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Wondering about Gossip in Westland

  • Posted on June 19, 2016 at 6:44 pm

Dear Christine,

How do I differentiate between gossip and learning about someone’s life past?  I love spending time with people and listening to their stories.  But how do you know what is real and what is just a story? 

Wondering in Wayne

Dear Wondering,

Generally speaking, gossip is defined as information that is being given from one person about another who is not present.  Information someone tells you about their past is always their own perspective, judgment and skew of world and family events that is unique to that person.  It their own history,  often including information about their experience and bias about political figures, religious figures and historical figures.  These may include people they are related to:  parents, sons, daughters, grandparents, etc.  Their take may be tinged by information that may not be confirmed as true.  Hence, gossip can be equivalent to tattling or spreading rumors.

So, if someone tells you “my father beat me when I was a child,” is hearsay, unless you have corroborating evidence that supports this.  The speaker believes it, but may or may not have evidence confirming this proposition.  It is true, according to the teller’s experience, but it might not stand up in a court of law.  Gossip is usually about other people and is usually not confirmed.  Gossip has a bad name for a good reason.  People often gossip about someone who has just left the room, where others talk in private about the person who is not there to provide defense.

The bottom line, when you are talking to someone you don’t know at all, is that they are telling you about themselves to portray themselves in a certain light:  a victim, a perpetrator, a survivor, a strong person, etc.  And you have no other evidence to the contrary.  In psychotherapy, I believe what people tell me, as they have confidentiality and I have no means and no desire to figure out the means to verify the facts of whatever perceptions and memories they confide in me.  The legal facts might be different, but I am working with someone about their feelings about relationships that I cannot and will not verify.  I am there to witness their experience and assist them in changing whatever they perceive as a need in themselves.

Consequently, as a psychologist treating a client, I am never a witness for a divorce and custody case.  If I have only talked to one parent, I do not have a balanced view of that marriage.  I only have one person’s experience, perspective, feelings and memories to go on.  I cannot legally judge the other parent by what the first parent tells me in psychotherapy. In order to give testimony in these custody cases, I have to not be the treating psychologist, but the assessing psychologist.  This professional is completely neutral  with the parents before assessing both parents and recommending one parent for custody.

As a treating psychologist, I can certainly be swayed by one parent’s claims and experiences. But if I interview the other parent, I often hear a completely different experience that makes me wonder if they really are married and living under the same roof!

Your job, as a friend, is to be there for your friends and family.  Listen with concern and interest.  Be aware that everyone has a bias and we tell our life stories from that perspective, even if we are trying to be completely neutral.  Journalists try to report the news in an unbiased fashion, but there are plenty of examples of one various outlets promoting a conservative or liberal viewpoint.

So, be supportive.  Be a friend who listens non-judgmentally.  But also be aware that everyone has their own prejudices and inclinations, no matter how hard we try to be neutral.  Your friend, in telling her life story, reports on her experience of other people you also know.  Try to keep all that you hear in balance with what you already know of those other people.  Remember that people have very different relationships than you  have with either one of them.  In fact, even though both of them may portray different stories about the same events, they may both be correct in their perspectives and narratives!  Even if they are diametrically opposed.

So, listen to and accept the experiences friends and family with an ear toward their personal truth, and another ear toward the bigger picture.  There are many more perspectives than we can access!
Christine Cantrell, PhD