Loyalty Hierarchies

I like thinking of proper secret-sharing protocol in the context of loyalty hierarchies.

When I share personal information with someone, I have an implicit assumption that they will share this information only with people higher in their loyalty hierarchy than I am.

For example: I tell my friend Barbara that I am having marriage difficulty and I am worried my husband Bob is going to divorce me. I would consider it inappropriate if she shared this information down-rank with our casual coworker Beth, but it would be fine if she shared it up-rank, with her childhood best friend of 25 years Brittany, or Barbara’s husband Billy.

As in; every time I choose to share information, I assume I am sharing it with a tree of loyalty. I do not just share information with Barbara, I am sharing it with Barbara-Brittany-Billy.

A loyalty branch ends when information is shared to you by your closest loyal partner. If Barbara’s highest loyal rank – her husband – shares personal information with her, there is nobody up-rank to spread the information to, so the chain dies with her.

I am only displeased by information sharing when it is shared down-rank. Sharing up-rank means that the information will end soon – the end being whenever it is shared with the highest loyal rank (husband to Barbara). If everyone shares up-rank, the information spread is contained. But in spreading down and up-rank, the spread can go indefinitely, until everybody in the world knows and is telling me to divorce Bob already and get it over with.

Of course this is negated if explicitly stated otherwise. If I tell Barbara not to tell a soul about my troubled relationship with Bob, then I would expect her not to.

I don’t know if other people operate by this rule or not, but I get the impression that most people vaguely adhere to it in general terms. Do you have any sorts of rules for privacy and information sharing?

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8 thoughts on “Loyalty Hierarchies

  1. Okay, so what if Barbara tells my husband Bob what I told her? Bob (my husband) is probably higher on the trust pyramid then Barbara (my coworker) but I still have a big problem with this.

    “Dont be dumb, the secret is ABOUT your husband. He counts as a special exception.”

    What if Barbara tells my mother? Now I love my mother and trust her with my life, but if I gave her even the slightest hint I was having marriage problems she’d call me up to tell me to dump him the same way she dumped dad. I still want to work through my relationship with Bob and don’t want mom worrying about if I’m okay. I’d have a problem with Barbara telling my mother about my marriage even though she knows my mother is the top of my trust pyramid; especially since she knows my mother would react like this.

    “That’s a reasonable point. Maybe there isn’t a single trust pyramid? Clearly you trust your mother on things like having your back in an emergency, but you don’t trust her to give you objective advice on marriage. On the subject of objective marriage advice, you trust Barbara much more. Our pyramid theory just needs to be adjusted based on what we’re talking about. This also explains why you don’t trust your husband with this information, he’s probably at the very bottom of the trust pyramid for advice on your marriage to him since he can’t be objective.”

    I guess so. That explains why I might not be okay with Barbara sending information up my usual trust pyramid. But what about her friend Elise who lives in Virginia? I’ve never met her before, and only know about her because Barbara tells me about her sometimes. I don’t trust Elise as much as I trust Barbara, but I wouldn’t be offended if Barbara told Elise about my problems with Bob.

    “Thats easy to explain! It’s because you trust Elise not to do anything harmful to you with this information, like tell Bob. On this particular pyramid, even a total stranger is more trustworthy then your mother, your husband, and your coworkers.”

    But I don’t think this is about trust anymore. I don’t TRUST Elise more then Barbara or Bob, I just don’t even think she CAN harm me. Saying it’s a trust pyramid becomes misleading, because if Barbara is trying to figure out who it’s okay to tell, I don’t want her thinking about who I trust, I want her thinking about how it might harm me. Similarly, when telling sensitive information about my friends to other people, I think about how it can affect them.

    I think this all becomes a little bit clearer when we talk about trust. When I say I trust Barbara, what I mean is that I trust that Barbara will handle the information I give her with discretion and sensitivity so that I don’t get hurt by it. I don’t trust my other coworker Beth with it, because Beth is going to be a total nuisance about it.

    So I make an implicit contract with her. I tell her this information, and she doesn’t use it to harm me. That kind of contract is just assumed between us as part of our friendship. Also implicit is that I trust her to be able to pass this contract along to whoever she tells. I know I’m telling the Barbara-Billy-Bethany tree, but I expect that contract to be honored by the whole tree. If it isn’t, I expect an apology from Barbara.

    When I tell Barbara “don’t tell a soul,” I am retracting her ability to pass this contract to other people. “I trust you, but this information is too sensitive for me to let anyone else control who has it.”

    Edit: The original post implies that Barbara is supposed to use HER trust pyramid, not mine. Maybe I missed something, but I’m not sure how that would work. When we say Barbaras husband is ‘up rank’ from Barbara, what does that mean? I don’t trust him more then Barbara. Is it because Barbara trusts him more then me? Is it because Barbara trusts them more then she thinks I trust her? How is Barbara supposed to tell who’s above here?
    Once again I believe the examples given work not because of a trust pyramid, but because Barbara trusts her husband not to use this information in a way that harms me. That she can pass this ‘contract’ (Don’t do anything with this information that will harm me) to Billy effectively.

  2. Yeah, I’d say I do that. Sometimes I will tell things to total strangers, but that’s an exception that’s more relative to the secret.
    That said, I mostly forget secrets so I can’t tell anyone.

    Also I’d say it’s why such things being leaked via the web/newspapers is such an annoyance to me.

  3. I like the idea of it working as a hierarchy as opposed to an amorphous web of associations. I do think that as far as it goes, the analogy isn’t as immutable for my sharing preferences. One link could change its relative position of trust. That dislike of sharing to lower ranks could effect that persons future ranking drastically depending on each instance of sharing up or down. But there might be situations where I’d expect complete confidence, no matter what rung they were.

    Great prompt and thoughts Aella.

  4. I think you’ve constructed a sensible way of approaching the sharing of such sensitive information. But it relies on such hierarchies to exist and be known. There’s always the issue of not knowing who knows what, and being in the know takes time. It only gets more complicated the more people you know.

    While a clearly tiered hierarchy is an easy method of filtering the information you share, I think that hierarchy itself is a construct based on personal acceptance of imaginary ranks. Not everyone truly agrees on the ranks, and most people have a desire to solidify or raise their rank. In truth, you’re dealing with a web of complicated egos plus interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, and unless you trust everyone around you to be 100% honest all of the time, it’s impossible to know the whole web of influence. So, the game becomes constantly navigating the unknown: the anxious human’s purgatory.

    My perception is you have an audience who, while important, are accepted only as the underlings of the relationship. It’s normal that you wouldn’t want any truly sensitive information to leak to people who haven’t proven to respect all (or enough?) aspects of you, no matter how nice or innocent they seem. The chance for dissemination is too great, the chance for destruction too high. Because of that, it’s prudent you only share sensitive information to people who share your view of the audience, someone who knows understands the risks and wishes you no harm. That could be a pretty short list!

    As a person in a financially vulnerable position, I figure anything to do related to even mildly uncouth or illegal behavior could ruin my potential by alerting potential employers to risky behavior. Even having an OKC profile with “Sometimes does drugs” could be a huge red flag if HR chose to look. Plenty of HR people have OKCupid accounts. Then again, in a case of sink-or-swim, conditions will force someone to forego societal expectations to get paid. At that point, HR can go fuck itself. It’s a big leap to make.

  5. I think you’ve constructed a sensible way of approaching the sharing of such sensitive information. But it relies on such heirarchies to exist and be known. There’s always the issue of not knowing who knows what, and being in the know takes time.

    While a clearly tiered heriarchy is an easy method of filtering the information you share, I think that heirarchy itself is a construct based on personal acceptance of imaginary ranks. Not everyone truly agrees on the ranks, and most people have a desire to solidify or raise their rank. In truth, you’re dealing with a web of complicated egos plus interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, and unless you trust everyone around you to be 100% honest all of the time, it’s impossible to know the whole web of influence. So, the game becomes constantly navigating the unknown: the anxious human’s purgatory.

    My perception is you have an audience who, while important, are accepted only as the underlings of the relationship. It’s normal that you wouldn’t want any truly sensitive information to leak to people who haven’t proven to respect all (or enough?) aspects of you, no matter how nice or innocent they seem. The chance for dissemination is too great, the chance for destruction too high. Because of that, it’s prudent you only share sensitive information to people who share your view of the audience, someone who knows understands the risks and wishes you no harm. That could be a pretty short list!

    As a person in a financially vulnerable position, I figure anything to do related to even mildly uncouth or illegal behavior could ruin my potential by alerting potential employers to risky behavior. Even having an OKC profile with “Sometimes does drugs” could be a huge red flag if HR chose to look. Plenty of HR people have OKCupid accounts. Then again, in a case of sink-or-swim, such conditions could make someone forego societal expectations to make a paycheck. At that point, HR can go fuck itself.

  6. I also share things, and don’t mind if others’ share things, with people that are totally disjoint from the secret share-er. So for example, if my S-I-L being pregnant is a big secret, then I wouldn’t tell anyone down-rank that is even plausibly connected to her going out several degrees. But I have no qualms about mentioning it over voice coms in an online game where most fellow players don’t even know my real name.

  7. Usually if I have something I want to keep secret, I bury it down and don’t talk about it. Though there are moments when I am in some sort of vulnerable stage where I let out things that I don’t expect anyone to talk about and that would likely be fucked up shit that has gone on in my life. I believe I would usually add “please don’t talk about this. thanks.”

    Secrets others have told me, I am relatively sure I haven’t blurted them out or told a gaggle of people, mostly because I don’t talk to anyone or if I do, it is random “Today I learned” topics.

    Generally, if I tell someone something, that was my first mistake and if it comes around to bite me in the ass, it is my own fault. No sense in blaming someone else for something I couldn’t keep a lid on myself.

  8. Mmm… never thought of that before. I know I share things depending on how I know (or I suppose) someone will react to what I’m sharing.

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