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Devious “Discretion”

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Russian pictogram for silence.


A couple of people have recently asked me if I’ll be going to a high school reunion this summer for all graduates from the 1970s. This is more likely than that I will ever go to a college reunion. My thirtieth-year college reunion occurred last summer, and I wasn’t there. I had a great education, which I enjoyed immensely, and I have donated to my college every year since I graduated. It was a time when I came into the bohemian aspects of my personality, discovered my sexuality (the pleasure meant a lot to a person who had to stab herself frequently with needles), and realized that there’s a larger world than my Tennessee hometown had indicated. I had been an odd girl in my Tennessee high school, but I fit in at Carleton.

So, why, then, am I more likely to go to a high school reunion? I mean, I was miserable in high school. But while I had high school friendships that ended, they did so simply. There were changed interests and hurt and loss involved, but never maliciousness. On the other hand, the end of my time in college was marred by the fact that a friend of mine turned rather viciously on me. I still have no idea why. After numerous phone calls and attempts to talk to her about why she’d gotten mad and would no longer speak to me—I even attempted to take a bus through a blizzard to talk with her—I retreated from an entire group that I thought at the time would be my friends for life.

None of these people would talk to me about what was going on. They said they didn’t want to get in the middle, and that I’d have to talk with her. She refused to talk with me. It was a conundrum I couldn’t solve.

La Discrétion, n.d., attributed to Claude Marie Dubufe (1790-1864). French.

One of these friends, years later, admitted that Karen had produced this effect in all of them by claiming discretion. She told others that she wouldn’t talk with them about why she had turned on me because she “didn’t want to make them think ill of someone else.” In other words, she implied that I had indeed done something terrible, so terrible that, if she told them, they would also find me repugnant. Imagination rushed in where fact was missing. Somehow, they all came to believe that I had wronged her.

Maybe even I came to believe that I had done something terrible. What else would have made her behave this way? I’m a person capable of self-reflection, and I pondered it for weeks and months, years, even, but could never figure it out. Of course, I make mistakes, like any human being. I can be harsh and judgmental without even realizing it. I can be too direct and can hurt people’s feelings by the strength of my own. Sometimes I am inconsiderate and selfish. But if I hurt a friend in some way like that, I would gladly apologize and rectify it. Not to be given a chance to do so was a huge blow to me. That my idealized college experience came to such a crashing end demoralized me for a long time.

Since then, I have, however, encountered this kind of devious discretion numerous times. Much to my chagrin most of its perpetrators seem to be women, and in my adult life they have not usually been friends but colleagues and co-workers. (I choose my friends more carefully now.) Over the years, I have discovered that there are many motivations for these people to make certain things unspeakable. It almost never has to do with the actual horrible nature of what they refuse to speak about. Rather, it’s that their reactions are logically indefensible. So they hide behind “discretion.” They work by false insinuation. This kind of “discretion” is one of the worst kinds of gossip.

Gossips, n.d., Filipp Malyavin (1869-1940). Russian. This work is in the public domain in those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 80 years or fewer.

For instance, I once had a colleague who was always saying things to people like, “Why is X so angry? Why is there so much conflict?” She acted distressed about these things, but, in fact, she created them, at least perpetuated them. If you asked her why she thought X was angry, she would say, “Oh, I don’t think it would be productive to tell you. It might hurt your feelings.” X might or might not in fact not be angry at all, and there might be no conflict to speak of other than the ordinary tension of people working together. But other people believe the underlying assumptions when people ask things this way and then refuse to give details.

It’s still amazing to me how effective this strategy is. I have fallen for it myself. Once, for instance, I failed to be as welcoming to a new colleague as I might have been because another person made vague allegations against her. In retrospect, I regret this. She ended up fast-tracking out of our shared work environment, and I later concluded that her accuser was less than truthful in an attempt to cover over her own insecurities.

It’s why my favorite rhetorical device is the enthymeme, and I always try to remember to question the unstated assumptions in what people tell me. What’s the evidence that X is angry? I try to go back a step and ask another question instead of leaping into speculation. I try to remember that the person who makes such vague allegations may be sincere, but may also be manipulating me into believing that X is angry. She may be trying to disrupt my work relationship with X or to create some false closeness to me. She may be promoting her supposedly more cheerful personality over X’s supposedly grumpy one. She may simply be a person who is herself terrified of any level of irritation or dissatisfaction. But one thing she is not doing is being, as this particular person often claimed, truly discreet or a positive, healing force in the workplace, trying to bring people together.

Genuine discretion might be that person asking X herself whether she is angry and what that is about. It would require that person to absorb what X said and perhaps to try to help X with her anger if she had some, without judging the person or situation that X was mad about. Discretion is about understanding that everyone in a situation, even an arena filled with conflict, probably has a legitimate and important perspective.

I have learned so much from my husband about this. My husband is a person who is truly discreet without ever sacrificing his honesty or his integrity. As a university department chair, he may work behind the scenes to try to benefit situations and people. He definitely does not blab about every frustration he has or every emotion he sees in another person. However, he’s very good at insisting that everyone has something good to offer and working to bring that out. He never pitches one person against another.

Certainly, I don’t mean some reverse sexist point by all this. I have certainly seen men who do pitch others against each other, and women who don’t. And I believe that women often turn to strategies like this out of a sad training that they get in childhood and in school and in their early work experiences—that directness is punished in women. I know it has been in me. I have had bosses both male and female say negative things about my honesty and integrity that I don’t believe they would ever say to a male employee.

Afternoon Tea (or The Gossips), 1889, Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896). English.

This has been on my mind recently as Newt Gingrich calls a woman who testified to Congress about birth control a “slut” and as Rick Santorum asserts that abortion should be illegal even in situations of rape and incest. This has all been on my mind as we cling to the remnants of feminism in a world where feminism is so often deemed by the young as “unnecessary.” Let us really think about how we teach our young women to be. Let every woman challenge repeatedly the idea that she must use her wiles as a primary source of success and dampen down her honest self.

Little Gossips, 1888, Jane Sutherland (1853-1928). Australian.

Real discretion is something I value. So is an ability and willingness to work out misunderstandings and disagreements with open hands, and to let go of grudges. Both of those things are hard to come by in the work world and sometimes even in one’s private life, if there even is such a thing anymore. I believe that these are important ways that each of us can contribute to a more genuine world.

I come back around to Adrienne Rich again, this time as an essayist. In “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” in the collection On Lies, Secrets and Silence, she notes the following:

“Lying is done with words and also with silence.”

“When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”

“An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.” [I would note that any honorable human relationship that is based on respect includes some love, and Rich clearly doesn’t mean only romantic love.]

“The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.”

“The liar has many [so-called] friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.”

Even silent stones can speak slander. The Three Gossips rock formations in Arches National Park, Utah. Photo by Tiziano Lombardi.

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2 responses »

  1. This posting did more than intrigue me: it moved me. Your inquiry into one of the great WTFs of human behavior shows a lot of insight–insight, I imagine, that is the result of an awesome amount of patience (to me, at least).

    Reply

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