Dear Rachel,

I recently overheard a conversation where people were saying terrible things about a friend of mine. It turns out that a nasty rumor was spread, one that I personally know to be untrue, and it is getting around like wildfire. As I wasn't directly involved in the conversation, I felt awkward saying something which would have made it clear that I was basically eavesdropping. Meanwhile, my friend has no idea that this rumor is going around. I am not sure if it is better to tell her or just hope she doesn't find out about it. I also wonder if it is appropriate to speak to those who were talking about my friend, even though they were not responsible for starting this rumor. Suggestions?


Los Angeles

Dear L.R.,

There is a story told of a guy who was really upset with someone in his community, and ended up saying terrible things about him. With time, he regretted what he had said and wanted to fix the situation and put an end to the rumor he had spread. He went to his rabbi and asked for advice. The rabbi told him that he should take a pillow filled with feathers and walk around his neighborhood. Everywhere he went he was to leave a few of the feathers.

It is virtually impossible to make it go away So, it was easy enough and the guy did exactly as he was told, and returned to the rabbi with the pillow empty. The rabbi then told him that he should go back and pick up all the feathers...

Clearly, once a rumor has started and spreads, it is virtually impossible to make it go away. This is precisely why there is extensive Jewish law dedicated to being careful about what we say and how we speak of others. Judaism has always recognized the power of our words and their ability to create realities that are very hard to change. More so, there is the concept that embarrassing another person is likened to killing that person!

That said, what should you do with this situation?

As you ask two different questions, let's start with the conversation you overheard. You know who was talking about your friend, and regardless of whether or not they started the rumor, they certainly know where they heard it. Though I don't think it is your responsibility, if you consider yourself a close friend of the victim of this rumor you should definitely call someone from that group, whoever you are most comfortable with, and tell her that you overheard her speaking the other day, and you wanted to set the record straight that what they heard is completely false. Explain that this is a good friend of yours, that you can vouch that there is no truth to the allegations, and that you wanted them to know because you know they would never want to further the damage that this rumor has already caused.

It is in her power to fix it But go a step further. Ask her whether she can tell you who told her or her friends that rumor, and whether she knows who started it. If you are able to find the person who started the rumor, and you are fortunate to be able to get her to admit that she made it up and knows it is not true, try to explain the damage it is causing and that it is really in her power to fix it. Especially now with email and text messaging, she can with one fell swoop send a message saying that she had misunderstood or misheard and that the things she said have proven to not be the case at all.

In terms of your friend and whether or not you should tell her, I think you must. Specifically because of how fast things travel you can be sure that if she doesn't hear it from you, she will hear it from somewhere else, and that will be much harder. She also most likely knows the person who started it and can point you in the right direction.

Minimize the damageIt is going to be hard for her to know what people are saying, so you definitely want to minimize the damage. You do not need to tell her that the rumor is going around and everyone is believing it. Rather, let her know that someone asked you if the rumor was true and told you that she heard it but didn't believe it. That way she knows it is out there but doesn't need to immediately feel that everyone knows. You should also let her know that you already made it clear to that person and others that the rumor was a blatant lie and that you are more than happy to clear the air with anyone else she wants you to speak to.

And make sure when you do speak to others that they also realize just how damaging cruel words can be and that it serves as a lesson to you to make sure to be very careful both with what you say about others, and what you allow yourself to believe when that juicy rumor is whispered in your ear!

Much luck and your friend is lucky to have you in her life!