It is not uncommon that when I am with a friend, she asks about a mutual friend and I share small bits of information that I know. And I often inquire about the latest updates in a mutual friend’s life when I’m with a friend who sees our mutual friend more regularly than I do. Similarly, I presume that friends are doing the same with information they know about me.
Generally speaking, I see nothing wrong with this. In fact, I see it as a natural effect of being part of a network of people that information passes freely between us. Largely, I would not deem this as gossiping because friends care about each other and want to stay involved in each other’s lives, even though not everyone can see one another with equal amounts of frequency.
But recently I was involved in a conversation that did feel like gossip to me, and I fought against it with unpleasant results. And I was left wondering if I was creating an unspoken rule about protecting a friend’s privacy where there wasn’t one.
I shared what happened with Logan afterwards (not the piece of “gossip,” but the situation), and he encouraged me to write about it. I debated, feeling a bit like I am airing dirty laundry, but the purpose of this site is to discuss difficult issues and encourage personal growth, myself included. So, here I am, hoping that I grow in some way from working through my thoughts.
Because of my background in law and psychology, fields that are heavily research-based, I also did some research on trust in relationships and found this talk by Brené Brown, whom I admire so very much for her research and writing on vulnerability, belonging, and so much more. Her talk discusses the spreading of gossip and its interaction with trust, citing a story about how her daughter shared something terrible that had happened with some friends who then spread the information to others, and put language to what I was feeling in this situation with my friend. I will share some of the most salient take-aways from this talk throughout the article.
Here’s what happened.
My friend, Sam, and I were with two other friends, and Sam shared a very personal piece of information about a mutual friend, Naomie, who was not present. It was information that was not news to me, as Sam had already shared it with me years ago.
At that time, I had told Sam that she shouldn’t have told me. Sam rebutted my admonition by saying that Naomie had already told this very sensitive information to several people, thereby making it acceptable for her to disseminate the information. Essentially, Sam was arguing that Naomie had waived her right to privacy by previously mentioning the information in a public setting.
I disagreed and told Sam that, but she remained steadfast that she’d done nothing wrong.
When Sam shared the information again recently, this time in a larger group, I once again told her that I didn’t think it was appropriate for her to share the information with us. And Sam again said that she was simply repeating information Naomie had already shared with others.
Clearly, I still felt it was wrong, and Sam still didn’t see any problem with her behavior.
Neither of the other two girls weighed in; instead, we all just moved on. But I was left wondering if I was in the wrong, being too sensitive, and that Naomie was not owed the privacy that I believe she was (and still is) entitled to.
According to Sam’s argument, she should feel free to repeat news to a mutual friend (or whomever) if the person whose news it is has already shared it in a larger group setting. From this perspective, it seems like Sam believes that a person loses their right to control the further spreading of personal, sensitive information when they share it out loud in front of more than a single person.
It’s like saying, “hey, the information was already put out there, so the person must not care if it’s talked about.”
In a way, I get that, but I believe there’s a line.
If it’s good news, or benign gossip, that the person is sharing, then it seems reasonable that she wouldn’t mind if the news is shared with other mutual friends. So, go ahead and share. My only caveat would be news that a reasonable person (hey there, lawyer in me) would want to share herself, like an engagement or pregnancy.
But what about bad news? I would say that depends on what it is and err on the side of not disclosing or at least limiting disclosure. A car accident? Sure, share, as I would want to pray for my friend, see if I could do anything to support loved ones, and even visit my friend in the hospital or at home. A break-up? Possibly, if it’s pertinent to why the friend hasn’t been around lately, but keep the reason for the break-up to yourself – it’s personal!
So if there’s a line, how do you know whether or not you should cross it?
My litmus test is reflecting on my motivation for sharing the information.
Am I genuinely concerned about my friend? Will sharing the information with others in some way help my friend? Will it explain my friend’s absence or recent behavior? How would I feel if it were my news that was being shared with others?
In this case, I seriously question Sam’s motivation. The information was related to something that happened years ago and was not necessary for us to know for any reason.
Furthermore, by Sam’s own account, Naomie blurted out the information because she was triggered by what had happened. In my opinion, the fact that she was upset about the situation and shared impulsively because she was upset seems to support my perspective that Naomie is not indifferent to protecting the information.
The whole conversation rang of gossip to me which I don’t believe has any place in friendship. In fact, I believe it leads to distrust. In Brené’s talk, she says that distrust means that “what I have shared with you that is important to me is not safe with you.”
By no means am I saying that I have been a perfect friend or that I have never spoken a word of gossip; I think everyone has at some point in their lives.
But I believe we live and learn, and try to do better.
For me, that means keeping myself in check by considering my motivation when I have news or information about a friend.
And if I do share something that I shouldn’t, I do my best to make it right. As Brené says, “I can only trust you if when you make a mistake, you can own it, apologize, and make amends.” The fact that Sam sees no issue with her actions makes me seriously question whether I can trust her. This thought is sad to me, as I have been friends with her for nearly 15 years.
And, unfortunately, this is not the first time that I have questioned her actions, which leads me to wonder why she continues to behave in ways that I’ve found hurtful and inappropriate. Brené offers this theory:
“A lot of times, we share things that are not ours to share as a way to hotwire a connection with a friend,” she says. “Our closeness is built on talking bad about other people. You know what I call that? Common enemy intimacy.”
That term makes sense to me. But why would someone want to tear down a friend in the name of building up another friendship?
And this is why, when it comes to private, sensitive content, I feel strongly that friends do not waive their right to privacy, no matter what.
Have you ever been in situation like this before? If so, how did you handle it? Do you have your own litmus test for deciding when to share information? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.