Here’s a situation pretty much everyone can relate to: You’re sitting at the bar with your two best friends when one of them excuses himself to the bathroom. As he steps out of earshot, you turn to the other friend to roast the now-excused friend — perhaps his new haircut makes him look like he’s attempting to capture a look only a much younger (or hipper) man can pull off, or maybe he’s said something particularly stupid.
Whatever the case, one thing’s for sure: Talking smack on one another is a seemingly inescapable part of every friendship — no matter how strong that friendship might be.
But why can’t we help talking smack behind our friend’s backs? While psychologists have a few theories regarding our incessant need to smack-talk, they all agree on one thing: Even though we justify it to ourselves as friendly banter, it needs to stop.
Why We Talk Smack About Our Friends
We’re Insecure: “Any form of negative or disparaging comments about friends at its core is an aspect of low self-esteem,” explains human behavior specialist and relationships expert Shelli Chosak Ph.D. “People who feel the need to talk smack are doing so because they consciously or unconsciously see it as a way to boost their own self-image.”
We’re Treacherous: “When you’re with one friend, you want to feel that complete union, with no internal conflicts,” L.A.-based psychologist and psychotherapist Jeanette Raymond explains. “One way to do that is to make the current friend feel like ‘the chosen one’ by making the other out to be bad.” Put simply, you’re improving your relationship with one friend by momentarily using another as a common enemy.
We’re Ashamed: “If you’re with one friend and get a sense that they don’t approve of your other friend’s lifestyle, you may feel ashamed for liking what’s being disapproved of,” Raymond notes. “In that moment, smack talk comes in handy.” Again, dissing the absent friend (even if you approve of whatever you’re dissing) makes you more agreeable to the friend at hand.
Why Talking Smack Isn’t Healthy
First, the obvious: “When you vent to one friend about another friend, you raise the possibility that the friend you’re venting to may start thinking, When is this person going to talk behind my back?” Chosak warns. “You also may not know if the person you’re venting to has a loyalty to the other person, or if they have issues with the concept of talking smack about anyone — you can end up looking bad just by engaging in the act of disparaging someone else.”
Second, talking smack about a friend oftentimes only furthers your own insecurities. “It’s a reflection of how insecure we are when we live in several different worlds simultaneously [because our loyalties vary],” Raymond explains. In simpler terms, basing your opinions strictly on whoever you’re chatting with in that moment — that is, you simply talking smack on whichever friend isn’t present at the time — can cause a whole lot of existential confusion, including questioning who your real friends are.
So next time you feel the urge to talk smack — even minor smack — behind your friends’ backs, consider talking to them face-to-face if there’s an actual issue. Otherwise, there’s a good chance you’re simply reflecting your own problems onto them.