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Auntie SparkNotes: My Friends Are a Bunch of Gossips

Hi Auntie Sparknotes,

I am in quite a large friendship group of 16 people, and I genuinely love each of my friends. However, some of my friends have begun to fall out with each other- not big, confrontational arguments, but things like gossiping behind each other’s backs.It’s very upsetting because we all got along so well together. One of my friends suggested that we should get a jar and write down what’s annoying us about certain people so that we could keep it anonymous. I thought that it would be a terrible idea because people would start getting paranoid. It was also suggested that we should make a group chat and everyone just says what’s on their mind. I don’t think this is a particularly good idea either, because it might start worse arguments.

How can I fix my friendship group??

Oh, that’s easy. You just lock them all into an arena, Hunger Games-style, and let them hash out their various beefs until they’ve all disemboweled each other to death!

Because hey, as ghastly as that is, it would still be only slightly more brutal than either of the absolutely gobsmackingly terrible conflict-resolution strategies suggested by your friends. Staging a mass finger-pointing session via group text? Inviting people to bitch anonymously about each other into a literal Jar of Hate? Are you kidding me? That second tactic is such a remarkably cruel and unproductive way of dealing with this issue that not only would I not implement it, I’d be awfully wary of continuing a friendship with anyone who thought it was a good idea. If that person wants to hurl invective at someone from behind a veil of anonymity, she can go do it on the internet like everyone else. (And by “everyone else”, I mean “everyone else who is a morally bankrupt coward.” Yeesh.)

Of course, I don’t have to tell you that; you’ve already identified it all on your own as a terrible idea—which is good news for your own personal karma, but very possibly bad news for your continued membership in this particular social group. In a crew as large as yours, it is sadly pretty standard for fractures to occur, and for gossip to become the means by which micro-cliques within the group are formed. Sixteen people were never going to all get along with each other equally well forever, you know? That’s just too many humans with too many variations in personality; you were always going to reach a point where some folks started getting along better than others—which is also, unfortunately, where those who trade in a particular brand of in-group/out-group social politics start jostling for prime position using gossip as their weapon of choice.

And look: the fact that this was predictable doesn’t mean that it’s awesome, and it certainly doesn’t mean you have to be okay with (or, heaven forfend, a participant in) the backbiting aspects of your group dynamic. You can always take a principled stand against that stuff, in the form of pushing back and bowing out when someone takes it there. (Ex: “I don’t think it’s right to talk about X this way when she’s not here to defend herself,” or, “Geez, I’d hate to hear how you guys talk about me when I’m not here.”) People will learn quickly enough to quit the trash-talking…or at least, to save it until you’re not around.

But that’s where you bump up against the limits of your control. You can’t stop your friends from behaving badly; you can only register your disapproval of it, with no guarantee that the rest of your friends are going to take it to heart. Some social groups really just go all in for this sort of backchannel sniping, or at least are willing to live with it. What you need to realize is that the complex web of interpersonal connections between sixteen different people is not yours to “fix.” Each individual member of your crew has to decide for himself how to handle his relationship with the other people in it.

And that goes for you, too, of course—but in your case, the real question may be whether you want to be in a group friendship with people who treat each other this way, or whether it’s time to take a wee step back from your group’s more toxic, gossipy entities. Because while getting all sixteen of your friends to behave the way you’d prefer is sadly impossible, maintaining your relationships with the people you love and respect most (while setting discreet boundaries with the poisonous ones) is totally manageable.

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