16 Jan 2023

The art of discretion

To betray a confidence is to make yourself despicable. Many things are said among friends which are not said under a seal of secrecy, but are understood to be confidential, and a truly honourable man will never violate this tacit confidence. It is really as sacred as if the most solemn promises of silence bound your tongue; more so, indeed, to the true gentleman, as his sense of honour, not his word, binds him.”

The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness

Cecil B. Hartley, 1860

Discretion was once a highly respected trait. It was understood to be, as indicated in the quotation above, a sign that somebody was truly honourable, in that they respected a ‘tacit’ confidence. We have all been told things that are truly private and confidential, and frequently these revelations are accompanied by a request that we will respect the confidence, and we find ourselves ‘sworn to secrecy’. But many other scandalous, incriminating, salacious or shocking items of information will come our way, which are not ‘protected’ by solemn avowals of secrecy. It is a matter of discretion whether we decide that these intriguing nuggets of information should immediately be passed on to all and sundry, or whether we determine that their potential to cause damage and distress means that they should be conveniently ‘forgotten’.

The quality of discretion goes hand in hand with discernment, the ability to make good judgments. If you are discreet, you will look at the world with a certain amount of circumspection, and you will make careful decisions about the consequences of certain actions. You will be aware of the dangers of speaking freely and without forethought and you will hold your tongue.

People who are known for their discretion are highly valued. They make ideal confidantes, because they know when to keep their mouths shut. They are tactful and diplomatic and can be extremely helpful in difficult situations. They may be tasked with ‘making discreet enquiries’, and you can be sure that they will do so without giving the game away or letting any embarrassing revelations leak out. ‘At your discretion’ refers to decisions that are made using individual choice and informed judgment.

Discretion should be highly valued in today’s world, when it is often very little in evidence. Our insatiable appetite for gossip, scandal, personal insights and revelations puts a very high premium on apparently confidential information. The media constantly bombards us with the results of a million indiscretions and notions of privacy are constantly being eroded.

It is sometimes hard to withstand this tsunami of full disclosure, and the more we are overwhelmed by it, the more notions of confidentiality and privacy seem to be defunct. But the consequences of indiscretion can be devastating and wide-reaching.

When other people confide in you, even if they do not swear you to secrecy, they are placing trust in you, assuming and hoping that they can rely on your sense of discretion. It is very tempting, when you are entrusted with this information, to use it in negative ways: to assert your power and influence, to manipulate other people, to curry favour.

Cultivate your sense of discretion and trust that it will take you beyond these simple, base instincts and help you to make scrupulous judgments. Being discreet is never about being reckless, impulsive or thoughtless, and remember ‘discretion is the better part of valour’ – a useful piece of advice that indicates that avoiding a dangerous situation (or possible social pitfall) is sometimes the most sensible way to proceed.


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