Gossip is nasty business.
It causes some degree of pain and suffering to whoever it touches. Even so called ‘idle’ gossip is negatively felt on a subtle level by those involved.
Perhaps you’re adamantly agreeing with me right now, shaking your head at ‘those’ people. But be careful – you may just be engaging in gossip more often than you realize.
What Exactly IS Gossip and Why Do We Do It?
The formal definition of gossip calls it “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true”.
It’s important to go a step further in defining gossip in order to distinguish it from other forms of more benign or purposeful sharing of news and information. This is where intent comes into play. What is the intended purpose behind gossip that renders it by nature negative, malicious or at best unhelpful? Who exactly does it serve?
I maintain that most gossip occurs for one reason and one reason alone – to increase the social standing or status of the gossiper.
When we choose to share some little tidbit of information about another person or group of people (whether unsubstantiated or not), we generally do so because knowing something that others in our social circle do not gives us a false sense of importance. Suddenly, all eyes and ears are on us, and we have the undivided attention of our peers. It’s heady stuff.
This type of information sharing has a very different energy compared to when we share good news about someone relevant to our social circle.
Gossip can also be more intentionally malicious, such as when we share something about another that we know will discredit them or cause unfair judgement to be placed on them. But the end result is really the same; we gain a false sense of confidence or importance at the expense of another.
So let’s recap. Gossip, as opposed to the genuine sharing of useful or important news:
- is always about other people or groups of people. This can include people we know personally, as well as those we’ve never met;
- is most often unsubstantiated. We only ‘know’ because we heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend, who read it online, who definitely knows it to be fact;
- is generally of a negative nature, i.e. something unflattering or critical;
- is conducted in the absence of the object of gossip. The people we are talking about are not present, and therefore are unable to give their side of the story or otherwise defend themselves;
- has as its primary purpose the raising of social standing or status of the gossiper, either by lending them a false sense of importance as someone who ‘knows’ things, or by bolstering their confidence by directly discrediting another.
Are YOU a Gossip?
You may already realize you have a tendency to gossip, but most people don’t like to see themselves as such, and so will rationalize the behavior by calling it something else. We may hide behind ‘trying to be helpful’, ‘making conversation’, or just ‘being funny’.
Sadly, many in our society are in fact entertained by the misery and troubles of others. We unwittingly support the gossip machine when we seek out and soak up stories of this nature. And so it’s no wonder that we also seek to raise our social standing through the vehicle of gossip and the sharing of bad news.
If you’re still not certain whether your conversation around the water cooler or at the dinner table is of a gossiping nature, pay attention the next time you engage in casual conversation, and look for the following clues:
- you start many of your sentences with “Did you hear…” or “I just heard that…”;
- you spend much of your time talking about people who are not present for the conversation (yes, this includes celebrities and politicians!);
- you get a little thrill when you discover some juicy piece of news about another, and can’t wait to share it with your peers.
How to Stop Being a Gossip
The first step in stopping any unwanted behavior is of course to recognize that you’re doing it. By simply observing the content of your conversations for a week or two, you should be able to catch yourself in gossip mode. You may not notice until after a conversation, or it may be in mid-sentence, but just pay attention.
Equally important in changing an unwanted behavior is understanding why you do it. By recognizing that you gain something from gossip, you can be compassionate with yourself and others even as you work to let the behavior go.
Do you lack confidence in your ability to be funny, interesting or entertaining without using gossip? Do you seek the thrill of being the center of attention in social situations? Are you unconsciously comparing yourself to others, finding yourself lacking, and using unflattering gossiping about them to ‘level the playing field’? Do you feel that you must entertain others and have something exciting to say in order to be accepted?
All of these reasons stem from a lack of confidence and self-esteem, which can also make it easier to be compassionate when others gossip about you or in your presence. Often just bringing a little awareness to the habit of gossiping is enough to change the behavior.
Another incentive is to understand how much harm gossip can and does inflict. When we spread negative news, judgements and criticisms behind someone’s back, even in those rare instances where the information may actually be true, we are betraying that person, and they will feel it on some level regardless of whether they ever find out.
Relationships become subtly strained and tainted where gossip is involved. Subconsciously, those hearing the gossip will not trust you, and will internalize the judgements being vocalized. Even the gossiper is negatively affected; we instinctively realize that others are judging us similarly, and the false boost to our self-confidence gives way to increased feelings of low self-worth.
If after all of this, you still find yourself having difficulties refraining from gossiping, remember the age-old adage: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.