Why do we spill our secrets?

The author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment muses on the motivation to reveal our secrets.



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These days, it’s hard to go about your daily business without bumping into some form of personal confession (exhibit A: “25 Random Things About Me,”). As entertaining as you might find the “confessional,” though, you still have to wonder: What’s behind the urge to spill secrets, anyway? As someone who spent a year soliciting embarrassing stories from New Yorkers—in subways, elevators, bars and even on street corners—I heard some unforgettable tales of woe (including one about a guy who was caught masturbating on the morning of his wedding day, by his future mother-in-law). My most surprising finding, though, was that New Yorkers hardly ever turned down a chance to fess up. Here are my thoughts on why:

1 Lemons into lemonade. As one Brooklynite I know likes to say, “In life, you can either have a good time or a good story.” When a situation has gone horribly awry, New Yorkers are experts at regaling coworkers and friends with said mortifying material. Note: Confessions of this ilk are often elicited over alcoholic beverages.

2 Catharsis. When it comes to giving shameful baggage the boot, New Yorkers simply aren’t shy. At a bar, a salsa musician relived a particularly harrowing moment from his awkward teen years, when his father forced him to retrieve his soiled underwear from a rest-stop bathroom—in front of a busload of people. Afterward, he said, “Wow, I haven’t thought of that in years.” Then he added, eyes aglow, “I feel (bleeping) great!”

3 Look at me! In this city, where there’s always someone richer/smarter/prettier, “confessing” is a surefire way to stand out. Case in point: A handful of single men e-mailed me after I asked them for stories. More than one wrote, “This is really embarrassing, but before you explained your project...I thought you were stopping to flirt with me.”

4 Connection. New York’s frenetic pace doesn’t appear, on the surface at least, to be conducive to bonding moments. But lots of people, when prompted, welcome the chance to go beyond the norms of social interaction. Once, I asked a woman on an F train for her most embarrassing story; thoughtful, she put down her book and divulged embarrassments that ranged from the light (unwittingly insulting a woman by telling her that she looked just like Anthony Kiedis) to the not-so-light (confusion about sexual identity that most likely stemmed from childhood abuse). In a city so crowded, these types of stranger-interactions are a natural respite from an otherwise hectic environment.

5 Pride. For New Yorkers, living through hardship of any kind can be seen as a badge of honor. I was at a party near Astor Place, talking to a young woman about my project. Without missing a beat, she told me about a time she was getting off the subway and suddenly felt her bowels explode—and the back of her jeans felt...damp. Not at all ashamed to reflect, she laughed and said, “I love these stories, man. They just prove that we’re all survivors.”

Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment (Atria, $25) is out Thursday 10. Guillette reads at the Brooklyn Heights Barnes & Noble March 12 at 7pm.

Buy Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment on BN.com >>

My secret life 09 >>
Look around you. New Yorkers are just not who you think they are.

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