Secrets are like currency, a way to exchange information, build trust and assert dominance. However, the person you tell your secrets to and whoever tells you their secrets are viewed differently based on your culture, gender and personality. It seems like Chinese people are more reserved and particular about secret sharing.
Last year, in the HERE! office, we were brainstorming interview questions that we could ask the trendy bubble tea shops in Dongguan. “It would be very interesting to know how many bubbles they have to prepare and how many cups they can sell every day,” editor-in-chief Ziv Glikman suggested. “Those numbers are simple facts and could be an indicator of a booming business, which would strike a good pose in our publication both online and offline.” The truth was, none of the three milk tea shops that former managing editor Rachel Wright and I visited were willing to reveal those “secrets.”
More than a dozen foreigners have expressed frustration with me about Chinese people’s attitude towards “secrets”—my husband John included.
If you know something that someone else doesn’t know, you simply don’t tell them, regardless of how inconsequential it may be.
I frequently get upset with John because he tells people things that I think he shouldn’t have told them. It’s often not an issue of the revealed information that could harm us or give them an advantage. It’s simply that “you didn’t need to tell them that.”
Or, he might not realize that the things he shared could be potentially harmful. For example, sharing a new business idea or talking about new plans. John complained to me: “I share it with friends just because that’s what friends do. But you view it as ‘bragging,’ as well as a potential loss of face if I fail to follow through on those plans. And if there’s any chance that what I say could possibly be used to hurt us, no matter how remote the prospect, you will get very upset with me for ‘blabbing,’ or ‘not thinking before I speak.’”
Yet, this isn’t a personal issue. You may have observed similar behaviors and attitudes in many of your Chinese friends. For many Chinese, if you know something that others don’t know, that knowledge gives you the power and advantage. Some Chinese might think you are crazy for giving up control so readily and freely when you share these “secrets.”
“I agree with the principle that ‘knowledge is power,’ but the range of things that I don’t qualify as ‘secrets’ is far broader than yours,” John explained.
This cross-cultural understanding of secret sharing is frustrating. Still, it seems to cause far more frustration for me (towards my silly husband who repeatedly blurts out things he does not need to share) than it is for John (who views it with a bemused sense of humor most of the time).