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When Is It Okay To Be “Mean” With A Friend?
What About Your Friends?

When Is It Okay To Be “Mean” With A Friend?

We’ve all heard the age-old adage, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But have we ever considered an amendment to the rule when we’re in the safe and confiding space of a close friend?

As humans, we share information — it’s what keeps us connected with the world around us. And women, specifically, have a special way of forming connections with their friends through deep emotional support, bonding complex experiences, and seeking advice as a means of problem-solving and processing information.


However, without the proper conversational boundaries in place, these seemingly harmless moments of friendly banter can easily drift into a space we know as gossip.

All across TikTok, users are stripping the veil between casual chit-chat and juicy tea-spilling by partaking in a viral trend where friends ask one another, “Can I be mean for a second?” to which their request is met by their circle of friends being revived by the enticing invitation.

“Can I Be Mean for a Second?” TikTok Trend

But what differentiates an everyday catch-up session with a friend from all-out gossiping that you may or may not have intended to participate in? And once we're there, why does it make us feel so bad?

"The reason we feel guilty about [gossip] is because we misunderstand it," says friendship coach Danielle Bayard Jackson. "Gossip simply means you are talking about people who are not in the room, who are not present. That's it. But it has taken on a negative connotation, and if you have people saying gossip is bad, then whenever I talk about people, I'm going to feel bad because I've been told, culturally, that it's wrong."

The self-described "Female Friendship Educator" and creator of the Friend Forward podcast explains that gossip isn't inherently "negative" and can, in fact, be positive or neutral.

And while this form of conversation helps us to determine and establish cultural and social norms, there is a clear distinction, coined by author Deborah Tannin, that Danielle says can detect what direction your next convo might be headed in. "Ask yourself, 'Am I talking about her, or am I talking against her? If you're talking against her, ask yourself, why do I take pleasure in making her look bad?"

"Ask yourself, 'Am I talking about her, or am I talking against her? If you're talking against her, ask yourself, why do I take pleasure in making her look bad?"

What makes gossip so traceable is the impact it has on those who find themselves partaking in the negative end of it, not just the subject of conversation. "Some of us feel bad even when we don't contribute to the gossip just by being in the room while it happens. And that's one of the impacts of gossip: it makes the bystanders still leave feeling complicit because they didn't necessarily stop it," Danielle says.

Because we've been culturally and socially conditioned to demonize this form of discussion as opposed to understanding it as a social skill, it's natural to have "good gossipers" and "bad" ones, i.e., mean girls, within our many different circles. If we tend to find ourselves in the company of people who take part in bringing a person down, disparaging someone, or trying to tarnish her reputation, what we might be experiencing is something Danielle has coined as "sophisticated stealth."

Sophisticated Stealth: The Art of Mean-Girling

@thefriendshipexpert

The most effective mean girls use “sophistictaed stealth”. You may not have heard of the term, but you will when my book comes out next spring! Love having this discussion.

"Sophisticated stealth is an elevated version of 'mean girl tactics,'" Danielle explains. "The whole idea is to hit somebody without landing or without throwing a punch — it's the psychological warfare that causes emotional harm to someone."

The term comes from Danielle's upcoming book and puts a name to the "nice-nasty" culture that so many of us women navigate within our female friendships, co-workers, and family dynamics.

It's a style of communication that's laced with veiled insults like comments on one's appearance, downplaying a recent accomplishment, or packaging gossip as a noble gesture in order to maintain an appearance of cooperation.

"That's the number one rule in sophisticated stealth: I'm going to hit somebody while keeping myself looking good because we know there are social consequences," she explains, "If I do that, then I look bad, I look petty, I look vindictive, and I have to maintain my reputation. This is why the women with some of the best reputations can also be some of the meanest women."

There is an art to this. So much so that we can find ourselves in the midst of this tactic and not even know it's being done. And while this is often sparked by deep-rooted insecurities and feeling threatened by someone else's success or status, it's important to know how to get yourself out of a negative-leaning conversation when you notice the signs.

How To Get Good at Navigating Gossip

Be a Bore:

"Remember that you don't have to respond to make negative gossip stop. You just have to be very unfun to tell it to."

Sympathize With the Subject of Gossip:

"You might say, 'I feel bad. Because I know if people were talking about my business, I'd be so embarrassed." Show empathy. Showing solidarity with the person they're talking about.

Use a Playful Excuse:

"This helps to not come off as self-righteous by correcting them. Playfully excusing yourself, say, 'I'm your peer, I'm with you, but I can't contribute to this.' It shows you're not participating and signals that you believe that it's not a thing we should be participating in."

Call It Out:

"I strongly encourage you to call it out one on one because if you call out a girl with sophisticated stealth in front of people, you run the risk of people being like, 'What are you talking about?' Okay, because it's so elusive. But one on one, you would say, 'Hey, what did you mean by that comment that you made yesterday?'"

Set the Tone:

"Front load the conversation with your purpose so that nobody misunderstands your intentions. This shakes off some shame so you don't fear your friends leaving, thinking you initiated negative talk."

Ignore It:

"The whole point is for the insult/gossip to land, make you be impacted by it, or hurt your feelings. So if you don't react, like you're not even registering, it has less of a hit."

Understanding these moments of conversational transparency and the type of gossip you're participating in is a vital skill to master as society continues to become more connected again. And as we find our way in forming and maintaining new bonds with people, it's good to know who we can confide in and who might take advantage of our vulnerability by understanding what company we're in.

"I think some of the reason why that trend is so popular is because we do that with girls who are our vault. We do that with women we know we're in a safe space with," Danielle says. "I know I'm with girls who understand this as a part of my process to get my feelings out. I understand I'm with women who are not going to go and tell this person.

"Keeping entrusted company around you that's non-judgemental and open-minded promotes an environment where "good" and healthy gossip can be processed and, ultimately, released.

Because we all need a safe space to pop off.

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Featured image by PeopleImages/Getty Images

 

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