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What to Do When You Get Caught Talking Behind Someone’s Back
A clinical psychologist explains why gossip is so irresistible... and how we should handle it if the subject of our vent sesh actually finds out (like Erika on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills)?
There are three major tenets of the Real Housewives: You must pack elaborate looks for vacations (cough, Denise Richards, cough), you must fight over who gets the best vacation suite, and you must confront people directly to their face. OK, sure, of course there's always talking behind people’s backs but it's followed by talking directly to their fronts, oft accompanied by intense finger pointing, talk of monkey’s buttholes, and more ruined dinner parties than we can count.
Kyle and Teddi quickly copped to their statements after they were called out (the exact right thing to do), and the situation was then calmly discussed between the gossipers and the gossipee — with Erika graciously later dismissing it as "silly" on the After Show. (Watch for yourself in the clip above)
The real world can be very different. People talk behind other’s backs all the time and the gossiped-about person is never the wiser. In the real world, there are no cameras to reveal your duplicity and many times the hard feelings are left to fester, instead of the aggrieved person venting privately (or publicly), feeling better, and carrying on with their friendship (or not).
Sometimes even the most seasoned gossip can betray themselves by getting caught mid tea-spill — whether it's because the person you gossiped to decided to call you out in front of the person being spoken about — like Lisa did — or it's something more stomach-crawls-up-into-your-throat-mortifying like responding to the wrong email thread or text chain and sending all the smack talking directly to the person. (Full disclosure: I have done this.)
In the moments following such a gaff, it’s easy to take your burning face into your hands and freeze in shock and terror. You’ve not only made a fool of yourself, but have you also burned a friendship to the ground? Are there any options beyond packing up and starting a new life in another state? We spoke to clinical psychologist Dr. Nicole Issa, PsyD, founder of PVD Psychological Associates in Rhode Island, about what to do in this situation.
Why We Gossip
We all know that we shouldn’t gossip or talk about others behind their backs, but the reality is that much of our relational culture, especially for women, is built around shared emotional experiences and sometimes engaging in negative bonding. Negative bonding is when you develop a closer relationship to someone else by basically bonding over a mutual enemy (which is really not a good thing to bond over).
It is also basically instinct to seek validation when we are upset or bothered by something that happens, and also to seek emotional support. People frequently seek reassurance about interactions with others that they feel anxious about after the fact.
Getting Caught and Owning it
The most important thing to do if you get caught by the person you’re talking about is to take responsibility for your behavior and apologize. (Aka own it, trademark Lisa Rinna.) The urge may be to awkwardly backpedal or somehow try to deny it, but you’ll be best off owning it. Offer your friend/family member a sincere apology, tell them you know you should not have been talking about them behind their back, and reassure them you won’t do it again.
Depending on their response, you could have an opportunity to explain what you were talking about and seek some sort of resolution with them. You could say, “It really hurt my feelings when you said ______, and I was talking to ______ for support. I know I shouldn’t have done that and I am really sorry.” This then gives the other person a chance to find out your feelings were hurt. Maybe they had no idea!
What you don’t want to do is pin it on the other person and create a bigger problem. It also isn’t helpful to try to save face with a snarky, “Well, it’s nothing I wouldn’t have said to your face.”
Maybe you might want to make an agreement with the person for moving forward about not talking about them behind their back again. But if you do promise, make sure you follow through! If you get caught a second time, that’s a whole other type of mess.