Thinking Out Loud

Trash Talk

During the Winter Olympics, there was a lot of hype about the US/Canadian hockey rivalry. I heard a news report contrasting how citizens of each country spoke about the upcoming game. The point of the report (which was done with humor) demonstrated how Canadians spoke more respectfully about the opponent, whereas Americans were more likely to engage in “trash talk.” A Canadian, for example, might say they were going to win but would also wish the US team good luck. Most Americans who were interviewed found some way of aggressively expressing US superiority.

This got me thinking about the whole trash talk movement. I remember being a kid, playing in the Midget summer baseball league at age eight in 1958. This was my introduction to organized athletics, and in the first game I ever played, I hit a home run. (Actually, I closed my eyes, swung the bat, and by a miracle hit the ball—but that’s another story.) As I rounded the bases, I did not glare at the pitcher, raise my arms in triumph, or gesture to the crowd of cheering parents. I went quietly to the bench to watch the next batter, while my teammates patted me on the back. We all behaved the same way in triumph. It was about our good fortune, not something to gloat about or hold over the other team. No one told us how to behave this way, but if we didn’t I’m sure our parents and coaches would have sat us down and insisted we behave civilly and humbly in victory or defeat. On television, we saw Ted Williams hit home runs and trot calmly and confidently around the bases.

Then, I remember watching TV shows, athletic events, and movies throughout the 1980s as trash talk was taking hold. Short one-liners meant to get the better of the other person were considered almost an art form. Kids started talking this way to adults on television (complete with laugh track). It was cool and funny, and yes, I laughed along with everyone else. Today, lots of kids talk this way to each other and to adults. This is different in character to good-natured teasing that is part of friendship.

Athletes got into the act, too, both on and off the field or court. This escalated rapidly, along with talk radio. Lots of folks listened just to hear how outrageous it would get. Trash talk, in and of itself, had become an entertainment industry. Of course, entertainment and real life end up mirroring each other, and then we question, which really came first?

Trash talk within a certain zone can be good natured. I remember Magic Johnson discussing his relationship with friend and rival, Isaiah Thomas, back in the 80s. The two of them would go at it on the basketball court, playing hard and talking hard, but off the floor they were as close as brothers. At the time this seemed kind of sweet and charming.

Increasingly, however, we hear very hard-edged words being spoken by rivals in entertainment and politics, which doesn’t seem sweet or charming. We hear kids standing around in public places saying awful things in loud voices with no sensitivity to families with young children who happen to be walking by. We hear appalling characterizations of colleagues from our government leaders. And we see a football player make a tackle in an ordinary game, jump to his feet, strut around, continue to taunt his opponent, while the crowd cheers for more. Where are his parents? Why don’t they sit him down and talk to him about how better to behave?

There are almost daily references in the news about the lack of civility, cooperation, and respect among our government leaders. One striking exception is the President. He consistently displays good manners, good communication skills, and generosity. He values relationships and remains courteous. I know he loves basketball, too, and likely does a little trash talk, but probably with a smile.

The trend to deliver a zinging one-liner at the expense of another person needs to stop. It may be clever, but it is divisive and encourages in-kind behavior. That may be entertaining on the screen, but in real life it is hurtful and rude. It models behavior that teaches bad habits to our children. I’d be proud of my son for responding like the Canadian citizens did prior to the hockey game at the Winter Olympics—showing respect, looking forward to a spirited contest, and remembering that it is just a game.

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