There’s nothing like kids to make you justify every piece of advice you give. Any stated opinion can raise a multitude of objections. As in the case of discussing gossip and rumors, I can say, “Don’t talk about people. Don’t talk bad about people. Don’t repeat everything you hear” but it is often met with the following questions: “What if what I’m saying is true? What if what I’m telling the person is for their own good? What if I’m trying to help them? What if they need to know so-and-so is BAD NEWS?”
Wading through gossip is part of my job description as a middle school counselor- Helping kids make sense of it; helping them know what to do about it; helping them to stop gossiping when they are doing it themselves. One of the books I’ve found particularly helpful in clarifying the many facets of gossip is Words That Hurt, Words That Heal by Joseph Telushkin.
He refers to three types of gossip in ascending order of seriousness:
Positive Gossip or the spreading of non defamatory truths. Many people believe its okay to talk about someone if what is being said is nice (She is so pretty. Her birthday party was awesome.) Telushkin says positive gossip is a slippery slope and its better not to do it. Why? We never know how another receives our message. What if the listener was not invited to the awesome birthday party? Or what if the listener doesn’t like the girl, and the positive gossip only incites further resentment? Furthermore Telushkin says, its part of human nature to not stay positive for too long. How often does, “She’s so pretty. Her birthday party was awesome” quickly take a negative descent? (“Did you notice she didn’t eat her own birthday cake?” “I’ve noticed she doesn’t eat lunch at school very often. I’m worried she might be anorexic.”)
Negative truths or the spreading of bad, but true gossip: We often don’t seem to think there is a problem spreading negative information about someone if that information is TRUE. How often have I heard the phrase. “People need to know…or I’ve got to warn….” Telushkin says we should not spread negative truths, because it lowers another person’s status. He does add the qualifier that on occasion sharing negative truth may be appropriate (He uses examples of giving job references, or when the information might have life-death-significance as in a friend seeing a doctor who you know was convicted of malpractice.) With teens the spreading of negative truth is particularly hard, because everything seems to have life-death significance. A trusted friend betrays another. A boyfriend cheats. “My friend needs to know.” Whether or not to pass on a negative truths bears much discussion. Telushkin strongly emphasizes the question, do they need to know in order to do their job (or go to school) or remain safe? He also references the popularly cited three fold filter. “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”
A subdivision of negative truths is tattling, telling others negative comments people have made about them. How many times have I heard girls say, “Did you know she trash talked you? This is what she said…” Again Telushkin says, unless there is a constructive reason…a need to know situation…there is not need to repeat what someone else said. Again teens think it is of life-death significance, so it is helpful to examine the motivation of why the messenger feels the need to tell. Examine what the benefits are of telling. Is it status? Is it because the messenger wants to look like someone in the know? Is it really to protect someone in danger? Will it help them to know? As with the spreading of negative truths, there are exceptions to the rule, but most often the adage “Don’t repeat everything you hear” applies. We do not want to be guilty of lowering another person’s status or perpetuating the destruction of another person’s good name. One of my favorite quotes Telushkin uses in the book is attributed to Mark Twain.
“It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.”
Which brings up the third and most serious of all gossip- slander; spreading negative non-truths. “So-and-so said this about you…(when they really didn’t.). So-and-so did this…(when they really didn’t.) It is important to remind kids that in some cultures slander is considered a type of murder. (In fact in our culture we call it character assassination, don’t we?) Since the injuries inflicted by words are intangible, it is easy to minimize the damage they inflict, but we cannot forget that words can be used to inflict devastating and irrevocable suffering on others. Often slander can be very hard to disprove. It can take the truth forever to catch up. Regaining our reputations after slander can be one of the hardest things in life to do.
Most of my examples I’ve given are from the female perspective, probably because I have many more girls than boys in my office complaining about gossip. (Although boys do it too.) Telushkin cites Deborah Tanner’s book You Just Don’t Understand: Women & Men in Conversation. Tanner cites anthropological and sociological research that concludes that teenage girls are more likely to betray friends’ secrets than boys. Why? Boys’ status tends to be based on athletics and how well they physically and verbally prevail in a fight. Girls’ status is linked to their connections. Are they in the “right crowd?” Girls get status by being friends with other high status girls-cheerleaders, pretty girls, girls who are popular with the boys, girls who are “rich”. How do you prove to others that you are friends with the popular girls? You gossip and tell their secrets. In essence you prove yourself by being an unworthy friend.
As your child claws for status in middle school, gossip, spreading rumors, betraying secrets and slander are often the legal tender. It is up to parents and other trusted adults to help them learn otherwise. Therefore we must have our advice on gossip and slander clarified and well articulated. Of course the saying, “What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying” applies. I am by no means innocent of all offenses enumerated in the book. Reading it, reminds me of the awesome power of words.
May we all go longer and longer stretches without saying an unkind word about, or to anyone.