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Little Secrets and Big Information: A Case Study on Privacy Management Theory
Aisha Graham-Perez
Utah Valley University

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At some point in life everyone has some sort of “big news”. Examples include

but are not limited to: I’m pregnant, we are getting married, we are moving, or I just got a

promotion. News varies depending on the person; yet, I have noticed that any type of big

news also involves a little secrecy. There are always those people that we do not want to

tell or have them find out just yet. So as exciting as the news may be we keep it a secret

from certain people.

I myself have been spreading the news little by little about me being pregnant. Of

course this news will eventually become public and then I will no longer have to think

about whom I want to tell and whom I do not. I set up boundaries with certain people

because I felt as if they would not understand my situation, or that I just thought best they

didn’t know. I have certain friends that I told right away because we have fewer

boundaries concerning the information we share with each other. As I began telling more

people they began to ask whom else knew, and I would tell them.

This last week I told one of my runner friends about the exciting news. She was

so excited, and then I explained that not many people knew so if she could not tell anyone

that would be great. Her first response was, “No worries I won’t tell anyone, just my

husband.” It is interesting that for some reason when we try and establish boundaries for

our information, some people see their spouses or significant others as excluded from

that. Not only do some feel that certain people are exempt from the boundary, but they

see it as non-threatening to tell other people that may not have anything to do with the


After having discussed the communication privacy management theory in class,

I was more aware of my interactions with people and how I am constantly taking part in

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privacy management. The main points of the theory that drew my attention include

privacy ownership and privacy control. Privacy ownership includes privacy boundaries,

which show how people think of the borders between private and public information

(Griffin 2015, pg 151). Boundaries vary depending on the person. We all have those

certain people that we tell everything to no matter what it is. At the same time we all have

people in our life that we keep things from. As we tell more people our secret, they

become co-owners of that information. They then take part in their own privacy

management when deciding what to do with the information we have just shared. The

third part of the theory is privacy turbulence, which happens when private information

doesn’t go the way we expect (Griffin 2015, pg 152). An example of privacy turbulence

would be me telling my running friends that I am pregnant and then explaining that I do

not want coach to know just yet, but they decide to tell my coach even after I set the

boundary not to, we would run into turbulence. If we set up what we believe to be clear

boundaries in order to manage our big news, those boundaries will more than likely be

broken, but not always run into turbulence.

This paper will explore the reasons and occasions of why people keep things a

secret and what then compels those people to tell the same secrets later. There are many

people who not only have to learn how to disclose good information but also bad

information. I will be looking at how others deal with the revealing of good and bad

information as well as looking at multiple online stories that explain the best procedure in

which to manage privacy.

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Understanding Privacy Management through Communication

Literature Review

Privacy management theory is a systematic research theory designed to develop

an evidence based understanding of the way people make decisions about revealing and

concealing private information. I found it interesting that most of the research I came

across specifically explained how to disclose bad information. Adam D Wolfe’s (2014)

article explains the training that hospital teams acquire when having to “break the bad

news”. It is good to note that the term “breaking the bad news” is changed to “sharing life

altering information”. The hospital then developed SPIKES guidelines, which are; S-

Setting up the meeting, P- establish family perceptions. I- soliciting an invitation to

discuss information with the family, K-provide medical knowledge, E- express

empathetic responses to family emotions and S- summarizing and strategizing the next

steps. Though SPIKES seems to be a great outline on how to share information it is more

formal than what most people will experience on a daily basis. Gail Ewing (2016) wrote,

“little is known about how patients subsequently share bad news with others”.

Sharing bad news is challenge and an individual process. As people share bad

news with loved ones the SPIKES process completely changes. The framework for

telling loved ones included five elements: 1- people to be told, 2- information to be

shared, 3- timing of sharing, 4- responsibility for sharing and 5-method for telling others.

When looked at through the privacy management theory lens patients described a sense

of ownership of the bad news and sought control of how, when and with whom it was

shared. Family members expressed a need to follow the patients’ rules in sharing the

news, which limited their own support systems. Patients and family members had to live

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within the relational communication boundaries in order to maintain their trusting

relationship and avoid potential disruptions (Ngwenya, 2015). This perfectly shows how

managing private matters can be taxing, and not only for the person sharing it but for

those with whom they share the information.

Warren (2005) acknowledges the struggle some people must face disclosing a

secret. Many have an internal struggle about sharing the secret, but “the urge to reconcile

with a painful personal truth was so strong that they were ultimately able to find the

courage to share it” (Vik, 2015). Sharing a secret can provide relief. Warren also

conducts a fantastic experiment called PostSecret, where he placed self-addressed post

cards in places he knew people would find them. The post cards instructed people to

write a secret on the card, anonymously, and then submit the card. Warren was able to

conclude that an individual discloses secrets to strangers without fear of repercussions.

The management of private material can vary depending on the type of

information being shared and with whom the information will be shared. Openness and

self-disclosure can help develop close relationships yet we also have a desire for privacy.

Privacy protection and privacy revelations, deciding to grant or deny access, and

determining how much information a person wants to disclose to family members or

physicians, all reflect examples of choices people make on a daily basis (Petronio 2016).

R1: Is it easier to share information with a stranger than someone we know?

H 1: Most people wait until the most opportune moment to share good information

in which they will receive the most reaction.

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H 2: Bad information receives better management and is shared with less people,

yet is information that people wish their fellow people knew more than good




I am aiming to use a random sample of participants. Many most likely being

students and staff at Utah Valley University. This is an appropriate approach in

order to study a wide range of ages and walks of life. I would like to ask people I

know very well, as well as strangers in order to see the variety in responses.


I will be asking questions to people who have recently shared big news as

well as asking people if they have recently had to experience sharing bad news. I

would be using a qualitative approach in order to allow the participants to freely

express their thoughts. The best way to do this would be giving each person a

survey with open-ended questions and then conducting a follow up interview.

Example questions would include:

1. What is the biggest news you have shared with family? How did you share


2. What is the worst news you have had to share? How did you share it?

3. What is the most recent news you have shared on social media?

4. How did you feel when you had the news but hadn’t told anyone yet?

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Ideally I would like to ask between 5-10 questions and then conduct the

follow up interview with the participants based on their responses. I believe I would

be able to observe and measure how people hold on to little secrets and then

present the big news. As well as ask participants about their reactions to big news.

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Ewing, G., Ngwenya, N., Benson, J., Gilligan, D., Bailey, S., Seymour, J., & Farquhar, M. (2016). Sharing
news of a lung cancer diagnosis with adult family members and friends: a qualitative study
to inform a supportive intervention.Patient Education And Counseling, 99378-385.

Griffin, E. A., Ledbetter, A., & Sparks, G. G. (2015).A first look at communication theory. New York:
McGraw-Hill Education.

Ngwenya, N., Farquhar, M., & Ewing, G. (2015). Sharing bad news of a lung cancer diagnosis:
understanding through communication privacy management theory. Psycho-Oncology,

Petronio, S. 2016. Communication Privacy Management. The International Encyclopedia of

Communication Theory and Philosophy. 1–9.

Vik, T. A., & Bates, B. R. (2015). Disclosure without boundaries: examining communication privacy
management theory in a counterfactual world. Journal Of The Communication, Speech &
Theatre Association Of North Dakota, 2848-62.

Warren, F. (2005). PostSecret. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY.

Wolfe, A. D., Frierdich, S. A., Wish, J., Kilgore-Carlin, J., Plotkin, J. A., & Hoover-Regan, M. (2014).
Sharing life-altering information: development of pediatric hospital guidelines and team
training. Journal Of Palliative Medicine, 17(9), 1011-1018. doi:10.1089/jpm.2013.0620