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Deciding on whether to share or shut up: Ethically speaking

My siblings don’t like my husband and refuse to include him in family events, so we are estranged. Even apart from their feelings about my husband, their behaviour towards me has been hurtful for a long time; nothing I did was ever good enough. My sister and I both worked at the same company; at a party for retired employees, a former colleague said my sister had often been critical of me in front of co-workers. She had repeatedly made derogatory comments about me, both personal and professional, to anyone within hearing distance. Several others jumped in to say they also had heard these negative comments over the years. I was shocked and hurt. My husband says that ethically, my colleagues were wrong mentioning my sister’s criticisms. What do you think?

What a delightful party!

Most likely, your sister was doing what many of us do far too often: idly bitching about her family. Obviously, that’s not nice; but kvetching about family dynamics is a normal, and even therapeutic, part of many social interactions. Usually, it should be taken with a grain of salt; such eruptions tend to be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

All of which might have been OK if your sister were with people who didn’t know you. Where her behaviour became odious, however, was that she was venting in front of your co-workers and friends. That’s not fair ball, and whether or not her critique was true, the context was inappropriate.

Perhaps your co-workers thought they were taking your side by telling you? Maybe they thought you needed to know about your sister’s behaviour to defend yourself. More likely, they were playing a nasty version of “I’ve got a secret.” They had something on you, and found perverse pleasure in sticking the knife in, not once, but several times.

We’ve all, at one time or another, “known” something about a friend, and struggled with whether to tell them what we think we know. Perhaps we’ve seen a co-worker’s wife walking arm-in-arm down Yonge St. with another man. Or, juicier still, a woman. Maybe a salacious email strayed into our inbox. Or our brother’s wife’s first cousin’s son goes to the synagogue where our present rabbi’s ex-wife has been telling stories. Possibilities are endless.

But always the question is the same: share or shut up? There’s no absolute rule governing all these situations. But the guiding principle is this: do I truly believe that by telling, I am making things better?

Sometimes the answer can be yes. I’ve taken fellow employees quietly into my office to say, “you need to know this is being said about you.” I’ve honestly believed that I was giving my colleague an opportunity to either respond to the word on the street, or adjust his behaviour in some other way.

Far more often, the answer is no.

In your case, your co-workers simply dragged out a bunch of dirty linen at a social event that was supposed to be fun. If they were trying to help, there were more appropriate times and ways to do so. Whether your family likes your husband or not, in this case, he’s right.

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