Communication Currents

Using the Classroom Community to Teach Communication Privacy

June 1, 2012
Instructional Communication

Talking about private information is a difficult process. Most likely we all know someone who tells us TMI (too much information), and it makes us cringe! Other times we may sense that something is bothering someone, but s/he is reluctant to discuss the issue with us. The sharing of private information offers positive benefits to individuals and relationships, such as bringing people closer within a relationship; however, navigating the tensions between privacy and disclosure can be difficult to manage. Sandra Petronio’s theory, communication privacy management, explains how and why individuals manage their private disclosures.

Managing the boundaries and tensions inherent during sharing private information is an important skill for students to learn. In this assignment, students use the popular website to apply the principles of communication privacy management theory. is self-described as a community art project and receives four million hits per month. The site displays handmade postcards containing anonymous secrets that people from across the world mail into the site. Each week the site’s creator, Frank Warren, posts 20 secrets on the blog that range in topic from silly to serious. In addition to the website, there are five bestselling PostSecret books and Frank Warren speaks at numerous college campuses every year (see the PostSecret Community website).

This activity combines this popular website with college students’ love for the Internet, and course content on sharing private information. By taking part in this activity, students practice sharing private information and responding to peers’ disclosures. This activity also provides an opportunity for students to use creative expression, which is helpful for visual and kinesthetic learners.

Below are directions for implementing this activity within the classroom.

1. A few weeks before the communication and privacy or self-disclosure unit of the course, direct students to visit Students should jot down their thoughts and feelings about the site.

2. Two weeks prior to the class unit, pass out a blank business-size envelope and a blank notecard to students. Instruct students that they are to create their own PostSecret to be viewed by the class. Students should use the following rules: (a) be truthful, (b) disclose something that you have not told anyone before, (c) secrets can be silly to serious, (d) no pornographic images, (e) do not put your name on the card, (f) do not submit anything you do not feel comfortable with, and (g) if any student feels uncomfortable with this assignment s/he may turn in a blank notecard. Remind students that even though their secrets will be anonymous, they should weigh the potential negative consequences of disclosing information and that a classroom may not be the best environment to share certain information. Do not assign points for bringing in a secret; rather, assign points for the completion of a corresponding worksheet or journal entry related to the classroom activity

3. Students should design their secrets using tips partially suggested from including (a) be brief, (b) be legible, (c) be creative, and (d) be genuine. Encourage students to use visual communication principles such as interesting graphics and colors to emphasize and develop their messages. Let the students know that the instructor reserves the right to filter cards that may be deemed inappropriate for the classroom environment. The object is not to censor cards, but it is vital to maintain a positive classroom environment

4. The day of the assignment, students bring in their secrets in their envelopes. While the students complete a journal entry or worksheet on communication privacy, the instructor reviews the cards and arranges the cards for viewing. Use the space of the classroom creatively to display the cards, such as taping them to the board/wall or leaving them on multiple desks. Before students view the cards, establish ground rules for the activity with students such as, “Be respectful and positive.” Remind students that the point of the activity is not to try and guess the authorship of the secrets. Have students generate reasons (alienation, stereotyping, self-consciousness) why guessing authorship would be inappropriate, and insist that students refrain from any such discussions. Have the students walk around and view the cards. After all students have viewed the cards, have the class take a short break in order to let students think about and process the card content. Resume class with a discussion on how communication research relates to the activity

Intimacy. Students may feel closer with one another after this activity; however, just because a person shares a piece of private information with another person, it does not mean they have an intimate relationship. Discuss the risks and benefits of sharing private information within both intimate and casual relationships. Students can also analyze their levels of self-disclosure on computer mediated social networking sites, such as Facebook, versus face-to-face contexts. In addition, discuss when is the proper time in a relationship to share a piece of private information and if the timing depends on the type of relationship (romantic, co-worker, friend)

Culture and Gender. Cultural and gendered standards contribute to whether or not we will reveal or conceal personal information. Discuss how cultural concerns such as being from an individualistic culture versus a collectivistic culture may impact the sharing of private information. Additionally, discuss how gender was displayed within the cards. For example, did some cards reveal admissions of behaviors that violate traditional gender roles?

Emotions and Perception. Students will feel many different emotions after this activity. The cards may make them feel uncomfortable, surprised, upset, amused, or relieved. Discuss how the emotional climate within the classroom may have changed pre- and post-activity. Also ask students what tensions they felt during this activity, and how they managed these tensions. This activity may also change the way students perceive their classmates. Students tend to feel that they are the “only one” who has experienced something or feels a certain way. However, after this activity, they learn they are not alone; therefore, this activity may help reaffirm their emotions or experiences.

About the author (s)

Jessica A. Nodulman

University of New Mexico