Back in World War II, amidst an avalanche of propaganda posters and movies throughout the world, the idiom "loose lips sink ships" gained popularity. Ever since, this expression has remained in the global vernacular, acting as a warning to be mindful of what we say. In the 21st Century, this is arguably more important than ever.
Private conversations may not stay that way for long if conducted in a public area, such as coffee shops or bars - or even meeting rooms, especially those outside your traditional workplace. In the current political and social climate, overheard conversations can cause significant issues. If what is said is repeated out of context by somebody else, fallout may follow – including the taking of offense.
Non-verbal gestures play such an essential role in communication that missing out on these cues can spell disaster. If we are not cautious and vigilant about managing the risk of verbal leaks, a seemingly innocuous conversation over breakfast could be a viral Twitter thread by lunchtime. That rarely ends well for the source of the content.
The rise of technology also plays a part in caution surrounding overheard conversations. With so many of us now working from home, we meet with colleagues, superiors and subordinates over online networking software. Zoom, for example, has seen a significant spike in popularity since 2019. While the digital revolution remains in its comparative infancy, however, security and privacy improvements are regularly rolling out. Until a genuinely foolproof approach is discovered, we all need to take appropriate care to avoid unwelcome prying.
This may all sound like scaremongering – something that we have all undoubtedly seen enough of in the media over recent years. Alas, the problem is genuine. Here are a handful of recent examples of verbal leaks that have caused considerable problems for businesses and individuals.
Just recently, Queen Elizabeth II was overheard criticising world leaders in a private conversation at Cop26. Nothing the Royal said was particularly controversial. We can probably all agree with her sentiments! This does not change the fact that a private conversation became public, however. If a politician had made a similar complaint about the actions of their overseas peers, the response might have been very different. It would likely have been treated as a personal attack on another nation's environmental policies.
As you'll see, the consequences of verbal leaks can be highly pronounced. It's not simply a matter of privacy being violated. Reputations can be shattered, careers ended, and projects terminated. Nobody can be too vigilant about the potential for verbal leaks following discussions intended to remain private.
As touched upon previously, the rise of technology has seen the risk of verbal leaks rise exponentially. Uninvited attendees overhearing a discussion over a video conference is just part of the concern. Tools like Zoom also make it easy to record a meeting without the knowledge of all participants, as well as experiencing glitches with comparative regularity.
Perhaps more pertinently, we need to remember that we surround ourselves with listening devices. Whether it's Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant or Alexa, modern hardware always has at least one digital ear to the ground. Have you ever wondered why your social media fields are packed with airline and hotel advertising after a conversation about a vacation? Before you dismiss this as paranoia best saved for the darkest corners of YouTube, note that Google freely admits to listening in.
This is not to say that your technology is growing sentient and self-aware, plotting to bring your business to its knees through a well-timed leak. It does mean that we need to be mindful of what we discuss around such hardware, though. There is no way to ensure that your device will not repeat something it heard at the worst possible moment.
The reality is, the threat of verbal leaks are not going anywhere. If anything, the danger grows a little more each day, with every new advance and breakthrough. It is our responsibility to manage these concerns.
This management is something of a tightrope in and of itself. We need to ensure that private conversations remain this way, without making those involved feel like any discussion or meeting is sharing state secrets. Some suggestions of how this could be achieved include :
- Deactivate smart technology before engaging in a potentially sensitive conversation. Ask anybody present to switch off cell phones, or if this is considered an unreasonable or unrealistic request, to at least disable Siri or any alternative
- Issue NDAs before any meeting, regardless of where this is held. This will give attendees of the conference second thoughts about what they reveal to others. It also offers a form of legal recourse following a verbal leak, though this will hopefully not be necessary
- Soundproof any meeting spaces within a workplace or similar area, ensuring that the only people that can hear a discussion are those invited to join a conversation. This reduces any risk of being listened to by others, which in turn can lead to leaked sensitive information
- If you must hold a potentially sensitive conversation in a public forum, consider somewhere busy and noisy. This may sound counterproductive, but a crowded restaurant, for example, should provide enough ambient noise to mask your sound. In addition, anybody else within earshot is likely to be too busy managing their own affairs to pay much attention
- Choose your words carefully! Try to avoid placing yourself in a position where anything you say can be used to attack your character, or portray you in a negative light. It’s always better to pause, take a drink of water and say speak appropriately than to leave yourself open to attack through misinterpretation or personal attack
Keep the risks and potential consequences of verbal leaks in mind when holding conversations. The impact can be catastrophic. Thankfully, these worries can also be avoided with the appropriate care. It's advisable to take this action before commencing with any sensitive conversation. After all, loose lips sink ships. That statement may now be purely metaphorical, but the message behind it remains potent.