On Keeping Confidences

Information, like money is a valuable commodity—to be guarded with care.

Some time ago I directed a major fund-raising event for our ward. When it was all over, those who had worked so hard with me to make it successful sighed and relaxed. But I still had one major worry: accounting for all of the funds. Several people needed to be reimbursed for supplies, and I had to make sure we had accurate receipts or invoices for the money we had paid out. For my own peace of mind I wanted to be sure there could never be any question as to whether I had handled Church funds appropriately. I knew the bishop trusted me, but I wanted to be sure there could never be a doubt.

Something else happened recently that made me give even more thought to the concept of handling other people’s property with integrity. A friend came to me to discuss in confidence a personal problem. Even more than advice, he needed someone to listen to him as he talked through the situation. He would have been embarrassed if the things I learned had become known to others, and he was counting on me not to violate his trust.

Few of us treat the tangible property of others with deliberate disregard. Despite daily news stories about theft, most people are still basically honest when it comes to respecting property. But what about less tangible things, such as information? Does our integrity extend that far? Over the years I have learned the value of keeping confidences, both in the Church and in society at large.

In many ways, information is like currency. In government and in business, reliable information is a commodity that is bought, sold, and traded. People who are sources of valuable information are carefully courted by others who want that information for their own purposes. Well-guarded information can be as important a means of gaining power as wealth. And, just like money, information is used for both good and evil purposes. The temptations and pitfalls are very similar. In fact, some interesting comparisons can be made between the ways people misuse information and the ways they misuse money.

The “Ego Tripper”

Many people like to feel and appear important by spending money freely—sometimes going into debt to do so. Similarly, most of us like the feeling of importance that comes from telling others something they did not know. As with money, people may not know we have information unless we “spend,” and the temptation to spend can be very powerful. Many of us have had the experience of being in a group where someone relates an interesting piece of information about a person or a forthcoming event. As the discussion progresses, everyone tries to contribute something the others didn’t know. It becomes a matter of ego.

At such times, some people give in to the temptation to “spend” information they don’t have (speculation, rumor, gossip) or, worse yet, to spend information that is not theirs to give by betraying confidences. Others condescendingly acknowledge that they are privy to confidential information on the subject but are not at liberty to talk about it. (This admission is frequently followed by, “But I can tell you this much …”)

The “Counterfeiter”

When he cannot gain legitimate information, this person simply makes it up. Of course, if his product is to pass as real currency, it must be realistic, so it often contains many elements of truth. Yet the end product is still a lie.

Just as counterfeit money debases a currency and makes all money suspect, lies and misinformation make all information suspect. They make meaningful communication more difficult because their presence in society causes much true information to be received with doubt. Certainly, in considering the counterfeiter and his role, it should be remembered just who carries the title “father of lies.” (See Moses 4:4.)

The “Thief”

Some people take an inordinate interest in the lives and doings of others. They watch people carefully. They ask prying questions. (To put it in the vernacular, they snoop.) By simply piecing together their observations, they arrive at conclusions that may or may not be true. Frequently they are wrong. But it doesn’t matter. As soon as they have something they consider to be of value, they are off to spend what is not rightfully theirs.

Even those who do not snoop and pry can be tempted when they learn something by accident, perhaps by observation or by overhearing. Such information is like found money. An honest person who finds someone else’s purse or wallet does not spend any of the contents. He makes every effort to return the article to the owner. And while we cannot return “found” information, we can certainly safeguard it.

The “Confidence Man”

This person nurtures friendship and trust while subtly prying into the private affairs of others. He or she actively seeks information, often giving tidbits in return to foster an atmosphere of confidentiality. Then this person goes on his way, eager to spend the new coin.

The “Spendthrift”

There are those who cannot abide leaving money in the bank or even in their pocket. If they have it, they must spend it. It is an impulse common to children who are just learning the power of money and the pleasure of buying. In an adult it can be disastrous, leading to a poor credit rating and even to bankruptcy.

Most of us have encountered information spendthrifts. These people are embarrassingly frank about their own lives. They give away information about themselves with an air of easy familiarity that can tempt their current confidant to reciprocate. The trouble is, these people are as careless with information about others as they are about themselves. Trusting such a person with sensitive information is like entrusting the rent money to a compulsive gambler.

The “Speculator”

In the financial world, a speculator invests in something with the hope or expectation that he will get his money back with increase. He looks at trends and situations and tries to predict the future situations of markets and institutions.

Information speculators do basically the same thing. They are very observant of people and organizations. A growing, dynamic Church where we have become accustomed to relatively frequent changes in organizations and programs is a fertile field for such people. They love to speculate on callings at all levels. For example, they may note that the current Relief Society president is pregnant and will likely have to be released soon, while Sister Jones was recently released from the Stake Relief Society board and is serving in a “minor” calling. She has served in the Young Women’s presidency and in the Primary presidency at various times, the sisters in the ward like her, she has no small children at home, her husband is supportive, and so forth. Obviously, she is the best choice, and the speculators not only give their advance notice of her calling, they even have her counselors selected, two women with whom Sister Jones is especially close friends.

If Sister Jones is indeed called as Relief Society president, the speculators nod knowingly to one another. If one of their candidates is called as a counselor, they nod again. And if they missed their guess on the other, well, a reason just has to be found—a falling out of friends, problems at home, or perhaps a disagreement with the bishop.

Such speculations always leave inspiration out of the process. They are based on events and relationships and personal influence. Who gets the credit if the “obvious choice” is called? Not the Lord. Not the worthy priesthood leader who sought and received the confirmation of the Spirit. By implication, politics and reason get the credit.

Sometimes the subject of the speculation is hurt. I know of at least one case where people not only openly speculated that a man would be called as bishop, but they let him know that he was their “candidate.” He did not feel that he would be called, and all of the talk made him quite uncomfortable, as did the questions and expressions of “consolation” after the new bishop was sustained.

Speculation can weaken faith and impair testimony. What do children learn who hear such speculation from parents? What of inactive members or investigators who hear active members—their role models—indulging in such speculations?

The “Embezzler”

Occasionally an employee or officer of a firm makes off with money that was entrusted to him, in some cases causing the bankruptcy of an establishment. Something similar can happen when those who are entrusted with confidential information misuse that privilege.

Private information about the life of another is not ours to use as we see fit, no matter how the information came to us. If the individual confided in us, that information is like money held in trust. Just because it is in our possession does not mean we can use it.

Most societies have laws to protect people against the misuse of confidential information by lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and the like. But generally we must rely on the integrity of friends and associates to keep confidential those things in our lives that we do not wish to become generally known.

Family members, especially spouses, probably have the greatest need for trust. And they should be able to have the greatest confidence in one another. Yet there are those who violate that trust. I still remember two men I worked with nearly eighteen years ago. Upon learning that I was engaged to be married, they proceeded to tell me some extremely personal things about their wives. I didn’t want to hear it, and I got away from the presence of these men as quickly as I could. I wish I had had the maturity to tell them kindly that I didn’t want to hear such things and that their wives would likely be horrified at this betrayal. But even then I did have the maturity to see the enormous wrong these men were doing and to vow that I would never betray my wife in such a way.

In the Church, all of us must guard against the temptation to become information embezzlers. Those who have privileged information about proposed changes or callings, or who have sensitive information about the lives of others, must be especially watchful against the temptation to reveal that information inappropriately. This caution is not limited to bishops and other priesthood leaders, but extends to auxiliary leaders, to home teachers and visiting teachers, and, indeed, to everyone.

Trustworthiness is a desirable trait that can be passed on to succeeding generations by example as well as by precept. Richard P. Lindsay, who heads the Public Affairs Department of the Church, relates an incident that taught him a valuable lesson while he was still a young man.

The newly married Lindsays were about to leave on a trip to California when they heard the announcement that their ward was to be divided for the first time in its seventy-five year history. Brother Lindsay’s deceased father had been the bishop of the ward for many years, and the young husband felt he had a special interest in what was to take place. But the couple would be out of town and would not be able to learn the details for some time.

Brother Lindsay’s father-in-law was serving on the high council at the time, so just before they were due to leave, Brother Lindsay approached the man and asked if he couldn’t just whisper the name of the new bishop to them moments before they left. After all, they wouldn’t be able to tell anyone else.

The high councilor drew his son-in-law aside and asked with a confidential whisper, “Can you keep a secret?”

“Certainly,” the young man assured him.

“Well, so can I.” End of conversation. But not the end of the lesson learned.

In a 1980 address to Church employees, Elder Boyd K. Packer spoke admiringly of Elder Joseph Anderson, “who for nearly fifty years was secretary to the First Presidency. He sat with them daily and heard their counseling and made minutes of it all. Fifty years with never a breach of confidence. President David O. McKay said of Joseph Anderson once, ‘That man can be quiet in more languages than any man I’ve known.’”

The Market

Just as there are marketplaces where money is spent, there are marketplaces for information. And misused information is most often spent in the marketplace called—dare I say it?—gossip. There. It’s out in the open.

Obviously, no discussion of confidences is complete without treating the topic of gossip. Unfortunately, the word gossip is a lot like the word repentance. Those who most need to hear it immediately retreat behind a wall of rationalization.

That is one of the major problems with gossip: it is so easily rationalized. When others do it, it is gossip. When I do it we are merely discussing someone else in friendly conversation. Burglary is burglary; adultery is adultery: the name adheres to the act. But gossip usually travels incognito.

Too many people seem to think that it is only gossip if it is unsubstantiated rumor. But something may be completely true and still be no one else’s business. Truth does not justify gossip any more than need justifies theft. And to excuse gossip by saying that it is common knowledge is similar to justifying sin because “others are doing it.”

Sometimes gossip masquerades as neighborly concern. People repeat negative details of an intimate nature, clucking away in dismay over the problems and foibles of the third party. And all the time they justify themselves because they are simply repeating the sad truth. It reminds me of a book review where one of the characters, a confirmed gossip, was described as being “radiant with sorrow” whenever she learned of someone else’s troubles.

A major problem with gossip—even “true” gossip—is that usually only words and actions are reported. Motives, extenuating circumstances, and later repentance or correction frequently go unmentioned. When motives are included in the tale, they generally are guessed at. And there is a common human tendency to attribute to other people motives which will justify our feelings toward those people. If the tale bearer is sympathetic toward the subject, the attributed motives are pure. If there is no sympathy, base motives get the credit.

Of course we should show concern for one another. And there is a place for exchanges of information. But we ought to be cautious; we ought to examine our motives and think carefully before we speak. Once something is made public, it cannot be recalled. And when information is wrongfully used, deep harm can be done to individuals and institutions. So much strife and discontent can be avoided when we learn to keep confidences. “Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth.” (Prov. 26:20.)

Our value in the service of the Lord depends in part on how dependable we are—not only in our willingness to work, but in our ability to safeguard information. When we speak wisely and prudently, we provide fewer opportunities for the adversary to cause divisions among us and fewer chances for our enemies to work against us. As Saints earnestly striving to build the kingdom, let us communicate in ways that strengthen our common bond of trust.

[illustration] Illustrated by Ronald O. Stucki

Larry Hiller, managing editor of the Church’s International Magazine and father of four, serves as a high councilor in the Taylorsville Utah Central Stake.