Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Thursday, 29 April 2010 11:31 UK

Brown's 'bigot' remark: It's that sinking feeling


Brown: "I apologise if I've said anything that has been hurtful"

Gordon Brown got caught doing something few could claim never to have done - being nasty about someone behind their back. Psychologist Geoff Beattie explains why we indulge in back-biting behaviour.

I watched Gordon Brown's comments in Rochdale with an awful fascination and a terrible unforgiving smile, which I could sense, had spread right across my whole face.

After all, let he who is without sin of slagging someone off behind their back, cast the first stone.

We have just had a difficult conversation, maybe we have felt a little under attack, but we have felt constrained and we have been polite throughout, and now the "attack" is over and we find ourselves alone with a trusted confidante. We relax and we make some comment or other. This is the unguarded moment where we say exactly what we feel.

Geoff Beattie
Part of the psychological motivation behind it is to repair self-esteem in the case of personal attack, or what is perceived as some sort of personal attack
Geoff Beattie

I can recall a while ago being interviewed in a television studio by someone who clearly thought of himself as a very clever and incisive interrogator indeed.

A female friend had come to watch my performance - to watch me shine - but some of the interview had been a little more difficult than I had anticipated.

At the end, the interviewer and I shook hands politely and I can recall saying "That was really great, thank you for that... any time by the way", and I made a small telephone gesture as if to press the point home.

Then I turned away to my friend and said more or less under my breath: "Dick."

The sound man came up to me and winked as he disconnected the microphone from my jacket.

"I agree," he whispered, and I blushed with my social embarrassment having been found out, though luckily not by the interviewer himself.

Forward, not reply

We've all been there to some extent. Infrequently, we get caught.

Gordon Brown leaving Gillian Duffy's home
Full of remorse - Gordon Brown emerges after a 40-minute apology

Think about the occasion when you've received an e-mail and forwarded it to a friend with a biting comment about the sender - only to realise too late that you hit "reply" instead of the "forward" button.

There is a great scene in the film Spinal Tap which comes to mind. The spoof rock band the film is about bump into a fellow rock star in the lobby of the hotel, and he proceeds to tell the group, which is experiencing waning popularity, about the current wave of success he is riding.

It's a respectful, if strained, conversation. But as soon as they part company, the band descends into making hushed criticisms. "This much talent," says one member, holding up two fingers in a pinched gesture.

The sociologist Erving Goffman talked about social behaviour in terms of dramaturgical performance where we play out the roles given to us and we have a centre stage where we assume that we are being observed and a backstage area which we think is hidden from public view.

Those engaged in social performance have to stay in character for the benefit of the audience, essentially everyone else. Mr Brown's "bigot" remark; my slight about the interviewer - these were backstage personas.

Bruised ego

So what is the psychology of this small, but highly embarrassing everyday process? (Or am I giving too much away by calling it an everyday process?)

Spinal Tap
Spinal Tap - hardly generous with their sotto voce comments

It's partly about release. You are put under emotional pressure and when the source of that pressure leaves you get a release of tension which often displays itself in some kind of ill-thought out remark.

But that, of course, is not the whole story.

Part of the psychological motivation behind it is to repair self-esteem in the case of personal attack, or what is perceived as some sort of personal attack. Self-esteem is often remedied in such situations by diminishing the status of the perpetrator - calling someone a "bigot" or even "a sort of bigoted woman" would do nicely.

But there is another major dimension to this process and that concerns who you make the comments to.

This is the social dimension. This is usually a way of bonding with the recipient of the comment. So when I whispered "dick" to my friend I was essentially letting her in on a "private" thought. Brown in Rochdale could have been making this comment to form a closer bond with his staff member in the back of the car, sharing a thought and uniting with him against the "threat".

Gossip networks

This is, after all, a common device that human beings use, and it forms the basis of gossip networks, where negative things about another person are said, and where the selection of the person to gossip to is as important as the selection of the target of the gossip themselves.

Big Brother
On Big Brother, "they do little else" says Beattie

Research by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has found that gossip allows us to connect with others against a third party. Gossip, and any kind of negative comment, always involves a degree of risk because you have to be sure that the recipient of the negative comment will share your view.

As the official resident psychologist to Channel 4's reality show Big Brother, I've witnessed this sort of behaviour in extreme.

In the Big Brother house that's often all they do - bitch about each other. In that house it's all about positioning yourself in a hierarchy. They have so few other resources to do this with, except what they have to say about each other.

So was Mr Brown just trying to re-establish social bonds with his staff member in the back of that car? I think not. This was all about blame and power and authority and dominance hierarchies and the fact that some powerful people like throwing their weight around.

I am sure that I was not alone when I whispered the "D" word at the television when I watched the prime minister behave in this way. And the funny thing is that I wouldn't have been bothered if anyone had heard. But David Cameron and Nick Clegg better watch out. It's not an edifying spectacle.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I've certainly fallen foul of this on more than one occasion. One time a boss irritated me somewhat. Knowing that I couldn't let my true feelings known I resorted to what I had been taught to do to relieve the anger. I wrote down me thoughts then felt much better for having let out the anger in a way that did no harm to anyone. Unfortunately I forgot to destroy my note and unbeknown to me my boss found it. Months later when I did something that he didn't like he raised the issue. I'd long since forgotten about it as it had done its job. He refused to believe that I didn't remember and instead accused me of being a two-faced liar. This made me livid as I rarely lie and I usually admit to when I have made a mistake. Thankfully I found another job and moved on soon after this came to light.
D Pressed, Sheffield, South Yorkshire

I agree. I've been in the same position once or twice. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, as a release, you say something about someone you really like and respect and later wonder where on earth the comment came from. It's a pressure thing. I personally don't think any less of Gordon Brown for his comment, although I do feel sorry for the Gran at the other end of it. If anything it only makes him appear more human to me.
Jane Bennett, Manchester

I too have been a repentant sinner.
Wendy, Leics

I recall once I finished a call with a very annoying lady who was unfortunately the wife of a client. Hung the phone up (or thought I had!) and said to my colleague with whom I shared an office "wow she is such a b****". Heard in my earpiece "err, I'm still here you know." I just cut her off and never spoke about it again to anyone. She clearly didn't squeal as I kept that job for a year after the incident and did lots more work for that particular client. Phew!
RMS, Birmingham

I was once involved in a long e-mail discussion with somebody trying to find an answer to something. The person e-mailing me eventually sent my e-mail question to her colleague and then sent me a summary their response. However she did not delete the response from her colleague that was below her response. I read the colleague's response in full and it wasn't very nice about me. I promptly circulated it to everybody in my office. We all laughed, and learnt.
Briony, Florida, US

Someone at a previous employer made the e-mail faux pas. He'd received his written summary of a recent appraisal from his line manager, which was critical of his performance. He decided to add his own witty and cutting commentary line by line and forward it to his friends, highlighting her "interfering petty nature", "constant micromanagement" and "her snipey evil attitude" as contributory factors. He'd started this as a reply to her and got carried away, so managed to forget to remove her name from the recipient list when he added his friends. Doughnut. She was most unimpressed with the ending part which concluded she was like this through sexual frustration, which was understandable as he felt she resembled the Star Wars character, Jabba the Hut. Needless to say, he didn't stay in the building for very many minutes following hitting send.
Benedict Carey, Southampton

Love the Spinal Tap example but I think Derek and Clive provided a better (if more profane) version in the Hello Colin sketch.
Derek : (spoken as a monologue as one side of a conversation as if meeting someone in the street) "Alright Colin, how are you then? All right? Yeah, yeah, nice to see you. How's, how's Robin? All right then? Yeah, that's nice. Yeah, well, take care. Yeah, give my love to the family. OK! See you! (pause)
Squatter Madras, Midlands, UK

Geoff makes some great points, and has helped me to see more of what happened and not just the gut reaction answer. But isn't there also something to do with who we are. If we compliment someone to their face then insult them behind their backs, aren't we being untrue to ourselves in the first place? Which is ultimately why we mistrust politicians but more importantly can lead to any of our downfalls and therefore is something we should all try to change.
Paul Blagbrough, Los Angeles

Geoff, I tended to agree with you right up to the point "This was all about blame and power... throwing their weight around". To me it had nothing to do with power, it was a normal human reaction to a uncomfortable situation during which the woman introduced the subject of immigration, a subject not conducive to a sidewalk discussion. If you listen carefully to what happened, he was concerned about the media reaction to the conversation, because he knew that a question of that nature cannot be answered without intensive debate and the media may have presented him as avoiding the issues of immigration. His comment was a reaction to his perception of media response, with the blame attached to the woman for introducing a controversial subject.
Hugh, St Andrews, Scotland

We all know the statistic - the average Londoner is captured on CCTV 300 times a day (or so we are led to believe). How many of those same Londoners are caught doing something embarrassing? Well thank goodness we don't all wear microphones, else we would be in serious trouble. As embarrassing as this incident is for Gordon Brown, I think it portrays him as simply being human. He breaks the "squeaky clean goody two-shoes" mould in a way that we can empathise with. We can all be a bit two-faced and say things behind peoples' backs. He, like ourselves, makes the odd embarrassing, but human, mistake yet isn't afraid to admit it and apologise.
Clare, UK

Of course we've all done this at some point. If people get on your nerves or have blatantly different views, you are certainly going to think it and probably say it but hopefully not within earshot. Mrs Duffy's views were those of a concerned citizen - whichever way she broached her questions to the PM should not have mattered, it's not always easy to get a point across as succinctly as a politician, especially if you are not adept at patter. What should have mattered was that she had a right to be treated with a fair answer and some respect. He didn't have a choice about apologising, he HAD to.
CC, London, UK

Everyone is entitled to have an opinion about another person, regardless of their public position or standing. We all choose to keep these opinions to ourselves or tell others, sometimes even tell the person who the opinion has been formed around. It is a simple fact of live that these things happen, and the only reasons this has been blown out of all proportion are a) it's the current PM; b) it was recorded when it should not have been; and c) the recording was made available to everyone still present, including the recipient of the "obviously devastating" blow to her self-esteem.
Jason, Stoke on Trent

The number of times I've been on the phone to someone in a debate and as soon as they have hung up, I've stated out loud (to me) words like "idiot" etc. Once or twice I've been a bit too quick and may not have cleared the line, and then started to worry "...did they hear that?..." We all do it, and I think no different about Gordon Brown as a person after this episode.
Andy Cooper, London

Having watched the interview between Gordon Brown and said woman, I can sympathise that it was a difficult conversation. We are all human, and we all have feelings, and keeping our composure at the time sometimes means we lose it afterwards. It's unfortunate. I have to give him credit for personally apologising afterwards. That is the absolutely last thing I would have wanted to do!
Laura, Scotland

Is it really much better if you walk away thinking "bigot" but don't actually say it? No-one can get offended because they won't know, but you're still being duplicitous.
Jenna, Bath

That is is a "backstage persona" is a pretty poor defence, I do not want politicians to have any "persona" other than themselves. As is the "gossip network" I don't particularly want our politicians gossiping about each other and us, behind each others, and our backs. That is was a private comment to a trusted confidante is a terrible defence as well. Would you forgive people you know trash talking behind your back because they were talking to a trusted friend and did not know you were listening?
Phil, Reading

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