Words by Darshita Goyal. Photograhy by Allef Vinicius.
At a time when we’re lonelier than ever, exchanging secrets with strangers can offer just the right amount of connection.
We all have skeletons in our closet. Surely, some are more intense than others, but they’re present nonetheless. Sometimes these secrets are shared within our closest relationships, and other times, we disclose to a complete stranger. What feels so good about telling our secrets to someone we don’t know? And, why do we enjoy listening to strangers’ stories, too?
For Frank Warren, the founder of PostSecret–a platform where millions of people across the world have bared their souls–secrets are a currency of intimacy. “As technology takes over our lives, it feels like we’re in a loneliness epidemic of sorts,” he explained. “We all have the desire to feel seen and to be able to share in a non-judgmental space and I think that’s what PostSecret is to many people.” Shared secrets can create a connection.
Back in 2004, when Warren began the project in Washington D.C. he never imagined it would grow into six books, numerous world tours and hopefully soon, a television series. The 59-year-old still wakes up to hundreds of postcards in his mailbox from addresses far and wide. While for some, reading secrets is voyeuristic and entertaining, for others, strangers’ stories become a safe space to find comfort and face your own fears. Years ago, Warren received a photograph of a broken door with the words, “The holes in the door are from when my mom continued to break it down to beat me.”
When he posted this secret on the website, thousands of people sent in similar photos with their stories. He remembers one very clearly. “This girl wrote to me and said seeing the photos doesn’t depress her because she doesn’t feel alone in experiencing violence anymore,” he said. “It made her burden feel lighter, and to me, that is the power of sharing with strangers.”
According to a 2021 study conducted by Harvard University, we are lonelier than ever before, especially since the pandemic. The research found that 36% of the respondents experienced loneliness quite frequently, often or all the time. Another survey from the CDC said that 63% of young adults are battling significant symptoms anxiety and depression.
At a time like this, unburdening secrets on a podcast, a website or to a stranger can become a way to seek human connection and even find validation. While it may get a little to close to trauma dumping at times, hearing another person’s story can feel good. This exchange creates conscious space for conversation and connection that is a strong enough motivator for sharing.
Brandon Stanton who started the highly revered Humans of New York series in 2010. The photographer garnered global interest and fame from capturing strangers’ stories and posting them online. Followers have devoured hundreds of these tales on his Instagram from people they may never meet. From stories of refugees who fled detention camps to photos of kids who love cold candy in the summer, the posts feel like flipping through someone’s journal without having to deal with the repercussions.
Today, a little over a decade later, not much has changed. In its 2022 roundup, TIME Magazine declared Normal Gossip as one of the best shows to listen to. In the podcast, host Kelsey McKinney reveals strangers’ gossip to other strangers and these stories go from silly to self reflective at a moment’s notice.
Interestingly, in addition to consuming strangers’ secrets, we often fall back on them as conversation starters in uncomfortable social settings. Think of a time when you or someone else has divulged a colleague’s scandalous secret to break the ice in a new friend group. The more outrageous, the better. Perhaps on a date you shared a family member’s embarrassing story to make the other person more comfortable–secrets have more subliminal power than we give them credit for.
“Sharing secrets with strangers or reading their stories can be cathartic. Sometimes, we perceive certain things about ourselves as abnormal or unacceptable and that’s why we want to keep it hidden,” Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, said. “When another person relates to our experience, it’s reassuring,”
In some situations, strangers hold the power to console and sympathize with our experiences more than the people closest to us. Ishaan Trehan, a marketing manager, often seeks comfort from anonymous users on Reddit. “I follow a lot of subreds on relationships and imposter syndrome. When I posted about how I was feeling and strangers showed support or validated my emotions, I trusted it more because there was no bias,” he said. “With people I’m close to, it feels like they’ll say anything to make me feel better and I can’t take it at face value.”
Juliette Karaman, a UK-based mental health expert, sees this quality as an advantage of sharing with unknown individuals. “If you confide in your friends, they will probably try to fix you because they are emotionally invested. Strangers are more likely to just listen and sometimes that’s what is needed,” she said. Sometimes, when a close confidant relays advice, it often weighs heavy and we feel pressured to comply whereas a stranger’s words can hold less value and whatever we do–or don’t do–with it is without consequence.
Moreover, some secrets can be more challenging to reveal to the people who actually know and interact with us. Maybe they are about them or they paint us in a light that we’re not willing to be seen in. Maybe we feel shame. Spaces like PostSecret and Normal Gossip–or even just sitting next to an unknown person on a flight–allow us to shake off the burden of something no one else can know without dealing with the potential judgment.
Sinomonde Ngwane, a graphic designer from Durban started an Instagram series called #DearDiary with a similar intention. She asked strangers to send in their confessions anonymously and then translated those stories into art on her account. “I was going through my first major breakup then, so I was holding onto many secrets myself,” explained Ngwane. “The series was a way for me to try and see what other people are going through to feel less alone.” She also found solace in the idea that her secrets likely wouldn’t be used against her in the future when shared with a stranger.
Whether it is to make peace with parts of yourself or to find a connection when you feel isolated, secrets and strangers can come together seamlessly to provide relief. It’s a low-stakes action that can sometimes make us feel better than our best friends or partners, but more than anything, it’s a temporary fix to loneliness. The next time you’re feeling a bit lost or distant, maybe try sharing a secret with a stranger, taking a deep dive on Reddit and read some throwaway accounts’ deep dark secrets or tell the people closest to you what you need from them when you spill your guts. Sometimes just getting it out–regardless of who is listening–is enough.