June 25, 2023

How to deal with gossip

Great minds discuss Ideas,

Average minds discuss Events,

Small minds discuss People.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Having a good piece of gossip is like having an itch on that one part of your back that you can’t quite reach. It’s going to drive you crazy until you satisfy the need to scratch it.

Gossip, unfortunately, comes naturally to humans. Before we had such quick forms of communication, it was the natural flow of communication from one person to the next. Two farmers living in a large rural area one hundred years ago might not see each other more than once a month at the town store. When they did, they would spend time detailing everything that they knew was happening on their own property and beyond to keep each other informed. 

Somewhere along the way, we stopped sharing just the important stuff and started sharing everything we could think of – the juicier the better. The ability to communicate instantly via phone, text, and the Internet has pulled off the filter that most of us otherwise have in place for sharing news that is going to cast someone else in a negative light.

Just think about it, if you saw an old acquaintance from high school on social media having her fifth baby in six years, you’d be very tempted to copy/paste the link and blast it to your group chat of friends to spread the gossip.

But if this was before the age of the Internet and you bumped into the same woman at the grocery store, you wouldn’t immediately jump in your car and go to all your friends’ jobs and homes to spread the same gossip to them!

Gossip on the Brain

Struggling to keep from gossiping is a difficult task for a lot of us. Our brain encourages making small talk and sharing stories that bring emotional connections in our social circles, particularly new ones like neighbors or coworkers. When we pass that information along and connect with someone, our brains will release dopamine, the pleasure chemical, as well as oxytocin, a hormone that is linked to trusting someone. 

The problem comes when we are making those connections with negative or personal information about a third party. While the chemical release is a good feeling, our brains are also wired to use information learned about people to categorize them a friend or someone to watch out for.

This sets a dangerous precedent, particularly because circles of friends, neighbors, and coworkers are typically our most common gossip interchanges. When we share negative information about a co-worker, our brain can actually change the way our eyes see that person. Before the gossip, we might have had a fairly neutral or positive viewpoint of them. But after we find out they cheated on their spouse or they made a pass at a married co-worker at happy hour, our brain now starts to identify them as a foe, someone not to trust, despite them doing nothing specifically wrong to us. That can fracture teamwork, lower efficiency, and cause passive rifts to form in our social and work circles that leads to negativity and fractured relationships. 

When You’re the Subject

We’ve all been there, unfortunately. There’s laughter or buzz from a room until we stroll through the door and suddenly everyone goes quiet. We see a co-worker chuckling as they pound away at a text or an instant message, but when we approach, they abruptly put the phone in their purse or pocket and act like nothing’s going on.

Gossiping gets a lot less fun when the subject is us.

If people are talking about you behind your back, there are a few ways to handle it, depending on the environment it’s being shared in.

  • On social media: Social media is a perilous place for all of us if you’re not careful or if you align yourself with people who don’t have your best interests in mind. If people are spreading rumors about you on social media, don’t get into a posting or tweeting or messaging war with them, it never goes well. Block and ignore is a much better idea. If the rumors or gossip is damaging to your reputation or discriminatory against you, contact the site’s help team and ask to get it removed.
  • In your social circles beyond work: If you find out that friends or neighbors or people you’re socially active with are spreading rumors or gossip about you, you can ignore it, but a better strategy is to go straight to the source and stamp it out. Talk to the person spreading the gossip in person – never via anything that can be screenshotted and used against you – and tell them what you’ve heard, that you don’t appreciate it, and that you want an apology. If they comply, you can decide if you want to try up your relationship. If they won’t, cut them out of your life.
  • At work: Potentially the most harmful gossip is the stuff your coworkers are whispering and texting about behind your back. Ignoring it is a stronger option here, but if you fear it’s damaging your ability to do your work or your potential for advancement, don’t hesitate. Talk to your company’s human resource department, not the person doing the gossiping. Tell the facts and let them handle it. That keeps you from sinking to their level and avoids things turning nasty and you taking the blame.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, it takes at least two people to gossip – one to talk, and one to listen. We all share information about those around us, it’s part of what makes us human. But the next time you hear or have a juicy bit of gossip to share, take a minute to pause and consider how you might be damaging someone else’s reputation, hurting their feelings, and helping create a toxic atmosphere. Pause and imagine that instead of the person in question, you had heard the gossip about your best friend, your spouse, your child, a parent, or even yourself. Would you still be so quick to spread the news around? A small pause before acting can make a big difference between doing what’s easy and doing what’s right. Remember, it’s easy to judge…less easy though to think.