Stop bad mouthing, rumours, gossip and talking behind backs

| Dr Ilse Ruane

Dr Ilse Ruane

Rumour spreading, gossiping and talking behind people’s backs is destructive.  It destroys people’s reputations and causes a range of social problems such as exclusion.  As parents, educators and coaches, we need to teach children to live with integrity.  It is common knowledge that people love to gossip and we must teach children to stay out of it.  Talking about other people and their private affairs is one of life’s greatest temptations that we all succumb to.  It is human nature to compare ourselves to others and often we cannot resist talking about other people.  It is hard to avoid listening to gossip and we often find ourselves participating in gossip and rumours. But the truth of the matter is, at the end of the day, it is nothing but judgemental and disrespectful no matter what your reasons or motives are.

Why do people spread rumours and gossip?

Some people spread rumours and gossip as a way to intimidate others and gain status or popularity. Others spread rumours out of jealousy, fear of competition or to exclude someone from a group. Spreading rumours as a way to turn people against someone is a form of bullying. It can have serious consequences for the person doing it. It hurts the person being talked about, and it intimidates other people.

Sadly, when other people see this kind of thing going on, they do not always stand up for what is right. They may become less friendly to the person who is being talked about or even exclude them.  The reasons for this may be: 

  • they incorrectly believe the rumour or gossip without clarifying the reality with the person being spoken about; 
  • they are afraid of becoming the next target;
  • they enjoy being part of the gossiping and may even take the stories further to other people;
  • Through joining in the gossiping, they exclude the other party, thereby they guarantee their position, favour or their safety within the group I.E. exclusion of the other creates inclusion for oneself; 
  • It keeps the focus off them. If we gossip about someone else, there is no time to focus on ourselves and our faults;
  • Or sadly they have not thought about why the speaker is spreading the destructive stories in the place. What does the speaker have to gain from such a conversation? What is their motivation? Does it make them look better, or explain away their bad behaviour? People generally gossip due to their own insecurities. 

It is important to remember that we do not have to be friends with everyone, or even like everyone. But not liking another person does not give someone the right to spread rumours, gossip, or put them down. Acting like this shows a lack of courage and maturity. It is a false way to try gain popularity or status in the group. And it almost always backfires in the end. 

Real popularity comes from feeling comfortable with ourselves and from treating people with kindness. People who are truly well liked treat everyone with respect and fairness. They do not put other people down. They do not try to gain power by having ‘followers’ or popularity at the expense of another person. They are confident and sure of themselves, so they do not have to resort to this unkind behaviour.

So what can you do if you find yourself the target of rumours and gossiping? Turn to a trusted adult. Talk to someone about what is going on, like a parent, teacher, school psychologist, or sports coach. Let that person know what you are going through. Keep them up to date on what is going on, even as things start to get better. Sometimes it is better to talk to someone outside of the situation because they have some distance from the problem and can look at it from a fresh perspective.

Find friends. Find a friend or two who will stick by you and who will not listen to rumours. If you would like to, share how you feel with those friends but do not be drawn into a similar pattern by speaking unkindly about the person spreading the rumours. If you do, you then become that type of person. Spend time and energy having fun with your friends and doing activities you enjoy. Do not dwell on the situation.

Speak up. Consider speaking to the girl or boy who is spreading rumours. If you can, approach her/him. Calmly say something like, “I know we don’t get along. You don’t have to like me, but you need to stop spreading rumours about me and talking behind my back.” Do not be angry or mean. Just say what you want calmly, assertively, and maturely. After you have said what you want, you walk away. There is no need to wait for her/him to say anything back. Leave her/him to think about what you said.

Every situation is different, and you want to make sure things do not turn into more nastiness or fighting. It can also help to have a friend stand with you when you talk to the girl/boy.

Take care of yourself. Do things that strengthen your confidence and positive feelings. Going through a situation like this can be difficult and hurtful. Gather your inner strength, get support from people who care. Focus on positive things, and believe in yourself. These things can help you get through this difficult situation.

There is a disturbing trend of adults gossiping about other people’s children. 

As adults, we do not do enough to stem the tide of  rumour spreading and gossiping.  It is bad enough that children are speaking poorly about other children, but it is another thing entirely when adults speak badly about children. More and more often in my therapy consultations, I am seeing parents and children struggling with the fallout resulting from adults gossiping about other people’s children.  Parents are upset that their children are victims and children lives are made very difficult.  Parents talk about other children openly in the parking lot or on the sportsfield. Staff members are shocked at what they hear in their parent-teacher meetings.  People ask me why they see more of this behaviour.  Perhaps adults do not seem to understand the harm in their actions because it is “harmless chitchat”. Or perhaps it is more sinister, that these adults are badmouthing children for specific personal reasons. For example to discredit other children because of jealousy, create a diversion from the issue at hand which involves their own child or seeing other children as a potential threat to their child in terms of status, success or popularity.

Adults have many misconceptions about their own behavior when they are around children.  They think if you sit in the back of a room at a children’s event and talk, no one can hear them.  They think that their children will take their advice when they do not live by example. “Do as I say and not as I do”. They think that when they talk about other children to adults especially infront of their own children, there is no harm being done to that child. But both children are being harmed; theirs and the other child. Their child, who is listening to the stories, is being raised to believe such talk is acceptable and harmless and the other child whose character they are defaming is being harmed in many ways.

It is important to remember we never know the whole picture of a child from the little pieces we get from observing isolated events in their lives, such as at sportsfield.  Adults who participate in bathmouthing or gossiping about other children, even as a listener, need to remember the child that is being gossiped about is being harmed by your indirect participation. The adult doing the gossiping does not necessarily have the insight into their behaviour and the effects thereof. Therefore the onus falls on the listerner to try and see the bigger picture. By trying to see the bigger picture, the listener can prevent themselves from falling for the gossip story and can perhaps gleam the hidden agenda. 

I offer three tips to parents regarding rumours and gossiping based on what I hear in my private practice: 

  1. Do not bad mouth others in front of your own children. Whether it is your own adult friend you have having words with or the fact that you are jealous that another child did better in the exams, or cricket match or dance compeition,  than your own child. Children do not understand how to process such information. Nevermind the fact that they are observing first hand what disrespectful and unkind conversations are like. You are the role model and their observations become the basis for their behaviour.  
  2. If you no longer want your child playing with a particular child, simply stop the playdates. Make your rules for your own child.  Do what you feel is right without spreading stories about the other child.  The old saying “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” should apply equally, if not more so when we speak in front of or about other children who are still learning about socialization, behaviour and expressing emotion. 
  3. There is NEVER a valid reason to go after another child by using rumours and gossip. If you as an adult have a problem with a particular child, maybe you need to look a little closer to home to uncover why you feel this way. By looking honestly at your motivation behind participating in rumours and gossip, you might uncover awareness regarding where these feelings come from. Even if you, as an adult, dislike a child there is still no valid enough reason for badmouthing a child to other adults or children. 

Nothing exudes unhappiness and insecurity more than rumours, gossip and badmouthing others. Gossip is spread for social reasons, therefore if someone is gossiping to you, consider what they are hoping to achieve? Also remember if a person so easily gossips to you, do you really think they are not gossiping behind your back to someone else aswell.