People can be very defensive about their right to gossip, I’ve noticed. “But it builds a sense of team” or “it gives us a common bond”, or “come on, it’s harmless”, they insist. Okay, but it can also be highly destructive, not just to the targets of our gossip but to us.
A friend asked recently if she could discuss something that was ‘eating away’ at her. It turned out to be some ‘inside information’ her manager had passed on. As we talked further, it became obvious that it was just gossip. It was not something she needed to know, in fact quite the opposite - the fact that it was eating away at her was the biggest clue that it was gossip. It was certainly not in her best interests, despite what might have been her manager’s best intentions in passing it on.
This episode reminded me of former client, Jane, who requested mentoring when she was being ‘harassed’ in her male-dominated workplace and needed to develop some strategies to deal with it. As Jane and I discussed what was happening, it emerged that most of her anxiety and unhappiness was coming from gossip that she and others were engaging in at work. She was taking to heart things her male colleagues were reputedly (or “reportedly” ) saying about her behind her back. When we examined this in more depth, Jane realised that she had a role to play by listening. To her credit, she recognised that she had always engaged in gossip, both at work and in her family and that many of her personal upsets stemmed from gossiping. Armed with this powerful insight, she changed her attitude and, as a result, her behaviour. She stopped listening to and engaging in scuttlebutt. Instead of changing offices (her original plan) or jobs (her last resort) she moved her desk closer to the reported perpetrators, opening up previously unavailable (and unimaginable) dialogue with her male colleagues. The perceived threat disappeared and, over time her relationships, her confidence - and her career - blossomed.
Many things in life masquerade as ‘the truth’ - opinions, beliefs, judgements to name a few. But gossip is one of the most insidious, posing as it does so often as “friendship”. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Wikipedia defines gossip as ‘idle talk or rumour, especially about personal or private affairs of others’. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true”.
We’ve all been guilty of gossiping and even relished it. It strikes a delicious chord of intimacy to find agreement and gossip can be a short-cut to that common ground. We are as guilty of perpetuating gossip every time we listen and engage in it as when we tittle-tattle or pass it on.
There is a difference between valid information and gossip. If it is confirmed as true, positive or constructive in nature and important to know, it is perfectly valid. If it is ill-considered, none of your business, painting you or anyone else in a negative light or leaving you feeling upset, it is probably just gossip. Nothing to be taken seriously or to heart.
If you’ve ever played Chinese whispers you will know how distorted information becomes when it is passed from one person to another. This makes gossip particularly unsavoury because it is so easily embellished. People who gossip never let the truth get in the way of a good story. So what is the allure of gossiping? Some of us love to be seen as ‘in the know’ and like to think that by passing on hearsay we look knowledgeable or important in some way. Others of us love drama, and gossiping is a powerful incendiary for drama. That’s why it is so seductive. That’s also why it takes real courage to stop.
If you are on the receiving end of gossip and want to disengage, it can feel daunting to extricate yourself without damaging the relationship. You can simply change the subject and hope the perpetrator gets the message. If this fails, try something like “I really like X, so let’s agree to disagree” or “I’m sure if X wanted me to know that, he/she would have told me, so let’s not discuss it’. Sometimes being direct is the only way.
One company I worked with had a policy that if a person was mentioned in an email, that person must be copied in. The leaders there, like many people, believe if you have something to say about someone, it should be said to that person directly. How would you manage with a policy like that? Would it remind you to talk to the person themselves, instead of talking about them to someone else?
Socrates (469 - 399 BC) invented the Triple Filter Test for passing on information. The first filter is Truth - have you made sure that what you are about to say is true? The second filter is Goodness. Is what you are about to say something good? The third filter is Usefulness. Is it useful? If not, why say it?
When I began to understand the real cost of gossip and decided to stop, a relative told me I was ‘no fun anymore’ and that it was pity I couldn't be included anymore in such conversations.
Excellent, I say. I’m fine with that.