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Careful whispers

Oversharing on social media is a daily ritual for nearly everyone. And yet, the space for us to unburden our secrets is shrinking. What is this paradox?

By Sanchita Guha

Published: Sat 27 Mar 2021, 7:34 PM

Occasionally, in the middle of a workday, I can feel my brain buffering. Actually buffering, the way we see the grey progress bar extending at the bottom of a YouTube video while ‘play’ is paused; we must wait until the video is ready to restart or it gets stuck again.

That’s what happens to my brain once in a while when I’ve just zipped between several digital devices: checked and responded to messages, taken a very quick peek at Facebook, Googled some information — and then got back to the work itself. At this point, the mind takes a few seconds to figure out where it wants to be. That’s probably a secret common to all of us multi-tasking freelancers, and it’s not one that we can reveal lightly, because in these days of 24x7 bright-eyed productivity, revealing a moment’s weakness isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. (Now that this particular secret has been spilled in public domain, I realise I may have just torpedoed my chances of presenting myself as a paragon of perfection at the next job interview.)

It shouldn’t be so hard to reveal such a normal human reaction to the nonstop information overload, and discuss it with friends in a way that benefits all of us — but the fact is that most of us tend to conceal our human frailties these days. Oddly, at the same time, we overshare on social networks, telling people randomly what we’re eating, drinking, buying — things that have no relevance to the lives of our friends and acquaintances, things that don’t engage them for a nanosecond longer than the time it takes to meaninglessly put a ‘Like’ on an already meaningless post.

What constitutes a secret for someone — other than really big life events and trauma that occur on every continent — depends on the societal, religious, cultural, and political subtext of their eco-system; but there’s little doubt that it’s good to have one or two people with whom to share what one feels about life, the universe and everything. However, everyone’s attention deficit, caused by the extreme impact of social networks on our mind — the constant scrolling makes all posts, and all that they want to say, pass by in a blur — has put paid to the kind of relationship stillness required for secrets to surface.

When we muster the courage to start saying something we’ve bottled up for long, our intended listener cuts us off; when the other person starts talking and tries to build a context before sharing a troubled thought, we cut them off. More often than not, our offline conversations mirror our online engagements: either distracted and hasty or quick to judge; or both. This discourages the revelation of secrets.

“You need a lot of pampering from the listener to reveal a secret to that person — and he or she should also not be judgemental,” says Sabarna Roy, India-based author and world traveller, and a civil engineer by profession. Bucking the general social media trend of always displaying ourselves only as shiny, happy, witty people, Sabarna has covered a wide spectrum in his Facebook posts: his literary successes and awards; his professional achievements; his contented family time; his outrage with political developments; and his low points of clinical depression.

As an author, he doesn’t lack the words to communicate his thoughts with clarity, but, over the past few years, he has noticed that his social media audience’s attention has dwindled. “I used to post on certain topics on Facebook because I was wary of bringing them up in the drawing room. Till about five years ago, they’d generate a lot of strong responses; over the past four years or so, I’ve been seeing responses that mean nothing, such as ‘superb write-up’ or something like that.”

His latest book, Fractured Mosaic, a sequel to Random Subterranean Mosaic, is perfect material for today’s readers. A collection of musings, very short stories, very short plays, poems, and published interviews, it has appealed greatly to a generation of readers who can spare only a small capsule of their concentration for anything at any given point of time. “Some readers have said, ‘You’ve developed this mosaic genre, which makes it easy to read’,” recalls Sabarna, adding that he has even been asked to include “a two-page crime thriller” in his writing repertoire.

Where’s the space for a secret to unfold over just two pages, for the author to create a complex world for the reader through his characters? The age of social media doesn’t seem to care: it has already invented the genre of six-word stories. The secrets in them are left entirely to the reader’s imagination.

There’s a bunch of secrets specific to social media’

“Our body language is no longer such that it invites the unburdening of secrets, because we just aren’t attentive enough,” says Sujata RoyChoudhury, practising psychologist, counsellor, and well-being consultant based in India. Our screen addiction, she points out, makes us restless, affecting our attention span and making us poor recipients of someone’s secret. It is as Sabarna says: hard to confide our deepest, most private thoughts in someone who’s always scrolling the phone.

The receding of much-needed conversations and mental spaces, in which one person could truly connect with the other, applies not only to unrelated people but also to members of the same family unit. “Before social media, parents gave more time to children, but now that’s no longer true. The child is just handed a device; this happens everywhere, and it has very negative mental health implications. The space for conversations is gone — and things will get worse,” says Sujata.

The carefully-curated image that we tend to project on social media has created a new category of secrets, believes the psychologist. “Big secrets like extra-marital affairs, crimes, debts are still not on social media, but there’s another bunch of secrets specific to social media. For instance, people posting carefree pictures of their children that actually took hours to plan. I may be posting something I’m not — I may project perfection, but the secret is that I’m not perfect; that creates the extra strain of keeping my imperfection away from everyone’s eyes. Earlier, when I was sad, I was sad. Now, when I’m sad, I still have to look happy, because what if people find out that I’m not happy?”

The life we construct on social networks, showing only the positives and being secretive about the negatives, may also reflect the essence of the saying ‘fake it till you make it’. “People have this need to portray what a blissful life they lead. I know those who are really struggling with their personal life, but you won’t know that at all looking at their social media life. It may be that they’re trying to feel good about it,” says Ananya Roy, who is training to be a counsellor.

The pandemic has made it easier to reveal secrets

In this new paradigm of relationships, sharing a secret is not so much of an emotional act, but a utilitarian one, feels Kanchi Das, head of the English Department at Dubai International Academy. An expat in Dubai, in general, is an envied person in their home country: he or she lives in one of the world’s shiniest, most amazing cities, with a lifestyle seen as uniquely prosperous. Visual cues on social media — photographs of yacht parties, luxury vacations etc — reinforce this. How does such a person bring themselves to share a secret, such as a sudden job loss or a mounting debt, without denting their self-worth? “The pandemic has made it easier to admit to financial troubles or unemployment,” she says. “But I find that when people do share these secrets, they don’t necessarily tell their friends; they tell those who are in a position to help solve the problem. It’s a practical approach.”

There’s a gender imbalance to sharing secrets related to career and money. For once, women have an advantage over men. “My personal view, based on what I hear in my circle of friends, whether it was before the pandemic or during the pandemic, is that it’s easier for a woman to be more forthcoming about losing a job or getting a pay cut,” says Kanchi. “It’s different for a man, for whom there’s this image and a perception that it is he who runs the house — even though there are lots of women who manage all the household expenses.”

While she describes herself as a person “brimming with ideas, [someone] provoking conversations”, she is also a very patient and quiet listener for those who need her to be just that. She often finds herself in the role of a confidante for her friends and students. Sometimes they seek advice; sometimes they just need to get a secret off their chest.

In her position as a trusted person, Kanchi weighs her words before advising the one sharing the secret what they should do about it. There may be a case for going public with it, but only if the person concerned can handle the sudden burst of reactions that a revelation would bring. “Before asking them to open up, you have to assess their personality,” says the educator. Her suggestion is given always from the perspective of the impact that the disclosure would have on the person making it; if they’re too fragile to deal with the fallout, the secret is best left as just that.

Not everyone finds an empathetic and mindful friend; they need a coping strategy if they have a secret that’s eating away at their soul. “The worst part of a secret is when one thinks about it all the time. The mind’s constant focus on that secret can become very stressful. The person may require appropriate guidance to manage these thoughts that keep intruding upon their consciousness,” says US-based psychiatrist Dr Rajani Sharma. “Normally, everyone keeps a few secrets at any point of time”, but any concealed information that has one “tied up in knots” needs to be analysed and discussed with an impartial adviser, says Rajani. “It’s important to identify if your secret is harmful and destructive.”

Everyone is talking, yet no one is talking to anyone

The feeling of freedom when it’s given up is what separates secrecy from privacy. Known for her radical performance art shows, New York-based Serbian-born artist Marina Abramović is a figure of awe and suspicion in equal measure. Fire, weapons, nudity have all featured in her shows and injured her at times, but she has never broken her creative stride, which possibly also makes her the world’s most fearless artist.

An October 2020 interview in The Guardian revealed how Abramović, because of her very high profile as an artist, drew “the attention of a strange group of online conspiracy theorists who are convinced she is a cannibalistic Satanist” or something worse. A flood of hatred was directed at the artist following the leak of one of her e-mails, inviting some acquaintances to a “Spirit Cooking” dinner — that theme name was a joke based on one of her artistic performances, but it got her detractors very agitated.

“I had to change my e-mail,” Abramović told The Guardian. And then came the punchline. One of the hate mail writers claimed that they’d “reveal” the artist’s “deepest secrets in two hours”. Upon reading that, she recalled, “I started laughing because I don’t have any secrets”. Oops, wrong door to knock on for the aspiring secret-buster. Elsewhere, she has been quoted as saying, “There’s not any subject the public doesn’t know about me. I don’t have secrets, and this is so liberating because this makes me free.”

It’s possible for someone as massively famous and fierce as Abramović to find the right channels — performance art, interviews — to let out what she needs to express, to connect with her audience through her mind, body, words, actions, and even eloquent silence and stillness, as she did in the groundbreaking 2010 show ‘The Artist is Present’. But for most people around us, unless the communication is interactive, as her shows often are, the secret-giver doesn’t have the satisfaction of exchanging a piece of their soul with the secret-taker.

Kanchi, defining what a secret means for an individual, sums it up as “any information that can make other people judge us in a negative way”. That fear of being judged is at odds with the need to be heard, to be validated. The solution, in this age of digital marvels, are apps such as ‘Whisper’ and ‘Secret’. “When you don’t have the fear of being identified, there’s so much you can share. But while telling your secrets to a social network that allows for anonymity is liberating, it can also be dangerous, because your secrets may be leaked,” she warns.

Sabarna finds himself in a different position where he is surrounded by people who admire his intellect, and with whom he’d willingly discuss many things — for instance, his openness to the idea of polyamory — that others might want to keep a secret; but these acquaintances rarely have the patience or the mind space to receive his thoughts. “Normally, I wouldn’t hold back anything except to protect the sanity of the other person,” he says. But the white noise of conversations in his social stratum — “What I see at my [friends’] parties is that no one is talking to anyone, and everyone is talking” — leaves his need to connect unfulfilled.

Therefore, to give himself an outlet, Sabarna sometimes talks to himself, “imagining someone with whom I’d really like to open up”. The author also intensely craves that in his dreams, he could have long conversations with someone. That, finally, is the one space where all secrets can be shared.

(Sanchita is a journalist based in Kolkata, India)

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