found themselves in the interview room and couldn’t wait to spill their guts and tell their whole story. Sometimes they talked and talked and talked, and the difficulty was stopping them. It was as if they felt compelled to fill the silence of the room with all the stuff that was burning and seething inside their heads, waiting to get out.”
2. Introverts listen well. Because of our reflective nature, we pay close attention during heart-to-heart conversations. When someone says “Don’t tell anyone, but…,” that makes an impression. It’s not just a bunch of words. The same goes for a duty to guard secrets as a part of one’s job or a security clearance. Because introverts thoughtfully take in information and pause before we respond, we don’t readily blurt out other people’s confidences to score points as interpersonal gamesmanship. Research backs up the reputation introverts have for being better listeners.
3. Introverts value privacy. If you believe secrets are silly whims rather than treasures to respect, you’ll more readily reveal what others asked you to keep to yourself. On the other hand, research has found that introverts are more sensitive than extroverts to invasions of privacy. Privacy matters to us. As a marketing consultant and coach, I had many occasions to observe how important privacy was to introvert clients. A few felt me out on the topic before hiring me. Others explicitly asked me to keep confidential types of information most other people didn’t care about, such as what town they lived in. Still others told me they preferred one-on-one consultations to group coaching programs because they didn’t want even strangers to know their personal affairs. Because introverts viscerally feel violations of privacy, we carefully hold other people’s secrets too.
4. Introverts have an inner circle of intimates. Rather than sharing deep feelings with just anyone or a crowd, introverts distinguish between people we trust and those we view as mere acquaintances. Introverts “prefer to have fewer friends so they can invest more time in each,” says psychologist Robin Dunbar, who studies the dynamics of friendships. Introverts cherish quality time with fewer people, while extroverts enjoy socializing at large. Introverts tend to dislike “the more the merrier” situations. All this adds up to a style of interaction where introverts have fewer opportunities for other people’s secrets to leak out.
5. Introverts don’t seek drama. Extroverts are 11 percent more likely than introverts to thrive on drama, according to one study by a personality website, which explained that extroverts “tend to seek out dynamic external interactions, finding them energizing.” High-drama folks love to dish gossip. They exhibit “impulsive outspokenness… without regard to social consequences,” according to University of Texas researchers.
The Cost of Secret Keeping
Psychologist Michael Slepian notes, however, that we pay a price when we keep secrets. Holding information in out of feeling that it would be wrong to share it consumes energy. Spilling the secret would bring on relief, yet we may not allow ourselves that release of tension. The draining burden of self-monitoring increases as the stakes of the issue involved rise. Also, the more we have others’ secrets consciously in mind, says Slepian, the more burdensome our unobtrusively zipped up lips become.
Being determined not to share information that would interest others is also isolating. Keeping a confidence is especially hard if it involves someone with whom we often cross paths. Acting as if we don’t know what we do know can force us into uncomfortable situations and inauthenticity. A solitary secret keeper may also miss out on the social bonds that develop in a duo or trio who together know things others don’t.