Let’s Talk Semantics 3: Telling vs. Tattling

January 26, 2011 § 2 Comments

As I was flipping through the channels this afternoon to watch some television with my lunch, I happened to glimpse an ad campaign promoted by Dr. Phil. I don’t know the origins of this campaign very well–I didn’t stop on the commercial to watch it. But what I caught was the tag line: “Bullying: telling is not tattling.” I “hmmed” my way through to the next set of channels and commercials, struck by that interesting argument.

Telling is not tattling.

So, Let’s Talk Semantics, folks: what is the difference between telling and tattling?

When I was little, my parents attempted to make the distinction excruciatingly clear: tattling was when someone did something that didn’t directly harm you or a friend or themselves. Like, for instance, if your little sister sat on your couch cushion when you were sitting there first before you got up to get a glass of water. That’s just tattling. I understand why they made this distinction clear. It cuts down on unnecessary whining, unnecessary refereeing, and unnecessary punishment.

But at what point in our lives do we go from, “well…it’s just harmless ribbing…maybe I should learn to take a joke and not be a whiny-ass tattle-tale” to “no, that’s cruelty and someone needs to be informed”? Me, I can’t take a joke. I don’t like being teased. I don’t like it when someone claims to employ sarcasm when what they’re really doing is just being mean. (The distinction, of course, being that sarcasm is an intellectual art form rarely done well. But that’s a “Let’s Talk Semantics” for another day.) So, knowing this about myself, that I tend to be really sensitive to the unkind taunts of others, then my impression of “direct harm” would be that that person really is harming me directly and someone needs to be told. Maybe someone else might call that tattling, but for me, it’s all about interpretation.

I’m not a parent yet, so I’m genuinely curious how those parental types out there actually handle this dilemma. On the one hand, you probably get fed up with the number of times in the day that the baby comes crying to you because the big kid called him or her “dumb baby.” But on the other hand, name-calling is not nice and should never be taken lightly. So, what do we teach our young? Do we teach them to run to teacher every time another kid name-calls and slanders them? Do we teach them to fight back? Do we teach them to ignore it? When I was in first grade, I got glasses. And they were thick. I’ve always had crap vision. When I came to class for the first time wearing glasses, in the middle of the school year no less, I was picked on relentlessly…like every other four-eyed freak on the playground. I came home sobbing and even (weakly) mimed destroying my glasses by punching “at” them while they laid on my bed. My parents were just trying to help me survive to the end of the school year and told me to ignore the other kids. I did, but they still name-called; I just learned to suck it up.

Is there a stratification of name-calling? Does four-eyed freak count for fewer bully points than stupid head? Does stupid head count for fewer bully points than a racial slur, or a sexual-orientation one?

As grown-ups living in a world where children are doing stupider and stupider things (and posting those things on-line, the stupidest of all!), what on Earth are we to do? Will we make our children wimpy and unable to defend themselves if we encourage them to tell us when they are being bullied? (Whatever that exactly means….) And when exactly do we tell them to start telling us? My parents told me that tattling wasn’t tattling when you were physically or emotionally hurt. But what extent of hurt justifies telling an adult or an authority figure?

Thank goodness I don’t have any little ones begging to know the answer to this question just yet. Because I don’t know what I would tell them. And I’m pretty sure that at this point whatever I would tell them would at some point be undermined by something else I tell them later on.

So, thoughts? Parents? People who aren’t parents? What do you all think about this telling versus tattling issue?

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§ 2 Responses to Let’s Talk Semantics 3: Telling vs. Tattling

  • AMo says:

    Let me preface this response to your excellent post by saying I’m not sure how your other readers perceive this issue and may very well disagree with my stance. I am not a parent (at least not yet, if at all), and so don’t have firsthand experience from that side. But imagining what I might tell a young person I’m mentoring who’s getting picked on, here is what I see the difference to be (and the appropriate response to bullying): Tattling seems to be about creating unnecessary drama – purposely exposing another person’s perceived bad behavior with the explicit intention of getting them in trouble and getting illicit enjoyment out of watching them get into trouble.

    This is different from being bullied and telling someone who might be able to help you. The mindset in these two situations is completely different – both are issues of control and power, but the tattler is equivalent to the bully – both are intending harm to come to the victim of their act (tattling/bullying). Telling is something that the victim of a tattler or bully does in an effort to get help.

    Now, as to the appropriate response to a bully? In my experience as a kid, I would say unequivocally that the correct response to a bully is to call them on it and overpower them – with words or with actions. It is a fact that all bullies are also at their cores cowards. Therefore, if I did have a child, I would teach that kid how to stand up for him or herself; how to fight verbally and physically. Getting others to laugh at a bully is a tenuous response because she might just hunt you down later. Physical response is really the only guarantee that this person will forever leave you alone, knowing that you cannot, in fact, be messed with. So, I realize that’s not exactly politically correct and goes against the grain of the current wave of “let’s all feel good and love each other and be friends with our kids,” but honestly, kids need to know how to defend themselves against all comers – this is a basic survival skill that will serve them well later in life when they run into the college frat bully or the office bully. Bullies are everywhere and need to be stomped down fast and without mercy.

    If I had a kid, that’s what I’d teach them. And I would want him or her to TELL me about the bully and how they responded to the beatdown. 😉

  • Love AMo’s comment. I don’t have children either, but would point you in the direction of my friend Jane’s post about bullying at PlaneJaner’s Journey. The link is at the end of my post for today, if you’re interested.

    I hate meanness. I tended to tattle as a kid. I’m the oldest of 4. Sometimes I think birth-order might impact these things–don’t know. But thanks for this great post. I love the semantics series!

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