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Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O'Grady in The White Lotus
Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O'Grady in The White Lotus, being meanHBO

In defence of bitching about your friends

In light of a series of TikTok controversies, we ask: is it ever OK to trash-talk a friend?

Over the past couple of weeks, a succession of online controversies has forced people to confront a troubling question: if your friends were bitching about you, if they were making fun of your “coochie”, if your bridesmaids thought you looked a bit shit on your wedding day, would you want to know? And if you did, would you want to find out about it on TikTok, with thousands of strangers weighing in on the situation?

In the most recent instance of this long-running trend, a woman in Texas began filming a group of friends as they bitched about a mutual acquaintance named Sarah – pouring particular scorn on a “sleazy” outfit she wore to an event, and the fact that she was showing off her “coochie”. Instead of simply minding her own business, the eavesdropper then embarked upon a vigilante mission to find the victim so she could hold her friends accountable. The reaction to this video has been divided: many people think it’s a gross invasion of privacy, while others seem to view it as an act of public service, a heroic blow in the battle against bitching.

But filming people bitching in public and then finding the injured party is obviously wrong. We should all be entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy, even when we’re in public, and there’s probably not a more humiliating way to discover that your friends hate you than through a viral TikTok video. It’s a little disturbing that, the second we step out of the house, we could all be subject to a level of surveillance that would make Michel Foucault blush. Sarah, the girl who was being bitched about, also wasn’t happy at being involved – and why should she be? Having your business splashed all over the internet is just a different form of bullying, on a much larger scale.

But in the aftermath of this video going viral, more complicated questions emerged: did the gossiping gals even do anything wrong? Is it ever OK to trash-talk your friends? I don’t think we have to overcorrect here: even if they didn’t deserve to be publicly shamed, the women in the TikTok were being mean. Talking about a friend’s “coochie” or describing them as “sleazy” suggests a level of contempt that goes beyond just venting.

But sometimes a little bit of bitching is warranted. If I found out my friends were slagging me off for being flaky and unreliable, or bitterly complaining that my good looks, charisma and talent have all gone to my head, I would have no choice but to say: fair enough. I might be a bit peeved, but those are my flaws and I won’t deny them. But some topics should be off-limits, especially if they’re coming from a more spiteful or bitter place. I would be much less forgiving if I discovered they were gleefully cackling at my Instagram Stories, making fun of me for wearing jorts, or jeering that I’ll never manage to sell my screenplay (think Heartstopper, but all the characters are straight).

@mrsjean01 #duet with @THE KELLIEKEL SHOW Sarah, these yo friends? Cause they out here talking shit about you. We cant stand for that! #fyp #findsarah #gossiptok #momsoftiktok #stopbullying🛑✋ ♬ Monkeyshine-JP - Lt FitzGibbons Men

Maybe it depends on how you define “bitching”, but there is such a thing as doing it with love: if you’re sincerely hurt and frustrated by someone’s behaviour, then talking that over with a mutual friend is probably quite healthy. It can either get it out of your system or help you to realise that what you’re annoyed about is actually serious enough to warrant bringing up – bitching might be the prelude to an honest conversation. This is just as true for family members as it is for friends: sometimes you need to vent a little about a minor grievance and it doesn’t mean you love the person you’re complaining about any less.

But if you’re bitching about the same person all the time, then past a certain point it would be better to either let it go or say it to their face. Bringing up the same complaint again and again is no doubt very boring for whoever has to listen, and it suggests that your failure to communicate is part of the problem. You can’t resolve a conflict if the other person doesn’t even know the charge against them. In friendship, as in life, we should be entitled to a fair trial.

It can be frustrating in its own right when you discover that a friend has nursed a grievance against you for months without saying anything, and denying you the possibility of trying to address and rectify it. At the end of the day, who’s really the villain: me, for sneaking into your bedroom, stealing your diary and writing a parody musical based on its contents – or you, for failing to tell me that doing so hurt your feelings? In a way, aren’t we both at fault?

In conclusion, bitching is a complicated, thorny and nuanced issue. But I can say one thing for sure: if you ever see my friends crowding around a phone screen and reading out badly written sentences from my articles in a funny accent, please don’t post it on TikTok.

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