I’ve been more obsessed than usual with the news lately, in particular the flood of stories and commentaries about House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy being caught on tape telling his colleagues that then-President Donald Trump was responsible for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and should resign. The whole mess got me thinking about a hard-and-fast rule I adopted long ago: Never say something behind someone’s back that you wouldn’t say to their face.
That’s not to say I never talk about people behind their backs. As my husband, a scientist, has observed on more than one occasion, “All you talk about is people and food.” To be fair, I also talk about sports, books and TV shows. But when I complain about food, sports, books and TV shows, they don’t call me on the phone the way my friend Nikki did nearly 25 years ago and ask, “Did you really say that about me?”
If I’m constantly complaining to others about someone’s irritating behavior, that’s a sign I need to address that someone directly. It’s not always easy, but being honest has been better for my relationships, not worse.
I can’t remember the particulars and neither can Nikki, only that when she called to confront me about something critical I’d said about her, I denied it. Then I squirmed and dissembled, trying to make things better while digging myself into a deeper hole of dishonesty.
I’m a lousy liar. Lying to a friend I’d already offended was very uncomfortable. What Nikki quoted to me as having been quoted to her wasn’t exactly what I’d said, but the gist of it was accurate. Something about her had made me mad, and instead of telling her, I complained about her in my new moms group, never stopping to think that one of the moms might know her and report back to her. After all, we lived in a big city. As far as I knew, I was the only mom in the group who knew Nikki.
That was a mistake, one I compounded by initially denying it. After what turned into a heart-to-heart phone call with her, I made the vow that I’ve kept to this day. It hasn’t made me stop complaining about people, but it’s made me think twice before airing my feelings, and it’s also led me to be more straightforward when someone does something that bothers me. If I’m constantly complaining to others about someone’s irritating behavior, that’s a sign I need to address that someone directly. It’s not always easy, but being honest has been better for my relationships, not worse.
To confirm my sense that my philosophy is a healthy one, I called Deborah Grayson Riegel, leadership communication coach and co-author of “Go to Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask for, and Accept Help.” As it turns out, she’s a firm believer that being up front with someone is a better way of dealing with a situation than running off and telling everyone else how frustrated you are.
“First of all, they are the only person who can do something about it,” she said, something which, sadly, is often lost on us as we devolve into the easy sinkhole of kvetchy gossip. The other reason it’s better to address the person directly should also be obvious, especially if you put yourself in their shoes. As Riegel put it: “If somebody has a problem with me, would I rather be the first to hear about it or the last to know about it?”
In a Harvard Business Review article called “Stop Complaining About Your Colleagues Behind Their Backs,” Riegel defined a “confirmation expedition.” The way she explained it to me, it sounded like a fancy term for the trash-talking sessions most of us conducted by our lockers in junior high school. It’s “when you go to everyone other than the person you have a problem with to confirm that you are right, that you are justified, and that they are the problem — when you should be going to the person directly,” she said.
That basically describes what McCarthy did in his much-leaked phone conversation. Admittedly, as recent history has shown, telling Trump you have a problem with him and expecting him to take it well, much less improve his behavior, is about as realistic as potty-training your toddler on a white rug and expecting the rug to stay clean.
Given that reality, McCarthy’s desire to hash out the issue with his congressional colleagues before going to Trump is understandable. “There is some social relationship-building that happens when a group of people get together to talk about somebody else,” Riegel said. “You will find plenty of research that finds that gossip is actually pro-social, that it’s how we build relationships, it’s how we learn to trust.”
Riegel disagrees with that research. “I would argue that it can be more toxic than pro-social,” she said, although it is easier. “As long as you’re complaining to everybody else, you don’t ever have to take responsibility for your contribution to the problem.”
McCarthy’s contribution to the problem became glaringly clear when he was caught on tape saying he was going to ask the then-president to resign — after strenuously insisting he’d never said such a thing.
“He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t, and that’s a tough position to be in,” Riegel said. “But he put himself there by nature of getting into bed with Donald Trump. This is a natural consequence of lying and, for lack of a better term, aiding and abetting somebody who has engaged in immoral and alleged illegal behavior.”
For the House minority leader, it’s also a job hazard. “McCarthy is in a line of work where approval is the life or death of his career,” Riegel pointed out. “If you don’t have the approval of your party’s leaders and your constituents, you won’t have a job. In this case, I think we can reasonably assume that he was trying to have his cake and eat it too, and I think it backfired.”
My long-forgotten slight against Nikki is nowhere near the level of toxicity oozing out of Trumpland and yet, I can identify with McCarthy. Like him, I didn’t want to own up to what I’d said because I was embarrassed and ashamed, which made sense given that I’d done something wrong and tried to lie my way out of it.
What doesn’t make sense is being embarrassed and ashamed because you thought that the president, who had been peddling baseless election fraud claims and tried repeatedly to overturn the election, was responsible for a violent attack and should resign. That’s something to be proud of, not shrink away from.
Here’s the other thing I probably have in common with McCarthy: I want everyone to like me. But among the many important lessons I’ve learned in life is that it’s unrealistic and unreasonable to expect that everyone is going to like me. There are times when it’s more important to be honest than it is to be liked. Given all that’s at stake in the United States right now, it’s not merely a shame McCarthy hasn’t figured that out, it’s a threat to democracy as we know it.