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Friday, December 6

The Beauty of the Four-Sentence Cover Story

How to hold on to your privacy without severing relationships
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
I have an uncomfortable secret, and no, I don’t want to tell you about it. But we’re friends, and aren’t friends supposed to tell each other everything?

Or worse, we’re not friends, but you’re nosy, we work together, and if I don’t spill, you’ll bitch-shame me to our colleagues and persuade them I’m not a team player.

What to do?

In life, everybody loses

To experience tribulation is to be human. Nobody skates by without it. (In fact, in my long life the only people I’ve encountered who claim to have no problems turn out to be either tellingly defensive, delusional, or personality disordered.)

But whether it’s divorce, health issues, campaign losses, tragedies, arrests, business failures, shattered dreams, bankruptcies, job losses, infertility, infidelity, embarrassing family members, or even un incident de garde-robe, our troubles sometimes become public knowledge, and we’re left grasping for a way to duck out of discussing it.

The problem with problems is that when nice people discover you’re having difficulties, they don’t have a script. They want to be compassionate and kind, so they stumble into probing you about how you feel, how you’re handling things, or whether you need help. Their approach may be awkward, their bid for relational intimacy may be mistimed, but their intentions are good. When you’re looking for privacy, though, nice people are only your second-worst nightmare — because at least they’re compassionate and are willing to keep a confidence.
“There are many very good reasons for keeping private matters private”
The person you really don’t want to talk to is the malicious one, the office gossip, the narcissistic family member, the malevolent cop, the Regina George in your friend circle. Malicious questioners probe for details because they’re looking for dirt, hope to humiliate you, or worse. People who pry may be seeking to better their position at your expense, or may simply take perverse pleasure in causing you pain or ruining your life.

“So you’ve actually never been to a real school before? Shut up!” 
(Credit: Mean Girls is a production of Paramount Pictures)

Sheesh. It’s just a question. Why are you so defensive?

Whether the prying questions come from a good place or a dark heart, when you’re dealing with a crisis, you may have the tendency to react with defensiveness or hostility — neither of which leaves you stronger or happier. 

The good news is this: You have an absolute right to your privacy. And there are many very good reasons for keeping private matters private. For example, you may:
  • need time to process your emotions
  • need space to manage the difficulty, or develop an action plan
  • dislike being the focus of attention
  • distrust the questioner’s motives and intent
  • be uncomfortable with the degree of relational intimacy that comes with disclosure
  • loathe giving off the “stink” of failure; of appearing to be less than your best self
  • feel awkward about burdening others with your problems
  • be averse to being advised by amateurs
  • believe that positive language leads to positive outcomes, and that rehearsing your problems gives them power
  • feel too fragile to talk
  • wish to maintain the mien of competence
  • be exhausted by the subject
  • despise being discussed and gossiped about
  • want to protect the people who put you in difficult circumstances
  • abhor being someone’s “project”
  • wish to be a grownup and handle your own problems
  • detest being a “downer” (if only because it shortens your life)
  • admire the British quality of keeping a stiff upper lip
With all those great reasons for keeping your counsel, why does anyone ever talk? 

Blame it on the culture. From The Bachelor to Dr. Phil to Facebook to the NSA, we’ve become a people without secrets, a race without discretion and without the decorum that typified nearly every generation that came before us. 

What used to be unthinkable to discuss in public has now become de rigueur dinnertime conversation. Our sexual predilections, petty crimes, addictions, elective surgeries, hair dye, interpersonal problems, net worth, weight loss, and intimate grooming are all photographed and posted, cataloged for — literally — the entire world to see, probably forever.
“How do you maintain your dignity and your privacy when all the world demands that you spill your secrets?”
The pressure to participate is sometimes overwhelming. When you resist joining the fray you’re likely to be perceived as cold, sneaky, distant, unfriendly, unsporting, or — horrors! — judgmental. (The hypocrisy of calling people judgmental is lost on those who use the term.)

So how do you maintain your dignity and your privacy when all the world demands that you spill your secrets?

The Four-Sentence Cover Story to the rescue!

Since we never really know people’s motives, let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that the questioner is kindly disposed and wants only to be helpful. (Interestingly, the beauty of the strategy I’m about to explain is that the motive doesn’t matter; the strategy reassures kind people that they needn’t worry, and turns the attention of malevolent people back to themselves.) 

Rather than responding to questions mysteriously, or with defensiveness or hostility, the four-sentence cover story (FSCS) gives you a brief script for addressing the questioner with sincerity and good humor. 

The FSCS is neither unkind nor provocative. It leaves questioners feeling good about themselves and about you — regardless of their original intent. It removes the burden of “helping” from the generous, and deflates the hopes of the hurtful without giving them new ammunition. 

The principles behind the technique involve glossing over the emotion of your particular problem, minimizing the details, and providing a high degree of hope. The technique has the added beauty of diverting the focus from the past or the present to the future.

And the strategy is…

The strategy for the FSCS has, obviously, four parts. These are:
  • Acknowledgement of the past
  • Confirmation of the present
  • Hope for the future
  • Redirection
The easy-to-remember mnemonic is: Past, Present, Future, You. Pretty simple? Great. So here are a few sample scripts:
  • “Yes, it was a bit of a rough patch there, but things are good now and it looks like we’ll/I’ll be fine going forward. But how are things going for you?”
  • “Oh, yes, it was a struggle, but it’s being managed well now, and things look better for the future. But tell me more about your kids/life/work/plans/spouse.”
  • “Well, fortunately, I/we got through the hardest part just fine, so now we’re sorting out the details. But everything’s getting back on track. Thank you for your concern. But let’s talk about happier things. How are you doing?”
Ready to put your private problems back in your own backpack? Let the four-sentence cover story carry the burden, so that you can build your personal relationships on positive interactions, rather than endless kvetching about the crises you and everyone else encounter throughout our ride on this rock we all share.

I may be that person you’re reluctant to discuss your troubles with. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist with a law degree, who worked the first half of her life as a journalist. I’m also the mom of seven former teenagers. Questioning people is in my blood. (But at least I’m good at keeping a confidence!) 

When I’m not in session, I write about managing relationships at Medium.