Should you talk about family members behind their backs?

What’s the best way to mend intra-family squabbles?

Should you talk about family members behind their backs?

Many people expect me to advise that one sister should never talk about another sister to other family members. But I don’t. Once again, we are dealing with different styles, each of which can work poorly or well, depending on the situation and how they are used. There are different and equally valid ways of accomplishing the same goal.

Some families adhere to a strict policy: Never talk to one family member about another who is not there, the proverbial and stigmatized ‘talking behind her back.’ If you’re angry at a sister, you do not talk about it to anyone
else. Conflicts and disagreements must be settled between the people involved. That can work well. In other families, talking behind each other’s backs is a cottage industry. That can work well too. One woman, for example, was describing how close she and her two sisters are: They e-mail one another daily, regularly take vacations together, and feel blessed to be sisters and friends. She also said, ‘If I get angry with one of them I vent to the other.’ The result is that ‘it just blows over.’

With some conflicts, trying to talk things out just starts them up all over again, whereas talking to another family member can help in a number of ways. In addition to being a safety valve, it can be reassuring just to hear ‘I know, she does the same thing to me.’ Sometimes the offense can be transformed into a foible if you laugh at it together. A third party can also shed light, helping you understand the offender’s point of view. What’s crucial is keeping the discussion between you, so the third party doesn’t take your words back to the person you were talking about’ nor do you repeat what the third party said. That’s where mischief comes in.

This is not to say that it is never mischievous to talk about others behind their backs. If the information is untrue or otherwise destructive, it can be damaging. There’s a big difference between talking about and talking against someone. Amber recalls the damage done by talking against. When they were in high school, her stepsister told everyone that Amber was wild, partying and drinking till all hours’ but it wasn’t true. Amber believes her stepsister was motivated by competition: Amber’s mother was married to the stepsister’s father, so Amber lived with him. Talking against is almost always mischievous. In this case, the friends who reported to Amber what her stepsister said were looking out for her. But telling someone what a family member said about them isn’t always constructive, regardless of the repeater’s intentions.

Excerpted from You Were Always Mom’s Favorite by Deborah Tannen Copyright © 2009 by Deborah Tannen. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.