Notificational Webs in Cricles of Friends

In the most recent New Yorker, a short story, “Brother on Sunday” by A.M. Holmes, opens with a woman on the phone:

“Are you sure?” she whispers. “I can’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it. If it’s true, it’s horrible. . . . Of course I don’t know anything! If I knew something, I’d tell you. . . . No, he doesn’t know anything, either. If he knew, he’d tell me. We vowed we wouldn’t keep secrets.” She pauses, listening for a moment. “Yes, of course, not a word.”

The scene is a delightful example of how notification expectations are intertwined with how we understand relationships. We get two quick “network inspections”–“if I[he] knew, I’d[he’d] tell you[me]”–that reassure the caller that silence doesn’t indicate a fracture in the local information order. And the conversation ends with one more bit of meta-notification, the speaker assuring the caller that she understands the rules that attach to the information just obtained.

Sandy is the woman on the phone. Her husband, Tom, is overhearing the conversation and asks who it was.

“Sara,” she says.
“The usual.”
He waits, knowing that silence will prompt her to say more.
“Susie called Sara to say that she’s worried Scott is having an affair.”

This rather personal bit of information is being shared third-hand — Susie called Sara who called Sandy who is now talking with Tom. Lots of talking’s been going on, along with lots of meta-talking about the talking : Sara finished by extracting a promise that Sandy wouldn’t tell anyone. We can assume that Susie extracted a similar oath from Sara. As I’ve described elsewhere, notification norms are famously honored in the breach.

The narrative takes Tom and Sandy to the beach with a circle of friends they’ve been seeing regularly for a long time and then, later, that day, to dinner with them at a nice restaurant. In the middle of dinner, another bit of “information sharing” goes on; Tom and a friend end up in the men’s room at the same time:

When they are side by side at the urinals, the friend says, “I’m leaving Terri.”
“What are you talking about?” Tom says, genuinely shocked.
“I can’t stand it anymore. I’m miserable.”

“Terri doesn’t know.”
“About the other woman?”
“About anything. I’m telling you first. I don’t know what to say to her. We’ve been married for twenty-six years.”
“That’s a long time.”
“She’ll be fine,” he says, “once she gets over the initial shock.”
At the sink, Tom checks his face in the mirror. “When are you going to tell her?” he asks, watching himself talking.
“I don’t know,” the friend says. “Please don’t tell Sandy. The girls can’t keep a secret.”
“Not a word.”

The friend shines a light on his relationship with Tom by meta-notifying: “I”m telling you first,” and this sets up one of the story’s notificational punches when he suggests that it’s the very length of his marriage that makes it so hard to tell his wife. And then, finally, we get the condescending bit of meta-notification — don’t tell the girls — with a theory about how this particular network functions. But while it may read as condescending, we know from the the opening of the story that in this case, it’s on the mark.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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