Do you ever gossip? Do you enjoy conversations about other people’s lives and their private affairs? Do you sometimes sit with your friends and talk about others in their absence? These are some uncomfortable questions that we generally do not want to address.
It is interesting that perhaps all of us gossip to some degree, but do not want to admit it. Why? Maybe, because there is a sense of shame or negative connotation attached to gossiping. Well, some amount of healthy gossip or sharing neutral information with our friends and acquaintances about other people is not harmful. But we may, unintentionally or deliberately, overstep the boundaries and engage in gossip that might reveal confidential or negative information about a person who is not even present.
The information that is passed through gossip may just reflect our bias and not entirely be true. The act of gossiping often runs the risk of exaggeration and turning into rumour.
To avoid falling into the gossip trap, gossiping or consuming gossip, it is important to examine if we cross that delicate line when talking about other people to friends or colleagues. After all, there are better things to do than gossip to make our lives more enriched and meaningful.
How does gossiping affect us?
Many different words and phrases are used as a synonym for gossip – hearsay, tittle-tattle, idle talk, titbits, malicious talk or a whispering campaign. Researchers, however, provide a technical definition of gossip as an act of talking about other people and evaluating them in their absence.
In their article, “Gossip, Gossipers, and Gossiping”, Fine and Rosnow explain that the original meaning of gossip did not have a bad connotation. They point out that gossip comes from the Old English word ‘godsibb’, meaning godparent, or other acquaintances who shared information and updates about family.
In traditional times, gossip or sharing information about others was a form of cultural learning and as a means of survival in society. It was through gossip that people learned about many cultural developments, do’s and don’ts of their social groups as well as keep undesirable behaviour of people in check. But, if we look at contemporary society, gossip has become more of a tool for entertainment.
Gossip has become a short-cut to seeking pleasure in our lives. Rather than engaging in profound and productive conversations, people often pass their time by talking about others’ lives or downplaying others’ by sharing unflattering information about their colleagues, friends, and acquaintances.
Gossip has become a way of life in modern culture, where we derive our sense of happiness from outwards – by talking about others, criticizing them, or sensationalizing news about them, but real happiness cannot be achieved from the outside but rather from an inner sense of self-dignity, pride, and compassion. True happiness comes through our involvement in creative endeavours. Gossiping has the opposite effect – of stripping us of our inner self-respect and kindness. We feel ashamed and inadequate after gossiping.
Why do people gossip?
There are many reasons why people gossip. While in ancient times, it was the survival instinct that led people to gossip, as observed by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar; in modern times, gossiping has multiple reasons and motives.
Gossip helps people to bond with one another when they are in a group. A group draws cohesiveness by talking about others who are not part of the group.
Another reason is the attention-seeking habit. Some people who want attention feel that gossip can get them the group’s attention. This might be true, but often it comes at the cost of their own reputation. Such a person might be labeled untrustworthy and not worthy of deep friendships.
Sometimes people with low self-esteem and low confidence also try to enhance their self-worth by engaging in gossip and criticizing other people. Gossiping allows them to temporarily feel better about themselves and serves as a self-esteem booster, but such a habit can also become addictive and compulsive.
Other reasons for gossip are feeling of boredom; a desire to feel superior; to hurt others and have power over others, or an attempt to fit better in groups. Nigel Nicholson, a professor of organizational behaviour at London Business School, argues that gossip provides us guilty pleasure and serves three essential purposes: networking, influence, and social alliances.
Conventionally women are accused of gossiping, but studies have pointed out that in reality, men indulge in gossip as often as women do.
How to deal with negative gossip and how to stop hurtful gossip at work:
What can you do if you feel trapped in a group that engages in frequent gossip, or if you find yourself being targeted by the gossipers? In the former case, you can follow these strategies to stay away from gossip and stay focused on your work:
- Take a firm stand from the very beginning.
If you don’t want to encourage gossip in your group, you must take a stand and immediately discourage any gossiping you are being roped into.
Your best approach is to ask why they’re telling you. This tactic will throw the gossiper off guard, as they assume you will be interested in what they have to say. They may say they just thought you might be curious. This is where you have to remember that body language is powerful. Simply cross your arms, raise your eyebrows, and give a gentle eye roll, without saying a word. The gossiper will definitely get the message and the awkward silence will be uncomfortable.
After a couple of seconds have passed, you can change the subject entirely by switching the topic to something different, and act like the original conversation never happened.
You may also want to busy yourself, like checking your phone, organize papers, etc., letting the gossiper know they don’t have your full attention.
You may want to tell the gossiper that you don’t appreciate their “hot-off-the-press news.” Though, if you are not comfortable with directly confronting the gossipers, you can simply change the subject to dissuade gossip.
Silence speaks loudly! Sometimes silence is a powerful tool to counter gossip culture. If you do not respond to the gossip, it will act as a deterrent to gossiping. This would discourage people from engaging in meaningless talks at work.
Encourage positive conversation. You can set an example by encouraging people to enhance each other’s position rather than trying to bring them down. You can take the lead and contribute to creating a supportive culture that improves teamwork and mutual self-worth.
In the latter case, if you find yourself becoming the target of gossip, don’t feel dejected or vulnerable. Try to control your anxiety, take a deep breath, and remember that gossip is not a reflection of you, but rather on the negative behaviour of the gossiper who might be seeking attention or trying to inflate his/her ego. It helps to analyze the situation objectively and shift focus to the feeble psyche of the gossiper.
If it is not possible to overlook the gossip that is targeted at you, then it makes sense to confront the gossiper(s), often in a light and humorous way. A satirical confrontation, usually, is more powerful than being defensive or aggressive. It is a subtle way to shame those who are gossiping about you. Sometimes, it’s good to be empowered with the right words at the right time. If you find you are confronted with a verbal bully, the following examples may diffuse a difficult situation:
• If you have a problem with me, tell me, not everyone else.
• It doesn’t bother me that you talk about me behind my back. What does bother me is that you don’t get your facts right.
• What’s that? You heard things about me from someone who can’t stand me? Well, it MUST be true!
• If it’s not your story to tell don’t tell it.
• I never judge someone by the opinions of others.
• If you didn’t hear it with your own ears, see it with your own eyes, don’t invent it with your small mind and share it with your big mouth!
• What you heard about me may be true, or it could be as fake as the person who told you.
• Wow! I just found out so much about myself I didn’t even know.
• If it doesn’t involve you, it shouldn’t concern you.
• For all of you who gossip about me, thank you for making me the centre of your world.
When you are the target of gossip, in those moments of anxiety and negativity, it is easy to lose perspective and feel demoralized.
Gossip is a distraction at work and can cross the line into harassment. If you think that this might have happened and you don’t feel that you can solve the problem on your own, don’t hesitate to discuss this issue with your HR department. Most employers have a policy and procedure handbook that prohibits harassment.
It’s important to keep a journal of various such incidents. Include who the gossiper is, dates of occurrence, topics of discussion, others that were involved, anything about the continual gossip and harassment.
Having a comprehensive log of incidents that have occurred over time, along with what was said and how you handled the situation, will only strengthen your case when you report the issue to HR.
Lastly, keep in mind that gossipers may appear to be confident, outgoing, and popular, though in most cases, they are not what they appear to be.
You may simply be a target because you are or you have something a gossiper is lacking. Most often, gossipers are insecure and riddled with envy over others’ accomplishments and successes.
It’s important to count your blessings, as friends, family, and those who love and value you are your genuine support system.
Reinforcing a positive image of yourself and connecting with friends, colleagues, and people who appreciate you is extremely helpful in getting the situation under control.
Good news travels fast, bad news travels faster:
Before technology, gossip would take a fair amount of time to circulate in groups and one could also possibly identify the gossiper. Modern digital gossip can be dangerous as it spreads fast with just one click, without any verification.
Also, due to the anonymity that social media platforms offer, the nature of gossip can be quite malicious, scandalous, and misleading. Such gossip, bordering on fake news, can be dangerous and instrumental in causing damage to the stature of targeted individuals, or triggering social panic, or even influencing political scenarios.
Social media and the digital world make it difficult to differentiate between gossip, rumour, fake news, or scandal, and it can be very difficult to disconnect from technology altogether. Still, it helps to unsubscribe from scandalous and gossip-mongering online groups and platforms, thus un-cluttering our minds of useless and unproductive information.
Power of positive gossip:
It can often be tempting to spread gossip or be a consumer of digital, social, or workplace titbits. Since the gossip culture has become an inextricable part of our modern society, it is often easy to miss or overlook signs of our own engagement with such unproductive chatter.
It is up to us to be self-aware, introspect on our own behaviour and put a stop to the unnecessary gossip. This does not imply that we should completely stop talking about other people. Light-hearted and healthy gossip that does not harm anyone is not a bad thing at all.
In fact, talking about others is a natural part of human curiosity; however, we can be conscious that we talk about our friends and colleagues in a neutral and unbiased manner, or in a way that no harm is caused to the other person.
Engaging in positive gossip, or sharing appreciative information about other people is known to create a positive social environment and enhance the self-esteem of the person talking about.
If you gossip in constructive ways, you will also be viewed in a positive light by others. You will be respected and trusted by people around you and be a role model for others to indulge in alternative and powerful forms of gossip.
Positive gossip not only creates a supportive group environment but also creates an inner-sense of adequacy and pride. For those who want to enhance the quality of their lives, go ahead and try positive gossip.
- Dunbar, R. 1998. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. Harvard University Press.
- Fine, G. A., & Rosnow, R. L. 1978. “Gossip, Gossipers and Gossiping”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 4:161– 168.
- Nicholson, N. 2001. “The New Word on Gossip”. Psychology Today.