What is an Open Secret?

Michael Pollick

When public interest meets poorly controlled information, the result is often called an open secret. This is really no secret at all to those "in the know," but it usually maintains the appearance of a secret to outsiders. Any number of people may be privy to the contents of an open secret, but revealing the truth might not be to their advantage politically or socially. It may be far better to allow the secret to at least appear to be well-kept.

An office romance might be an open secret only to those in the workplace.
An office romance might be an open secret only to those in the workplace.

Quite often, an open secret still remains an actual secret to those who would be most affected by its revelation. An illicit office romance, for example, might be generally known to those who work in the building, but it could remain a secret to the participants' spouses or supervisors. Such a secret survives largely because of the discretion of those in the know. Revealing knowledge of this affair could have serious repercussions, but keeping it quiet may provide some leverage and job security.

An open secret may also involve a co-worker's disdain for his supervisor or a politician's ambitions towards higher office. While someone might believe his or her secret has been well-kept, the truth is that many people may know already. One of the hallmarks of a successful open secret is keeping the "openness" of the information a secret in itself. It might not work out very well if the original secret-holder discovers he or she has been compromised.

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Just because a secret is known to some people does not always mean that it's public knowledge, however. Many who become privy to restricted or proprietary information do make an effort to keep it confidential, but this policy doesn't always work within the confines of an office building. Sometimes, an open secret in one department stays within that department. The original secret-holder may also realize the futility of maintaining the secret and allow others to speak openly about what they know. Any secret often lives or dies by the discretion of those who keep it.

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