Talking Behind-the-Back: Not as Bad as You Think

Whispering_

Admit it. You talk about your friends behind their backs. You say things about them that you won’t say to them. It is human nature.

And yet, it is not always mean-spirited and not usually intended to do harm. Indeed, sometimes it does a real good.

What do I mean? Here are some of the benefits of talking about your friend when he or she isn’t present:

  1. Blowing off steam. Every relationship produces some amount of frustration and conflict. If one simply allowed this to build inside with no outlet, many of us would eventually explode and do serious damage to someone we care about.
  2. Talking with a third-party about something done to you by a friend can help you to understand the person with whom you are displeased. Just putting your unhappiness into words can be enlightening. If your conversation partner is a good student of human behavior he may be able to share some insight into the other person’s motivation. And, just perhaps, your own mistakes or misinterpretations.
  3. Perhaps your confessor (the person to whom you are complaining) can offer a suggestion about what you can do to improve your relationship. Two heads are sometimes better than one.
  4. If you are speaking of an injury done by someone else, getting out your hurt and anger allows you to grieve so that you don’t nurse your grudge or suffer from sadness in perpetuity. Put another way, talking in this way can be therapeutic.
  5. Life is too grim if you can’t have some laughter at someone else’s expense, particularly if that person isn’t present and won’t suffer from what you say.
  6. Chit-chat behind someone else’s back certainly can be informative and complimentary as well as critical or mocking. Your perspective will be more balanced if you don’t simply concentrate on the negative. Part of relating to friends has to do with providing information about the activities and characteristics of the other people in your life, the good ones and the ones to beware of.

I should add at this point, that your therapist won’t customarily talk about you behind your back, except with a supervisor or colleague in an attempt to better help you, and then being careful not to identify you by name.

And yet, we know that talking behind-the-back of another is not always well-meant and shouldn’t be done too often even under the best conditions. At worst it becomes viperous gossip, intended to make the confidant think badly of the other person, perhaps to discourage him from associating with that guy. Indeed the “informer” might be angling for an advantage over the one he is criticizing, hoping to beat him out of a job promotion or a potential romantic partner. Knocking your competitor sometimes works to do just that, but can also make you look bad yourself. Scenes From a Marriage1

Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Scenes From a Marriage shows another kind of behind-the-back awfulness. The character played by Liv Ullmann, Marianne, calls a friend just after her husband Johan’s announcement that he is moving out. Rather than the support she seeks, however, she discovers that the friend already knew Johan’s plans, as did many others. Rather than solace, Marianne now feels doubly betrayed.

Do you want to know what is being said about you by others? You probably do if the person involved is actually an enemy who masquerades as your friend when he is with you.

I had such an experience in high school. Someone I considered a middling friend vilified me to his desk-mate in our home room, apparently because he was jealous of my grades that semester. (Ironically, he was very smart). His buddy passed me the note that my fake friend had written in complaint of me. The page was torn to pieces, but was delivered with the comment “If you want to find out what someone thinks of you, put this together.” It was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, but I did it; and learned not to trust either one of them, since I was sure the note-passer was violating the trust of the note-writer by so doing.

That situation represents a special case. More routinely, we talk about the people we like (or at least don’t hate) and even some with whom we are very close, not to betray them but for the reasons I mentioned at the top. I’m sure that my friends talk about me. I’m also sure that I don’t want to know.

Why? First, because I hope that if I do something that is sufficiently hurtful, they will eventually come to me directly with their concern. But there is an even more important reason that I don’t want to know what might be said about me behind my back.

Blaise Pascal, the philosopher and mathematician, put it this way: “I maintain that, if everyone knew what others said about him, there would not be four friends in the world.”

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