Dealing with Gossip and Mutual Friends
April 26, 2009 7:56 PM   Subscribe

You're with some friends and they begin to maliciously gossip about one of your friends. What do you do?

I'm looking for gracious/ethical things to say or do when it's a group of your friends (some closer than others) begin to basically cut down a non-present friend, who also happens to be friends with a few others at the table.

Scenario: it's a restaurant, and the meal you're going to pay for just came. This has happened somewhat often to me (at least lately) and I'm at a loss to describe how gross and terrible I feel.

I certainly don't participate in it, but I had no idea said group of people harbored ill feelings toward my friend. I mean, do I just leave? Get up and go?

It strikes me as a vapidly dramatic to declare the group of people terrible individuals or to leave in a huff—yet it seems a little needy, a little naive, to try to defend the friend: especially when that friend was apparently mean/ugly to someone at the table.

Sorry for the rambling, and here's the main problem: how do I balance the wish to not ruin a meal with the desire to remain a good friend with a person being gossiped about at that meal?

There aren't otherwise bad people, and it doesn't happen a lot, I just supposed to dump them for good?

Ugh. Please advise.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (36 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
"Hey, I gotta say, I'm really not comfortable talking about X like this -- it makes me feel a little awkward."

It's short and to the point. It doesn't make any judgments about the people who are willing to talk about the friend behind their back, and it doesn't sound needy or over-dramatic at all. Just emphasize the fact that you're not comfortable and then let the subject drop as quickly as possible.
posted by Ms. Saint at 8:00 PM on April 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

I certainly don't participate in it, but I had no idea said group of people harbored ill feelings toward my friend. I mean, do I just leave? Get up and go?

No. You object and defend your friend with polite, true statements.
"Hey, wow, that's surprising, because Katie's always been very honest and kind to me."

"That doesn't sound like Josh at all. He's always been a good friend to me."
Don't lie or inflate them, don't argue, just state something factual that makes it clear that you're not in agreement and probably are not enjoying the tear-down.

People will probably back off, or at least be a bit more careful. If they persist, just don't participate. You've done your duty.
posted by rokusan at 8:02 PM on April 26, 2009 [25 favorites]

Do you want them to stop gossiping about the person entirely, or just when you're around? Simply stating matter-of-factly that hearing gossip about that person makes you uncomfortable will probably get them to stop doing it around you.

As far as getting them not to do it, including when you're not around, that's probably impossible.
posted by delmoi at 8:02 PM on April 26, 2009

how do I balance the wish to not ruin a meal with the desire to remain a good friend with a person being gossiped about at that meal?

The best course of action is to just not participate.

If these people were saying something apparently untrue about your friend, or something definitely untrue, I'd jump in and clarify, because clarification ("Hey, I was there, and this is what actually happened . . .") actually has the potential to smooth over things socially. And it's the gracious, loyal thing to do to stand up for someone against untrue, gossipy claims.

But if your friend really did do something to these people? Well, they have a right to complain, if the situation actually played out the way they described it. Sure, it would be more mature to talk to your friend directly, and you can suggest that if you want, but it's very likely that the gossips are just blowing off steam, while simultaneously reinforcing alliances with the people they're talking to.

Remember that gossip has much more to do with the people talking than it does the people being talked about. While hurtful, untrue, ugly gossip should be curtailed, to an extent it's a necessary component of many social groups to forge and illustrate alliances between people. Not participating in the gossip is a good way to show that you prefer not to ally yourself with the gossiper--in fact, probably the best way to do so. By staying silent, I promise, they're registering your tacit disapproval.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:08 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

If I am asked to join in the gossip in a situation like this I usually say something like " I've never experienced that sort of thing with him/her. Actually, they have always been very nice to me. *mention instance of niceness*"

Other than that, I keep my mouth shut during the gossip and seize any good opportunity to change the subject. It is a rather chicken shit way to handle it but at least I can say that I didn't join in.
posted by Foam Pants at 8:10 PM on April 26, 2009

On some occasions, mostly by accident, I've managed to defuse this by making my own comments about the absent friend that are caricatures of what the others are saying: "Yeah, that fuckin' Tom! I hear he kicks puppies and clubs baby seals. Every day!" (But something more apropos to whatever the criticism being made is.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:12 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with rokusan, and also, I try to convey through tone and expression that I'm uncomfortable and unhappy with this kind of thing. Plus, I file away how they're speaking -- and expect that elsewhere, at some other time, they may speak the same way about me.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:13 PM on April 26, 2009

No. You object and defend your friend with polite, true statements.


Then, after the meal, think about those friends. Do you think that the next time they get together without you, they're going to make fun of how you defended your other friend? if so, they're probably people you should consider dumping. If not, trust hope they'll reconsider their opinions just a smidge based on your statements.
posted by davejay at 8:16 PM on April 26, 2009

You object and defend your friend with polite, true statements.

This 2x.

Be as easy going as you can, but be very clear in setting yourself apart from the rest of the table. If it ever comes out you'll be remembered as the person who didn't go along with the gossip.

If the circumstances are such that you can't or don't want to defend a friend on a certain point, at least say, "You know what guys, so-and-so is a friend, and I don't feel good talking about them when they aren't here."
posted by wfrgms at 8:19 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

First I'd listen to see if it has any grain of truth behind it, and then I'd either ignore it and stay quiet if the complaints are petty and likely to be forgotten or contradict them if they're building a real wall against my other friend.
Once you defend someone in these situations ("Oh, I think she did this because xyz, when I was in trouble she bent over backwards to help me" etc), it's fun to see how quickly everyone will backtrack and try to top each other saying nice things about the absent friend.
posted by rmless at 8:19 PM on April 26, 2009

I find a "Hey X, I actually like Bob and would prefer you don't talk about him like that in front of me. I hope you understand, I'd do the same for you" and if they come back with "Well, Bob did Y nasty thing and Z asshattish thing" you can just re-interate, "X, I'd prefer not to keep discussing this thanks" or "This isn't something I've experience with Bob" and then change the subject - "Hey! how about that chick that jumped into pat the polar bears!"

It might make you feel confrontational or give you anxious feelings but if you feel so strongly about not participating or encouraging them then you can make it clear you don't want the conversation to continue. If this keeps happening? You should spend more time with Bob...
posted by latch24 at 8:20 PM on April 26, 2009

Silence and lowering my eyes works for me. Or a combination of that and what rokusan said. Also, take note of who is bad-mouthing your friend because if they will do that to her, what will they say about you when you are not around?
posted by mlis at 8:20 PM on April 26, 2009

I try to get across two points in as polite a way as possible

- so and so is my friend and I think they are a decent person
- I'm in an awkward position listening to you slag on them because you are my friend but they are my friend too

and reiterating what other people said, if they're saying something that I KNOW isn't true, I'll correct the misunderstanding but not start getting in to a back and forth with the people talking. It's rare if I get into a situation like this because I live in a small community and you just can't gossip too much about folks but if saying the two above things politely didn't have some sort of effect I'd more directly say "I'd really appreciate if you'd stop talking about this, it's making me uncomfortable" and then see what happens from there.
posted by jessamyn at 8:27 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just say it. "That's not very nice, what a bunch of gossipy shrews! Hey, anyone see Target is having a sale on something?"
posted by ctmf at 8:27 PM on April 26, 2009

"Ooohh... be nice." With a little humorous finger wagging.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:28 PM on April 26, 2009

Nthing the "huh, that's not my experience at all."

Also, if it's something that is not as easily to negate (terrifically vague, or kinda sorta not untrue but shitty to say), you can always go with "hey, that's not cool" with a followup of "uhhhh, why don't we change the subject, kay?"
posted by desuetude at 8:29 PM on April 26, 2009

I say lightly, "He's (She's) not here to defend himself (herself)," and change the subject. If that fails to work, I will say it again, a little more emphatically, and again change the subject. If that doesn't work, I will leave the group (to go to the bathroom or outside to get something) for a period of time.
Some people view malicious gossip as a way to bond. In the culture in which I grew up, it is viewed as a sign of insecurity and/or low status, since an emotionally secure, strong person is not malicious toward others.
Not participating in gossip is sometimes viewed as holding oneself apart from the group, but it's the best course to maintain one's integrity; and at the deepest level, people do realize this.
posted by ragtimepiano at 8:32 PM on April 26, 2009

What Jess said. Let them know the person of derision is your friend and that you differ in opinion. It usually causes the subject to change. Hey, how about those Mets?
posted by caddis at 8:32 PM on April 26, 2009

I agree with the folks who suggest chiming in with positive statements about the person, but let me also add my personal stance on gossip in general: Gossip is OK. We talk about people behind their backs. We all do. It's what we, as social apes, are best at. Sure, you don't want people spreading lies and badmouthing your friends, but it's OK to indulge in a little discussion about others' faults and foibles. They are probably talking about you, too.

Hey, anonymous, I heard what you said on Ask MetaFilter about me and my tendency to gossip. Not cool, man. Not cool.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:35 PM on April 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Just say it. "That's not very nice, what a bunch of gossipy shrews! Hey, anyone see Target is having a sale on something?"

Oh wow, I really wouldn't do this. Name calling isn't a great idea, because it will just make them feel shitty and defensive, and if you come out and call these people gossips, you're almost cementing that they'll not only talk about you behind their backs, but also that they'll proceed to list every known instance of you ever saying anything negative about someone else. Trust me--I've seen it happen before.

(I'm quickly coming to realize that I'm in the complete minority on ask regarding gossip, but remember, you can't control the actions of others, you can only control your response to them. For those who say that gossip is bad because people might gossip about you, keep in mind that people will gossip--about you, even!--no matter what you do. The best way to stay above-the-board is to be honest, correct falsehoods, and otherwise not participate, particularly if you want to maintain any semblance of friendship with the gossipers. Of course, whether you really want to do so is up to you.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:39 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

When this happens to me, I usually just shrug and say, "I don't have a problem with him/her," and leave it at that. If/when the gossip turns vicious to the point of making me uncomfortable, I say something like, "Hey guys, can we talk about something else? He/she is my friend and this is making me kind of uncomfortable."

I usually stay away from trying to defend the person, because my friends are allowed to feel however they want about someone and it's not my job to convince them to like anyone. It's so patronizing when you don't like someone and someone else who does like them tries to convince you why you're wrong by listing anecdotes of when the person in question was nice to them as though that has any bearing on what the person is like to you.

The only situation where I'll interject is if something is said as fact that I know to be untrue.
posted by cosmic osmo at 8:41 PM on April 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Rock Steady: I disagree. Completely. To gossip may be a common weakness, but a weakness it is. Hurtful commentary directed toward an absent person is snarky and mean-spirited.
posted by ragtimepiano at 8:49 PM on April 26, 2009

Oh wow, I really wouldn't do this.

It's all in the delivery, and depends on how well you know them. With my friends, and with them knowing my hyperbolic nature, and delivered with a laugh, it would work great. Everyone would laugh, too, and we'd talk about something else.

They're going to do that about you later anyway, and they'd probably be even more nasty if you acted all hoity-toity "this conversation is beneath me" about it.

Of course, if the things they are saying are factually untrue, you should correct them. Most often, though, they are going to be true statements with rude speculations about motives and character attached.

It probably depends most on what your friends are like and how you normally interact. I probably wouldn't go calling some women from church I'm just casual friendly-acquaintance with "gossipy shrews." Out loud.
posted by ctmf at 8:58 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

ragtimepiano: What about honest commentary about the bad actions of an absent person?

From the question: "it seems a little needy, a little naive, to try to defend the friend: especially when that friend was apparently mean/ugly to someone at the table"

Again, I certainly don't countenance deliberate lies or slander, but if someone does me wrong, I certainly don't feel bad telling people I know about it, and I don't wait until that person is present.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:04 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

They're going to do that about you later anyway, and they'd probably be even more nasty if you acted all hoity-toity "this conversation is beneath me" about it.

Ooh, I actually read it that way! Sounds like we're mostly in agreement, then. :)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:20 PM on April 26, 2009

"Gossip" is defined usually as malicious, unsubstantiated talk about an absent person. That's the sense I am using in my comments. "Complaints" might be a description of what you mean? If you have an honest, legitimate complaint, I wouldn't call that gossip.
posted by ragtimepiano at 9:43 PM on April 26, 2009

If you have an honest, legitimate complaint, I wouldn't call that gossip.

Fair enough, then. I guess the definition I usually use for "gossip" is a discussion about a person who is not present. Gossip, to me, could include lies and truth, be positive or negative. Keep in mind, when dealing with human interactions, I have found that the line between "malicious, unsubstantiated talk" and "legitimate complaint" can veer wildly, depending on who you ask.

In any case, if the gossiping friends of the original asker seem to be perpetuating untruths, the asker might suggest that they take their issues up with the person in question, and if it is not a topic they'd feel comfortable addressing with the subject of the conversation, then maybe it is a sentiment best kept to one's self.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:54 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're uncomfortable calling them out on it in a straightforward way ("Hey, talking about X like this isn't cool; we're adults, let's act like it"), use humor. "Wow, when you guys talk like this, it makes me worry what you say about me when I'm not around!" Change the subject or start a whole different conversation with someone at the table who perhaps seems as uncomfortable as you are, and derail the whole thing strategically. If none of this is what you want to do, stop being around these people and be with friends who are not stuck in middle school.

I teach little kids how to do this, and they can do it! You can do it too!
posted by so_gracefully at 10:08 PM on April 26, 2009

I either do what rokusan suggested, or, if I'm feeling a little confrontational, I say "its a good thing all of us here are perfect huh?"
posted by Admira at 10:18 PM on April 26, 2009

In improv, if your scene is going sour, a way to fix it is called "see a tree". You divert the scene with a new and unexpected element. The simple and weird thing to do would be to say "Wait a sec.... do you guys see that tree?!!" But of course you don't just want tree scenes so you use a different thing each time. "Wait, did you guys hear that?" "Oh no my heel broke!" "Hold up, I lost my wallet!" etc.

In your situation, you can just innocently turn the conversation towards something concrete and immediate. "Oh my god, this chicken is so good! How's your fish?" Just let yourself be distracted by something that's happening literally in the room with you, and then remark upon it. Works very well to bring the convo down from mean ideas and into actual stuff you can all relate to that's not toxic.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:32 PM on April 26, 2009

I agree with so_gracefully: ""Wow, when you guys talk like this, it makes me worry what you say about me when I'm not around!" I've used this very phrase a few times myself.
posted by ragtimepiano at 11:30 PM on April 26, 2009

I was with some friends recently and I was venting a bit about a mutual friend, and one of my friends said, kind of lightly, "Oh, poor X. I hate to think what people say about me when I'm not here!" It wasn't rude at all, but it made me realize how rude and unkind I was being, and I stopped.

In other words, what so_gracefully said.
posted by cider at 6:00 AM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've been in this situation, and I said I was uncomfortable talking about my friend. It happened again a week later, same gossiper, same gossippee. I said I really valued gossippee's friendship, and asked that it stop. It was clearly not well received. It effectively ended my relationship w/ the gossiper. I didn't ask gossiper to events that included gossippee. In fact, it put a big rift in a group that I was part of.

What I wished I'd done: Lightly said something, then changed the subject, humorously if possible. . "Wow, I didn't know you weren't a fan of Jay's. You may not know we're close. Hey, was I the last one to see that Mentos and Diet Coke video?" Group dynamics are really interesting, and the response your friends have to you will be telling.

As I've gotten older, I'm way better at not letting people dump on me or my friends, but it takes time and practice to do it with grace.
posted by theora55 at 7:09 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree that you shouldn't call them on it. I try to commiserate with the gossip and the target, both. "You know, no one really knows what's going on in someone's private life. Maybe she had some reason totally unknown to us to do ______. We all do stuff like that, or I do anyway, and a lot of times what you perceived is not what I meant at all!"

Usually this turns the conversation from malicious to sympathetic, and you've generated good karma for everyone involved.
posted by raisingsand at 8:08 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

"How about that local sports team?"

When I feel that it is time to change the subject of conversation I sometimes say the above. I do not actually use the name of the local sports team because I want it to be transparently obvious that I'm changing the subject.

Also, when it is unavoidable, I usually say something like, "Yeah that sounds like a crappy situation for everyone involved" and then try to change the subject. Maybe afterward I might talk to one of the people who is a mutual friend of the person being insulted at the table. I would ask them as an aside if they felt as uncomfortable about the conversation as I did, and then change the subject.

If untrue things are being said, I'd correct them.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:59 AM on April 27, 2009

What rokusan said, in spades. I have only recently gotten the hang of doing just this, and found it's really easy and the best approach. I just act surprised (which frankly isn't "acting" at all--I am genuinely surprised people still get bored enough to stir up shit) and say something like "Huh? Really? Maybe she was just having a bad day, with the stress she's going through lately and all...she's always been nice to me." Then casually change the subject. It's not that confrontational, but you're not totally copping out either.
posted by ifjuly at 2:43 PM on May 3, 2009

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