Advice to Readers about Keeping Confidences

For many years Isabella had an advice column in a popular Christian magazine. She used the column to answer readers’ questions—from a Christian perspective—on a variety of topics.

In an 1897 column Isabella wrote that she had received several letters in one week about “imprudent confidences.” The letters were from young women who regretted something they said or wrote.

Two or three girls wrote about their mothers in ways they wished they had not.

One young wife wrote “with utmost frankness” about the failings of her husband to a lady friend!

Several young ladies were very harsh in their criticisms of “certain gentleman acquaintances.”

Each ended their letter to Isabella with the same two questions:

“Ought I to take back the words I wrote? And ought I to tell the persons of whom I wrote what I have done?”

Here is Isabella’s advice:

There are really two questions. Let me so divide them.

With regard to the first, I answer: By all means, YES. Perhaps there is no more common error than that of giving vent to one’s anger by putting on paper words concerning others that in our cooler moments we would not even think, much less say.

Moreover, in nearly (if not quite every) case of the kind, the written words are more or less untrue. For the hour they may seem to us strictly true and justifiable; but the next morning, after the mail has been sent, and it is too late, what would we not give to be able to recall them? How sure we are to remember entire sentences that we no know to be false, or—at the very least—to convey entirely false impressions!

In all such cases, what better can we do than to write promptly and frankly:

“I am sorry I told you what I did. I was angry at the time, or so strangely hurt that I did not realize what I was doing. My mother meant what she said in an entirely different way from what I translated it; she did not speak the words in the manner which I ascribed to her; she did not speak quite those words. I see it all now. Please burn my letter, and forgive me.”

Or:

“Dear Friend, I have been unjust to my husband; he is not what I have led you to infer. It is I who was angry, and misinterpreted him.”

Some such reparation as this we owe to our own sense of honor, even though we are quite sure that our mistaken confidences will go no further. Every true correspondent will approve such a course, and think more highly of her friend that she can possibly do without this frankness.

Especially should this course be urged in the case of husband and wife. In a very peculiar and solemn sense these two are pledged to each other, and no third person should be permitted, save in the cases of gravest necessity, to step between them even in thought.

As to the second question, there may be individual cases where confession would be wise; but as a rule I see no reason why the heart of a husband or friend should be made sore by explanations of what they would otherwise never hear. A good general rule in such matters seems to be:

If you are quite confident that silence will do no one any harm, and reasonably certain that speaking would give pain, be silent.

I think I would make one exception to this, in the case of mother and young daughter. Between these two there should be not only implicit confidence, but such deference on the part of the duaghter that it would wound her conscience to keep even such a matter secret. In nine cases out of ten the good mother would rather be told the exact truth, and would be able to help her child to grow stronger.

There is one potent reason why it is best always to take back, so far as possible, confidences of the kind named; and that is because it is a humiliating thing to do, and helps one to be more careful in the future.

The fact is, confidences are very important and choice and troublesome matters. They need to be guarded with great care, and bestowed warily.

What do you think of the advice Isabella gave?

Does it sound like the kind of advice that applies today, too?

4 thoughts on “Advice to Readers about Keeping Confidences

  1. This advice is timeless and spot on, especially in this age of instant messaging. What we say today can be read/heard by a multitude of people. It can instantly cause hurt and sorrow that can reverberate for a lifetime.

    1. I agree 100%, Debby! In Isabella’s day a letter could be torn up or burned; but today it seems hasty, thoughtless words live forever on the Internet. Thanks for commenting! —Jenny

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