Gossip vs “talking behind one’s back” vs “talking about someone without their presence

They’re not the same thing!!

I guess it hadn’t occurred to me until just recently (last few hours?) that they might be considered to be the same thing by some people. I don’t know, maybe I’m the only one who makes distinctions?

Gossip: idle talk or rumor, esp. about the personal or private affairs of others: the endless gossip about Hollywood stars.

“Talking behind my/your/their back” is harder to get a dictionary.com definition for, but I’ve generally understood it to be akin to gossip.
Talking about someone without their presence CAN be gossip. But it’s not always. Think about these situations when someone is talked about without their knowledge or presence:
  • Planning a surprise (lame, but had to be included)
  • Discussing problems with others. (If I have a problem, and that problem involves a person, and I need to discuss said problem to try to figure out a solution, to talk out frustration, or to assess my own reactions, I obviously will need to talk about that person to another person.) (example: rob has offended me in some way, and I am not sure how to respond, and need advice. I seek advice from a friend or relative. This is not mean-spirited gossip, it is seeking the counsel of others. The intent is good and caring, not mean or hurtful.)
  • Sharing concerns with others. (If I have a concern, and that concern involves a person, and I need to discuss said concern to try to figure out a solution, whether I or others can be of any help, or just assess whether I in fact need to just shut up and mind my own business, then I obviously will need to talk about that person to another person.) (example: Mary has a drug problem. I’m aware of the drug problem. I talk to other people who also know Mary and who are also aware of her drug problem to assess if there’s something we can do, and if we should do anything, to help Mary. I don’t think this is mean-spirited gossip, even if Mary gets furious at us for our meddling, or even if we bungle things badly in our attempt to help. The intent is good, caring. Not mean.)
  • Sharing experiences. (talking about something to one person, and they know someone else who experienced something similar. “man, I’m trying to figure out what to do about X.” “Oh, I was talking with Rhonda yesterday, and she had something similar she was telling me about….”)
  • Just simply talking about someone in a way that is neither hurtful nor helpful. Sometimes there is news (hey, did you hear how john did in his competition last week?). Sometimes it’s informative (oh, you’re looking for someone who does plumbing? George can do that for you. We’ve used him before and were very happy.). Sometimes it just is. (Hey, I ran into Millie yesterday, and we had a delightful conversation. I really enjoy her company.)
The difference, as with so many things, is intent. Is the intent to help or to hurt?
And I think it’s important, if you’re the person who thinks you’re being gossiped about, to try to fairly determine the intent.
(I had a hard time with this a few years ago, when news of my first miscarriage spread thru the community like wildfire. It was kind of hard to handle knowing I’d been the subject of so much gossip… but then I realized that the intent, in the vast majority of cases, was more to be helpful than to be hurtful. At the very least, the intent was neutral.)

5 responses to “Gossip vs “talking behind one’s back” vs “talking about someone without their presence

  1. Er, I have a question about this…
    Two people very close to me both have quite serious mental health problems (perhaps temporary), but its not known by others that they do. Because I am close to them both, and they are integral parts of my life, and am verry worried about them, I quite often confide in my friends who know them a little but wouldn’t otherwise know of the problems.
    I feel guilty about this, because I’m sure they wouldn’t want the other people to know their problems, but yet I’m often at a loss what to do, and I also feel the need to vent (for my own sanity)and try and get some idea of how to help and what the problem is.

    But, like I say, I feel guilty. There are occassional events when we all meet, and it feels like I’ve done wrong, by letting some of my friends know things about these people that they wouldn’t otherwise know and would prefer kept secret. It feels like I’ve betrayed everyone, really, by making my friends feel unconfortable in these situations, and by spilling personal secrets about the other two.

    Any thoughts? Am I behaving badly? (Sorry…I know you’re not an agony aunt)

    • Well, I’m certainly no advice columnist, but yes, I’d say you need to stop spilling secrets about your friends to people who know them. If you need to vent, do you know people who don’t know these other friends??

      • Thanks for replying! The two people in question (a relative and a partner) would only come in contact with my friends via me, and pretty much anyone I was friends with would probably get to meet them too eventually. Their problems are quite serious and worrying – long-term depression and unemployment in one case, and something akin to BPD in the other. So, I feel I need to vent about their behavior at times. But, I sometimes wish that I didn’t, and perhaps I shouldn’t unless it were really necessary. Thanks again!

  2. I think the difference is not intent as much as content. People who do bad gossip do it out of habit with no ill intent – they unconsciously talk about others without realizing it is gossip. As for the content: it is ok to talk about someone else behind their back if it is positive/neutral information OR if you’d be ok talking about the person if the absent person was actually there and could hear you and not get offended. So, before you speak about someone else, think about this:would that person be ok to hear that if he or she would be present at the time I’m talking about them? If you talk about something negative – it is a gossip. Also, if you are in deep trouble with someone and feel scared to talk about it but you just need to talk with someone else for an advise – you can talk to someone that you are sure will never see the person you are talking about: a stranger in a park, a pastor in church, or a professional counselor/psychologist, or a very close friend that you can trust 100% and has an extremely long-term solid reputation of keeping his/her mouth shut and is therefore 100% trustworthy (but the later should be the last resort)………..

    • I’m chuckling these many years later over the stranger in a park idea. Ask Mr Darcy how well it turned out when his cousin spoke with a stranger about a situation involving an unknown friend and his love interest. 🙂

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