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When You Give a Damn ‘Bout Your Bad Reputation

One of the great unifying themes of humanity is concern about the impression one makes. Elaborate codes of conduct, dress, and speech have permeated societies throughout history. And with this pressing concern to be well-perceived comes the fear of being … not. And if that situation develops into a “bad reputation” — not the defiant Joan Jett type, but the “‘no new messages,’ whispers-as-you-walk-by” type — it can seriously damage your social, professional, and dating life. How does one bounce back?

After several rounds of my reputation being damaged, I was really starting to question myself. What was wrong with me? Why did my one mistake balloon into such an issue? How could people believe the gossip about me? Did no one care about my side of things?

I dismissed all this as high school stuff, because it literally was. Yet I still had a lingering fear that it was something about me. Maybe I was actually an awful person and didn’t realize it. Maybe people found me so ridiculous that they would just laugh at me and smear my name for kicks. But then I had my first big experience with a smear campaign as an adult, and finally I had some answers to my questions:

What was wrong with me? Nothing. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone mishandles things sometimes. What everyone doesn’t do: gossip, lie, or make other people’s business their own. Your reputation is damaged because people gossip. Very rarely do gossipers have the full story, because then, the gossip wouldn’t be fun. It’s much easier to make up your own tales about people and fine-tune them to get that “oh no they did not!” reaction. Then, if you start feeling guilty, just dismiss them as crazy/stupid/mean so you can tell yourself they deserved it. And by gossip’s very nature, people talking about other people’s behavior or misfortune are unlikely to have ever talked to the person being gossiped about.

I had what I thought was a decent working relationship with members of a dance troupe that I co-founded. We seemed to have some communication issues, but nothing terrible — no arguments, no mean comments. Suddenly, things turned on a dime and I was fired, no explanation given. My mistake? I posted about my hurt feelings on Facebook.

Why did my one mistake balloon into such an issue? Because many people are opportunistic — and, if they’re insecure or angry, they’re looking for a reason to assuage or deflect those feelings. I’ll never know why I was fired, but someone saw my post and decided to turn it into a gossip cash cow. Why? Because someone likely felt bad about firing me and needed to assuage their guilt.

There are lots of colloquialisms about this phenomenon, in which a seemingly tiny event launches a bigger, messier one, but for reputations, I think “making a mountain out a molehill” is best. As gossip spreads, each person adds their own pile of “dirt” to the mountain. This dirt, of course, reflects the person hauling it into the situation. The damaged reputation is not just your doing. If you hurt someone’s feelings, even inadvertently, they’ll be bringing a shovelful of pain to the mountain. Then, the person they’re talking to will sympathize and throw on their own shovelful of righteous fury. Eventually, you have a messy mountain that’s hard to ignore, and it causes only you pain while bringing others enjoyment.

How could people believe the gossip about me? People will believe anything that suits their own agenda, whether it’s biased media or gossip about someone they dislike. In fact, people will gossip even about someone they’re ambivalent about or don’t know at all, in the interest of making themselves feel better. This means that even “taking the high road” won’t do you any good. After my embarrassing social media post, I was ostracized by my former troupe and all their friends, and several of them sent me messages about why they were angry at or disgusted with me. Reading these, I was hurt and upset, but also had the feeling of “what the heck are they talking about?” That showed me that in the course of gossip, some things had been completely fabricated. Like in the childhood game of Telephone, the gossip creates a new sentence — and for reputations, it can seem like a death sentence.

Did no one care about my side of things? No. Frankly — and this was the biggest lesson — no one cared about me at all. The gossip was much more interesting, facts be damned. The good news is, it is temporary. The mountain erodes as people become interested in other things. Therefore, the best way to handle a damaged reputation or a smear campaign is to lay low and focus on things that matter to you. Own up to your mistake, improve yourself with that reflection, and move forward with life. And, write off the people who gossiped about you. If you must interact with them, be boring. Don’t let them in on anything personal, good or bad. That ship has sailed, and believe me, you don’t want those “friends” back.

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