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I recently had a long personal talk with a friend.

Shortly thereafter, I found out that my friend had shared details of our conversation with one of his other friends (who is an acquaintance of mine).

I confronted my friend, and asked him why he shared the details of our conversation without asking me first. My friend replied that I never told him not to tell others what we talked about.

I suggested that it is commonplace knowledge that conversations between friends are private. He disagreed.

Is there a standard or convention in place for this type of situation? Are conversations between friends typically private?

Besides prefacing every conversation with "okay, now don't share this with others", how do I get my friend to not share what we talk about with others?

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    It might be useful to tag this question with which country you're from, as I'm sure the conventions would vary quite a lot in different parts of the world! – Bug Catcher Nakata Mar 6 at 0:42
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. . . how do I get my friend to not share what we talk about with others?

There really is no infallible method for doing this; it all relies upon the principles of trust and understanding.

You need to ensure that you really trust this friend before you talk to them. It should be clear to them that when you open up to them, they are indeed privileged and expected to maintain your confidence. If you find yourself saying:

Please (friend), don't tell anyone about a, b, or c...

Then you realize that there isn't a good degree of trust in this person, or perhaps you feel they lack the understanding that what you're telling them is only between the two of you. Any sort of derivative of asking for confidence is a lot riskier than simply establishing it to begin with.

This informs you a lot about the result of a heartfelt/personal conversation. If you feel weary and don't trust this person, it would be best to address this.

Trust can be built in many ways; one thing you can do is give them tiny bits of information and see how they handle it. Tell them a small thing and see what happens and what their reaction is. If you discover they soon let the secret out, then this person is most likely not going to be trustworthy.

The main thing to take away is that personal conversations need a personal connection with the friend. There really is never a guarantee in the real world that people are to hold your information confidentially (although it seems like it should). In my experiences, the ones I have built a deeper friendship with usually keep my personal situations within our own private context. :)

  • Thanks Anilla. I agree with you. On the other hand, when I confronted my friend about this, he said that one-on-one conversations aren't private unless one person says "don't share this with others". In other words, he doesn't view this as a breach of trust. He may be trustworthy, but have very different views of what you and I consider to be private information. After talking with him, I started to wonder what is the norm. – RockPaperLizard Mar 5 at 23:36
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    @RockPaperLizard Don't be concerned with "the norm". Be concerned with how you regard trust. If this guy breaks your definition of that, then that's a red flag right there. – Anilla Mar 5 at 23:37
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    Not everyone has the social intelligence to gather when you're revealing personal knowledge vs. general "updates" you mean to be shared. For example, you went to a cottage with someone you're interested in vs. you went on vacation to Costa Rica with a few friends. They sound like similar stories to some people, including me. When unsure, I have the dilemma whether to cautiously undershare and pretend I know nothing about you, or risk oversharing. I've gradually gotten better at determining what people intend, but those who know me can say "Please keep this between us" without causing offence. – Euchris Mar 9 at 12:13
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Assumptions

Firstly from what you have said I am going to assume your friend is speaking in good faith about the miscommunication on the confidentiality of the information as opposed to trying to retroactively cover themselves after intentionally betraying you, the later case (in my opinion) cannot be solved interpersonally and the solution would simply be to stop talking to this "friend".

Situation

I cannot comment on what is normal in the whole world, but I at least do not assume any information is in confidence unless either I am explicitly told so, or the content of the conversation make it very obvious (for example a friend talking about an ongoing divorce or my spouse talking about an ongoing legal case).

The first case is extremely cut and dry, no reasonable person will misunderstand if you say "This is private so please do not speak to anyone about X".

The second case is not clear cut at all, what each person considered implicitly confidential varies, and it is usually best not to rely on what a particular person will consider private unless it is someone you know very well and have discussed ground rules about this before.

If a friend spoke to me about for example, a concert they had gone to and enjoyed, I would assume absent of instructions otherwise that it is fine for me to talk to others about it, but on the other hand, if a friend spoke to me about a debt problem they had I would probably assume its private, but I have had clashes before on where to draw the line between these. I have a relative who (like your friend) assumes almost anything is fine to share, and another relative who takes your position that nothing should be shared by default. Neither of them are "wrong" as such, they merely have different norms and assumptions, and this must be understood to communicate effectively.

What to do

In most cases, I would suggest simply learning to explicitly ask if you wish to talk about something highly confidential, firstly this makes it very unambiguous it is not OK to share what you are about to talk about, secondly it means your friend can refuse to continue the conversation if they do not want the burden of keeping the secret (It isn't fair to assume someone is fine keeping secrets without asking, this goes against some peoples morals, particularly if they have very strong beliefs about telling the truth or trusting a friend or partner with all matters).

If the friend is very very close and you speak about confidential matters frequently, in a few cases I would have an explicit conversation about what is important for you to keep secret, and what you don't mind being shared. However this still relies on them understanding and interpreting your boundaries, as well as remembering them, so I would only try this with someone you are extremely close with.

TLDR

There is no norm about this, always ask before bringing up a private matter explicitly, and only continue if they understand and agree with your terms of confidence.

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I (like to think that I) am a trustworthy person, but I definitely do not assume that one-on-one conversations are private (I am Australian, by the way). Twice in my life I have experienced situations similar to yours, but from your friend's position.

Basically you have reached a point with your friend where the two of you have different expectations of appropriate behaviour. It doesn't matter so much who is correct, but what to do from here. I would suggest:

  • Talk to your friend about how you feel. Frame this in terms of "I" statements, like "I feel uncomfortable when..." to convey how you've been affected, rather than blaming/attacking your friend which might make them defensive
  • Set particular boundaries with them, such as asking them not to talk to other people about your [relationship/job/health/art] situation, or perhaps not talking to mutual friends about them.
  • As Anilla said in their answer, explicitly mention when there is something that you'd prefer not to be told to someone else.

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