We love to hear about others’ goof-ups and naughty ways; if we didn’t, the tabloids would not enjoy the tremendous success they do. Although celebrities and politicians are an open target for social inspection by virtue of their public life, the rest of us are not exempt from the destructive effects of gossip in our own world. But is it always bad? It’s arguable. But whether nasty or nice, one thing is undeniable: gossip is always about someone who isn’t around.
Let’s first cite the positive features of gossip (since there aren’t many). Talking about others behind their backs has a way of bonding those who pander in the practice, so in a sense, you can say people develop their social relationships at the expense of others. After all, if we have nothing interesting to say to each other, let’s just bad-mouth “her.” By playing the “we’re better than she is because we don’t do what she does” card, gossipers feel like they have common ground with which to connect. And some researchers believe gossip is useful because it reinforces correct conduct by exposing what is considered socially inappropriate.
Edward Eggleston, the American historian (1837-1902), believed printed gossip has particular value because “tabloid journalism is organized gossip.” And while the tabloids seem to be devoid of any constructive purpose whatsoever (besides feeding our insatiable need to know who fathered Anna Nicole’s baby), Eggleston felt tabloids hold people accountable to virtuous conduct. He suggested those who lie, cheat, steal or sleep with someone else’s wife will be apprehended on the pages of the worldwide tabloids. So while it may be cruel, Eggleston felt tabloid gossip upholds established ethics by smearing those who violate proper conduct.
Lastly, to discuss someone’s act of benevolence is the type of conversation about others that can actually have a positive effect. But although certain types of gossip may help a person’s reputation, most of the gossip people indulge in is harmful and mean spirited. And it’s more hurtful when the unkind remarks have come from trusted friends. You would think having experienced the wounding effect of petty gossip we would hold back from doing it ourselves — ascribing to the “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” principle. But we don’t, and often times we can’t. Gossip is characteristic communication behavior in our 21st Century information-driven world, and refraining from it takes a conscious and deliberate effort. We would have to denounce the sheer enjoyment of getting “the scoop” about other people to actually avoid rumor-based dialogue.
Despite the hurt feelings, conflicts and trouble gossip can cause, it is, and always has been a communicative norm practiced in nearly every culture. Gossip has been known to initiate war, break apart marriages and sever friendships. And because women are relational and generally more talkative than our male counterparts, we seem to have a keen ability to engage in gossip (particularly about other women). We often gossip because we believe by putting others down we are somehow lifting ourselves up. If we focus on the damage in someone else’s life, it may help us feel better about our own pile of baggage. We can be subtle about how we gossip, sounding sympathetic or concerned while we are shredding our subjects to sheer bits. And some of us can flip from badmouthing someone to treating her as a best friend within minutes. But hard as it is, it would do us well to ditch this bad habit, given the scientific evidence linking gossip to transference.
Research conducted by the American Psychological Association has found “When you gossip negatively, you become associated with the characteristics you describe, ultimately leading these characteristics to be ‘transferred’ to you.” Plainly, this can be translated to mean if you focus on someone else’s lying behavior, you’ll become a liar, too. Another arguable theory; nevertheless, spreading gossip should be avoided simply because it’s malicious, vicious and negative and is directed at those who are not there to defend themselves.
Students at the University of Southern Maine conducted a study and uncovered eight ways to detect a chronic gossiper:
- They can always find something to gossip about.
- On the average, gossipers have low self-esteem and by talking about others, their sense of powerlessness decreases.
- Gossips look to gain favor and power for themselves by sharing information with others.
- On the average, a gossiper lacks the ability to trust. If they do learn to trust an individual, it will usually take time.
- A gossiper feels the need to play people against each other. This is usually done through the creation of friendship triangles.
- Oftentimes a gossiper feels the need to divide and conquer groups that already have an established, trusting friendship.
- Feelings of rage and resentment will usually be evident in a gossiper.
- A chronic gossiper seeks to find constant affirmation.
If you’re prone to gossip, you can learn to rise above it by not engaging. Like fuel for a fire, participating in a gossip-fest simply aggravates the problem. Be the savvy gal and refuse to exchange information about others, especially if the conversation consists of unsubstantiated or unkind rumors. To refute rumors among your social circles, practice the following:
- As soon as you detect the rumor mill is revving up, make a deliberate effort to avoid participating in it. Attempt to stay neutral and don’t engage, no matter how fascinating the buzz is.
- Make a bold statement by standing up for the poor soul in the hot seat. This takes intestinal fortitude, particularly if you know some tid-bit of your own to pass along. But a simple, “We don’t know this is so since she’s not here to confirm,” will usually send a message you are a fair person and not a rumormonger.
When you decide to turn over a new leaf as a non-gossiper, you may be the brunt of ridicule among your circle of friends. Keep in mind this may occur because they feel culpable. You may be called self-righteous or smug, but a simple announcement such as, “I’m really trying to avoid gossiping, so please help me keep to my goal,” will inform others of your noble ambition without making you sound arrogant.
Though it appears harmless and socially acceptable, rising above the practice of gossip is an exercise in dignity. When you come to terms with how poisonous gossip can be and resolve to escape its influence, you will be pleasantly surprised at how personally liberating it is. You’ll also be amazed at how much respect you’ll gain from others who will recognize you as someone who can rise above a talebearer’s ugly grip.