16 May 2022

The hazards of gossip

Gossiping is universal. Throughout history, gossip has been a human survival tool, an excellent way of communicating opportunities and dangers. Gossip is also an invaluable way of establishing social norms of behaviour – discussing our fellow humans’ behaviour gives us insights into what is socially acceptable and what is considered beyond the pale.

At its most basic definition, gossip is talking about someone who isn’t present, and that of course is not inevitably negative. Humans are impelled to share information about each other – perhaps they need to alert a group to a mutual friend’s predicament, or spread good news about a birth, marriage, or new job.

Gossiping is undeniably enjoyable – for many people it is an effective way of forming bonds with a group, especially when people are thrown together in the workplace and are outside their normal comfort zone of friends and family. Discreetly handled, gossip can also be a good way of letting off steam and venting aggression, without ever venturing into real conflict or confrontation.

But this essentially benign chit-chat seems a long way from the thrill of betraying confidences and relaying other people’s secrets or spreading unsubstantiated rumours, and enjoying the frisson of turning speculation into fact and watching it spread like wildfire through your social network, accumulating new twists and turns as it goes. This process has given gossip a bad name, and to call someone a ‘real gossip’ is to condemn them for being indiscreet and salacious.

The main perpetrators of gossip may see their never-ending fount of rumours and speculations as a fast track to popularity – other people will always be keen to listen, and they may well mistake a malicious hunger for new rumour-mill fodder as social endorsement.

However, rumours are about real people, who may feel they are being maligned and persecuted. Confidences are betrayed, facts are twisted, reputations are damaged. At its worst, gossip can feel like a targeted act of aggression, designed to be exquisitely humiliating and shaming, and can cause very real distress to the victim. Professionally, malicious gossip can do real harm, altering colleagues’ perceptions of the victim’s honesty, probity and conduct. This insidious poison is very hard to pin down; victims may be only dimly aware of the source of their distress, and unable to find ways of preventing it.

Needless to say, social media has vastly exaggerated the negative impact of gossip. Nowadays the most egregious rumour-mongers find themselves provided with an avid online audience, ever ready to consume and disseminate their lies to an ever-wider circle of followers. It is small wonder that the targets of this online torture feel victimised and hounded.

If you are a target of gossip you have a number of options. If you feel enough righteous indignation you can directly address the perpetrator and explain how the gossip has made you feel and the impact it has had on you. You can even do this in public for maximum effect. For many people, this confrontational approach is a step too far, and they may feel inclined to let the gossip play itself out – all gossip is transitory and once it is out there the currency is immediately devalued. The final option is to approach the gossip through the back door; identify the main culprit, then signal out some of their clique and outline the damage that has been done and the effect it has had on you. You may succeed in shaming them into silence.

If you indulge in gossip yourself, there is a risk you will be overheard spilling secrets about someone or something. If you’re gossiping digitally, you may even make the fatal error of sending a message to the wrong person, or including them in an incriminating chat.  Clearly, the right thing to do in these circumstances is to immediately acknowledge the fault and apologise, though this option is not for the faint-hearted. A more insidious choice is to bluff it out and pretend you never knew the information you were spreading was top-secret or incriminating.

Bearing all this in mind, remember the old adage “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” It is unlikely that many of us will be able to adhere to this advice all the time, but it is good to keep it in mind when a juicy nugget of gossip comes our way.

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