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Topic avoidance and secret keeping have been traditionally been fields of study underexplored in favor of scientific inquiry into self-disclosure, something that only recently started changing in the last few decades. In the field of communication, the reasons behind secret keeping are seen as incredibly important and potentially detrimental to an individual’s mental and physical health, and it is imperative that they be fully investigated. Potential reactions, power roles, protection, and privacy are among some of the reasons why both secret keeping and topic avoidance are practiced, with this essay giving particular focus to the cycle of concealment and the chilling effect.
The most commonly cited reasons for secret keeping can be sorted into five categories. Most of the reasons for keeping secrets involve an individual’s perceptions of what would happen if the secret were revealed. This usually translates to being concerned about having oneself evaluated negatively. Individuals are less likely to report that they would reveal a secret in the future if their reasons for keeping the secret include beliefs that others would evaluate them negatively or that their relationship with the designated individual would be otherwise adversely affected (Afifi et al., 2008). People often report keeping secrets because they are concerned about the maintenance of their relationship with the target of the potential secret revelation. There is also something to be said for the defensive aspect of secret-keeping. When an individual anticipates that their private information may be used against them if they revealed it, keeping the secret can become a form of defense. Reasons for this defense frequently include the possibility that the recipient of the secret will violate the teller’s trust by revealing the secret to other people (Caughlin et al., 2005). Sometimes a secret will be kept because the individual anticipates that the interaction involving the disclosure would be a challenging event to undergo. This includes the possibility of communication problems because the person at hand questions their own ability to discuss the secret in a satisfactory way. The fifth of these common reasons why people choose not to disclose their secrets is privacy. This follows the basic belief that the information is relevant only to the individual it directly concerns, and that they have no obligation to tell others because it is irrelevant to them (Caughlin et al., 2005). Topic avoidance serves as a primary method by which individuals can maintain privacy in family relationships. It has been argued by Burgoon et al. (1989), that some degree of privacy is necessary for both individual and relational well-being within the context of a familial relationship. If relational partners are fully accessible to one another, a slew of negative consequences may follow. It is very possible for individuals to experience emotional overload, increased opportunities for conflict, and excessive dependency as a result (Afifi & Guerrero, 1995). It can be argued that privacy regulation and topic avoidance are strategies used to manage boundaries within a family.
In accordance with Communication Privacy Management Theory, revealing secrets or other private pieces of information results in a sense of vulnerability. When people feel vulnerable, they are driven to erect metaphorical boundaries. This is especially likely to happen when a family member is anticipated to have a negative response. These boundaries are flexible depending on the audience, with increased permeability when communicating with people they trust, or even when they anticipate that their chosen confidant will be accepting and supportive, or at the very least open-minded (Afifi & Steuber, 2008). When the person is distrusted, these boundaries become rigid. When individuals receive consistent disconfirming responses to their revelations, they are much more likely to keep their walls raised and have a harder time divulging secrets to these people in the future. Unfortunately, when individuals continue to anticipate negative reactions from other family members, they can create what is known as a “cycle of concealment” within the family (Afifi & Steuber, 2008). A history of negative, disconfirming, or verbally aggressive responses to secret revealing often serves as a means of encouragement for individuals to continually conceal their secrets from specific family members.
When people begin to use the anticipated reaction of a target individual as a determinant for regulating their disclosures, this self-directed suppression of information is more likely to be sustained by both potential and actual negative responses from a respondent. This phenomenon has been dubbed the chilling effect by researchers (Afifi & Steuber, 2008). This effect occurs most often when an individual thinks that their partner will utilize power from a point of advantage in future confrontations. This anticipated misuse of power and sensitive information usually results in individuals withholding their opinions due to fear. If a family member has previously reacted negatively to a past revelation of a secret, this valences the experience in a negative manner and puts into place an expectation of negative reactions to be displayed for future secret revealings. The chilling effect can also be experienced from several family members when their potential aggression suppresses the individual’s desire to reveal their secret. The chilling effect has a history of being studied in dating and marital relationships, where relational grievances are stifled in the face of the partner’s coercive power (Afifi & Olson, 2005). This effect also reinforces the cycle of concealment due to those with less power continuing to avoid confrontation and sustain their own feelings of powerlessness, resulting in the secret not being revealed.
There are three different types of power that are found in family dynamics, and each of them addresses the chilling effect in a different manner. On the one hand, power dynamics are an essential part of the household. Parents need to be able to exercise power over their children in order to keep them safe and be an effective parent. Some families are perceived as having influence over one’s ideas as a result of the roles that family members assume. When family members communicate in ways that command respect, they can be seen as powerful by others due to their leadership and communication ability. This is generally the most positive form of power seen in this model, but does have negative potential. It is possible that individuals revere their family members to the degree that their persuasive and influential nature causes them to fear potential disappointment as a result of revealing their secret (Afifi & Olson, 2005).
Oppressive power is the second form potentially present in the chilling effect. Afifi and Olson (2005) defined oppressive power as the degree to which people have the ability to punish others, control their behaviors and opinions, and manipulate their actions. Those who have oppressive power over others utilize this interpersonal sway to control an individual’s behavior through punishment and withholding rewards, commanding them, dominating conversations, and persuading them to do something they otherwise would not (Afifi & Olson, 2005). Punitive power is the final type, referring to the aggressive potential of the target of the secret. As opposed to influential and oppressive power, punitive forms of power tend to be more aggressive in nature both physically and verbally. While power in itself can be enough to cause a chilling effect on the continued concealment of a secret, it can be even more powerful in a relationship where the threat of physical or symbolic violence is present. While they may resort to physical acts of aggression, such as breaking object and shoving people, family members can also engage in verbal or symbolic aggression in the form of sulking, crying, and stomping out of the room. When these events occur, they unfortunately serve to reinforce existing positions of power within the family dynamic as well as the continued concealment of secrets (Afifi & Olson, 2005).
Families are particularly unique for studying power because of the seemingly inherent norms and rules that dictate how family members communicate with one another (Afifi & Olson, 2005). For example, both daughters and sons tend to disclose frequently with their mothers much more than their fathers. When interacting with their fathers, children of both sex reported feeling uncomfortable disclosing highly emotional and personal information, and were much more willing and comfortable in engaging in discussions of practical issues (Afifi & Guerrero, 1995). These findings support a general principle of self-disclosure that has been hammered into us by societal norms: regardless of the secret keeper’s sex, people tend to display more topic avoidance with male rather than female targets. It was also found that males practice more topic avoidance than females for all topics studied, with the sole exception of sexual experiences. These findings mirror those found when working on disclosure and avoidance patterns in friendships (Afifi & Guerrero, 1995). The chilling effect was found to be particularly pronounced in families where conformity in values, beliefs, behaviors, and a lack of openness and acceptance of multiple points of view dominate the family setting. The family-specific rules for conformity and openness directly impacts an individual’s ability to freely reveal negatively valenced secrets (Afifi & Olson, 2005). Families who had high degrees of conversation orientation, the extent to which families foster open communication and expression of beliefs and values, encourage the free exchange of ideas and opinions between individuals on a wide variety of topics. These families impose very few rules about conversational topics.
An examination of coercive power in families with varying conformity and conversation orientation revealed that those who maintained a direct approach of coercion were tied to high conformity orientation and low conversation orientation families by affecting their continued concealment. It was also found that power in these families also negatively affected the closeness and commitment of family members, but that these weakened bonds did not foster continued concealment (Afifi & Olson, 2005). In highly conversation-oriented families, the indirect aspects of the chilling effect correlated with a decrease in closeness between the target confidant and secret keeper.
These findings have quite a few practical implications. By exploring and identifying the dynamic of one’s family and/or friends, one can identify what means might be the most effective for revealing their secret. It’s important to understand the subtleties of power and how they directly influence an individual’s ability to feel comfortable revealing private or otherwise secret information to another person or group. The chilling effect dictates the three different types of coercive power that are found in families, describing how they can be both positive and negative. It’s important to identify if one has a negatively valenced family dynamic in order to address the issue. In fact, if an individual is able to identify their family dynamic they will have an easier time deciding how to address the issue because they can immediately compare the effectiveness of direct versus indirect strategies of secret revealing.
As previously stated, the chilling effect has a history of being studied in marital and romantic couples, due to its unfortunately frequent presences in an average American domestic setting. There are two distinctly separate ways that knowledge of the chilling effect can help people with their relationships: by identifying how their partner’s actions affect their ability to be truthful, as well as their own impact on their partner’s freedom to speak. If a person feels they are being silenced by their partner’s misuse of relational power, it is something they can address directly and have the academic knowledge to provide a leg on which to stand in the conversation. On the opposite end of the argument, a lot of the time it can be very difficult to identify when you yourself are the one abusing power in the relationship. Nobody wants to think that they are using coercive force to influence their partner’s actions and feelings of freedom, but once the facts are laid out on the table it can be very hard to ignore some striking similarities.
This matter is pertinent to everyday life in the sense that all of us choose to keep our secrets or avoid topics of conversation for a wide variety of reasons. Being able to explore your own motivations behind secret keeping is an important step that not every individual undergoes when keeping secrets of varying gravity. Everyone on this planet has a secret that they are keeping from at least one other person, and being able to understand how a potential secret can impact a friendship or other relational dynamic is an important skill. Additionally, if an individual decides to raise children it is certainly important to overview the concepts of secret keeping and respecting the privacy of their friends and family when appropriate. These children should also be raised to look out for warning signs that they might be entering/already in an unbalanced relationship. If they are brought up able to identify a potentially unhealthy relationship, they can save themselves a lot of grief in the long run by making an intelligent decision.
Secret keeping and topic avoidance can be very tricky areas to navigate successfully. In extreme situations, relationships can be formed or broken on the basis of secrets and it is incredibly important to understand the many different reasons why. There is a great variance of weight distributed to the numerous drives behind secret keeping, with some of them being healthy and others detrimental. Individuals must empower themselves with the knowledge to identify the difference between healthy and unhealthy secret keeping in their own lives, as well as how to address any potential issues concerning these secrets.
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