talking about people when they're not around

sent to my newsletter on Aug 14, 2019

I love sharing my life with people and love hearing about others’ lives. I spend a lot of my time exploring frameworks for living my life, and exchanging personal thoughts with others is one of the main ways I go about this.

So naturally, in all this life-sharing I do, I often end up in scenarios where I’m talking about people when they’re not around. Perhaps one could call these scenarios “gossiping”? But is saying “my friend went on vacation last week” gossip? I’m not that concerned with defining gossip in this newsletter, but let me give you a sense of the scope of what I’m talking about.

Situations when I talk about people when they’re not around

1. Talking about a personal experience of mine that involved another person

2. Talking about another person’s story that might be relevant to a conversation but doesn’t involve me at all

(There’s also situations that don’t fall into these two categories, such as a date that my partner went on, which is a story about someone else that indirectly affects me.)

An incomplete list of benefits

It’s easy to dismiss gossip or talking about people behind their backs as a thing that’s always bad. But I think it’s important to note the benefits of talking about people when they’re not around:

An incomplete list of ways it hurts people

Gossip and talking behind people’s back get a bad rap for a reason. Here are some reasons I want to be careful about talking about people:

How do I balance the benefits and minimize the hurt?

This is where things get fuzzy. A friend was talking to me about how there’s a fairly clear green zone (when it’s totally okay to share) and red zone (when it’s definitely not okay to share), but these are very narrow zones. Mostly, there’s just a massive grey zone.

I don’t have any clear answers to what makes something closer to the red zone or green zone, I only have a bunch of ideas collected from a bunch of thinking and conversations with people over the past few months.

When I’m talking about someone when they’re not around, I want to think about these things:

How much does the the person I’m talking about value privacy?

It’s difficult to know if each thing I share is violating privacy - it depends on so much! But if I think someone is fairly private (e.g. they share things less, post less publicly on social media, share fewer details about their friends), then I will bias towards sharing less about them.

How well does the person I’m talking to know the person I’m talking about?

Do they interact much? How close are they? Are they strangers? Are they likely to ever meet?

Consider three folks: Izzy, Angus, and Rohan. (Thanks to folks suggested fake names on Twitter!) Rohan is friends with both Izzy and Angus, and is talking to Izzy about Angus.

What if Izzy and Angus don’t know each other at all? Perhaps then Angus wouldn’t actually mind that Rohan is talking about him with Izzy. Some people I talked to said if they were in this position, they wouldn’t be very invested in what Izzy (a stranger) thought of them. But if they knew her, perhaps they would care more about her perception of them.

I think the general idea is that people feel safer interacting with friends when they have more knowledge about and control over what their friends know about them.

Thinking about this difference helps me mitigate the “affecting the social perception of people” kind of harm. I don’t actually think it makes a significant difference to me, though, and I’m curious how important it is for other people.

What tone am I using to talk about this person? Am I being kind?

One of the biggest ways talking about people affects social perception of that person is the tone of how things are shared about them. Generally, people would prefer to be represented kindly and in a good light.

I think about this a lot in my conversations. When people are shamelessly making negative judgments, I associate it with lack of empathy, and it makes me uncomfortable. Often I’ll use the label “gossip” in these contexts.

It’s important to me to humanize the person being talked about. If I’m complaining about Sandesh to Ludmila, I like to also supply some of the reasoning of why Sandesh might have acted this way. This helps me feel like I’m giving a story with a bit less bias, and hopefully am affecting Ludmila’s perception of Sandesh in a less extreme way.

(fun fact: Sandesh literally translates to “message”)

This being said, venting about someone without having to consider their feelings can be very cathartic and helpful. I don’t feel like I need to always be kind, but I do want to be conscious about when I could be.

What’s the minimum amount of identifying information I can share while getting the main story across?

One of my friends described a game they like to play, and I’ve given it a try. When sharing information about someone, I sometimes challenge myself to share the minimum detail to still getting the benefit I wanted from sharing. For example, I could get advice on how to respond to a message to a friend without sharing the name of that friend or any particularly identifying information (how I know them, where they live or work, etc).

However, identifying information is often useful! Commiserating with a coworker about a manager we’re both wary of is possible through de-anonymizing the manager. If someone asked me for support for managing a conflict with a close friend, I might give different advice than if they were asking about a coworker. And sometimes it just gets confusing to tell stories about people without sharing their name or how I know them.

I also often sometimes find it useful to share stories about people over a longer timeline, such as a friendship that grows unhealthy or a potential crush that over time escalates into a relationship. If I ended up talking about the same person many times, I imagine I would eventually share enough about them that they could become identifiable.

I’m not sure how much this partial-anonymization preserves privacy, but I do think it makes a difference in many situations, and try to remember to do it when I can.

What is the content I’m sharing? How private is it?

Some things feel obviously more personal, such as a traumatic life event. Everyday things feel a lot less private. What is considered more or less private can vary a lot from person to person, so I’m interested in how different people think about this!

Things shared in private, especially feelings (fear, anxiety, sadness, hope, any kind of vulnerability), seem much more private. People’s public actions and things shared in group settings generally feel more public to me.

A few other things I’ve been thinking about

What about people you “share everything with”?

There are definitely people who share lots of things with their partners or best friends. I can see how in relationships like these, people talk a lot about what’s going on in their life, and part of that talking is about other people.

But it seems almost normalized that if I share something fairly personal with someone, they will likely tell their partner or best friend about it. I’ve shared personal stories with partners as well! But is this reasonable? Is this something most people know is happening and are okay with?

Should I always ask people if I can share something about them?

Different folks have different boundaries and different preferences for how things about them are shared. Some people have suggested that I just ask people for consent when I want to share something about them. And some friends have told me they’d prefer to know everything that’s been told to other people about them. Of course this is impractical - I share various things about people all the time (and believe it is beneficial that I do) and so many of them are small and I would never put in the energy to ask about all of them. I try to ask about bigger things, but “big” is different for different people, and it can be hard to understand the subtleties of people’s boundaries.

I also think that people generally accept that people will share personal information about each other, but don’t like to know about what is shared about them (and it can often feel embarrassing to know!). A friend talked to me about how they’re generally okay with people sharing things about them without them knowing about it, but if someone asked directly “can I tell my friend about this weird thing you did?” they would probably feel weird about it and say no.

We all talk about people when they're not around, and there are real benefits to it, but a lot of people would be uncomfortable to know what kinds of things people knew about them. And so, we all continue in this weird setup where we talk about other people when they’re not around, don’t know if we’re breaking boundaries, and don't know (and often don't want to know) what other people know about us. I’m still figuring out how I feel about this.

Questions I'd like to ask more people

Why do you talk about people when they’re not around? What benefits does it bring you?

If I shared a very personal story about you with someone you were guaranteed to never meet, would this feel different than if I shared it with a friend? What if there was a small chance you’d eventually meet them? What if I shared the story but didn’t mention your name?

What kinds of information about yourself are you more okay being shared? What kinds of things feel very private and personal?

Does a screenshot of a conversation we have generally feel more private than a summary of the same conversation (assuming similar levels of anonymity)?

Do you share everything with a partner or best friend? How do you feel about the idea that others do?

How comfortable are you with thinking about the fact that people definitely talk about you when you’re not around? Would you want to know what they knew about you?

In conclusion

My goal isn’t to stop talking about people when they’re not around. I just want to think more consciously about each time I do it. There are some ways of sharing that feel more 'right' than other ways, but there is definitely no “right way”. I want to be a more deliberate and kind friend, and hope to continue to explore this topic more over time!