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Don't Talk about People behind Their Back

We've all heard the advice, "don't talk about people behind their back." But as we learned in the last lesson, talking about them behind their back isn't what hurts them. It's when someone shares it with them that it hurts. Right?

So does that mean it's okay to talk about people behind their back? Consider the following story of a young military man in France, and you be the judge.

In France, young men between the age of 18 and 22 serve a mandatory 12 months in the military. So it was for a Parisian named Henri-Jacques Letellier when he was of age. He was assigned to a combat helicopter regiment in the Northeast of France. And because he had just finished two years of medical school, he was assigned to be a medical assistant in the infirmary, alongside a dozen other young men his age.

Now At the time, almost all service personnel on the base were male. So it was a notable event for a woman to enter the hospital for any reason. But a few times a year, it did happen. One of those times turned out to be so notable, 30 years later Henri-Jacques still remembers it like it was yesterday.

She was a fairly typical-looking female soldier in her 40s, in for what was probably a routine checkup. Now you have to understand what it must be like for a group of young, single men confined to a military base without the company of women. It takes very little to turn the conversation to their baser instincts. And when a woman walks right into their midst… well, you can imagine. While she was with the doctor, the young men all traded crude comments about what she might look like undressed or the kind of things they'd like to do with her in bed, all the while having a good laugh.

But as soon as she left, they noticed something was wrong. The ambiance had changed. Their boss, the administrative officer of the infirmary, seemed to have changed his mood for the worse. It didn't take long for them to find out why. Around 5 o'clock, quitting time, he stopped to talk to his staff on the way out. He said, "I'm leaving, boys. And by the way, I have something to tell you. I overheard you talking about one of our patients while she was with the doctor. I wanted you to know that she's my wife." And without saying another word, he turned and walked out.

A room full of guilt-stricken young men stood motionless and in silence. Their eyes exchanged glances as if to ask, "Did that really just happen? Did we really just insult our commander's wife in front of him?" They spent the next few minutes debating what to do. How could they possibly restore their relationship with him? They wondered if he would even talk to them the next day. Would there be any consequences? Would he refuse to authorize their weekend passes?

Well, after some debate, their concern turned from themselves to the party they offended. What kind of evening would he have tonight with his wife? Would he look at her differently now? Would his thoughts linger on the distasteful way they described her? Would he tell her what he heard? Or would he suffer in silence?

The next day they tried to pretend like nothing happened. It didn't work. It felt like walking on eggshells every time they passed him in the hallway. Their guilt continued to escalate. After three days, some of them couldn't take the tension any longer. They approached their boss and humbly apologized. To their relief, he accepted their apology. But he took the opportunity to remind them how hurtful their words could be, even if they never got to the person they were talking about.

The following week, the officer called the young men together. He let them know he'd noticed a change in their behavior, and commended them on the improvement. They'd suffered long enough. So he let them in on his secret. "The truth is, that woman is not my wife."

The young men found this almost as shocking as when he first told them she was. Their first response was not believing they had fallen for the deception. He must have played his part quite well. Their second response was thinking how clever he had been to teach them such an important lesson in such a personal and memorable way. Instead of feeling duped, they were grateful he cared enough about their character to intervene. Lastly, they were relieved. While they had still insulted that woman, at least it wasn't their boss' wife.

What his revelation did not do, however, was undo the valuable lesson they all learned. It didn't matter that she wasn't his wife. She deserved respect because she's a fellow human being. And she deserved better treatment than they had shown her.

After three decades, this remains perhaps the most important, and certainly most memorable, lesson Henri-Jacques learned in his military career.

Okay, this is a good story to share when you find your child talking about other kids behind their back. Then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Have you ever heard someone say something mean about someone in your family? How did that make you feel?

  2. Have you ever said something mean about someone else, and then realized that a friend or family member of theirs overheard you? How did that make you feel? And what did you do about it?

  3. If you imagined everything you said about someone was being said in front of their mother, do you think you would say different things?

  4. What might be a situation where you would need to talk about someone without them knowing what you said?

Okay, in the final lesson, we'll talk about how to treat someone even if you don't like them.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith