OMG, did you hear about…

Such a common phrase. We hear it, and immediately we’re all ears. What juicy gossip is about to be shared? How exciting!

Gossip. We all do it. In fact, that’s the excuse used when someone is busted for gossiping. “Well, everyone does it. What’s the big deal?”

Recently I’ve been contemplating gossip and the role of reality TV in the habit. Back before DVRs, when TV was watched mostly live, reality shows provided an excellent outlet for gossip. We could sit around at work and talk about these ridiculous people and their ridiculous behavior. We could hash out what they did, what we think they should have done, and what we imagine we would have done, without consequences. It was as if there was an invisible contract. They were paid a lot of money, and now we get to gossip about them.

However, once people began recording to watch later, those conversations came to an end. You might excitedly start out with, “Hey, did you hear about what X did on X?” and someone would immediately stick their fingers in their ears and say, “La la la la! I haven’t watched it yet.” “Safe gossiping” all but came to an end. Suddenly we were looking at these people we work with and realized we no longer had much to talk about. After all, we were all there because we had a common job, not because we had common interests. So what did we do? If your workplace was like my last one, we fell into gossipping about each other. Reality shows did relieve workplace gossip for awhile, but it eventually made it so much easier to tolerate. It’s what we knew how to do. It’s what we had in common.

To the gossipper, it seems so innocuous. Actually, it’s better than that. It seems great. You’ve got an audience eating up every word. You’re the star. You’re showing how “in” you are by showing how “out” they are. Even the listeners feel better about themselves because after all, they are not being talked about. They’re included in the “can you believe this” group, which means the gossiper thinks they’re cool. And then, if they can add a bit of gossip themself, they become the star and the “in” person.

The incentives to gossip are plentiful and we all fall into the trap. I was as guilty as the next person for all the reasons listed above. There was a sense of power when I was the person who had information to share. I felt safe as long as I was included in the gossipping, because that meant they weren’t talking about me… until I left the room and they were. It was then that I understood the damage we were doing to each other. I stopped taking part, which left me completley out of the circle. I sat back and watched my coworkers cannibalize each other. Everyone would be in the room laughing and getting along, one person would leave, and suddenly the gossip would start about them. Then when they walked back in the room, the conversation turned light and fluffy again. It doesn’t take many brain cells to realize that you might be safe in the circle for the moment, but the minute you left, you would be fodder for their entertainment.

In that situation, trust evaporates. It doesn’t feel safe to say or do anything. You look at every person wondering what they’ve been saying about you and what they will say about you. In some cases, what they are saying gets back to you, and then… friendships die. When no one even tries to verify the truth, and immediately accept the gossip as gospel, the wounds go even deeper. They didn’t even question it? Really? That’s how little they think of me? As it says in Proverbs 16:28 “A perverse man spreads strife, And a slanderer separates intimate friends.”

How many times have we seen a news reporter, who is trained to ask “what, when, why, where, and how” as well as research the facts, get it wrong. They don’t consider an angle or understand all the motivations in the situation. Then we hear the whole story and suddenly we think, “Oh, now that makes sense!” Coworkers and friends don’t do that kind of work in their information gathering, yet people assume they’ve got all the facts. For instance: “Did you hear he blew through his mother’s inheritance in a year? How stupid could he be.” Then you find out the person spent the money to help a sick friend, and rather than being stupid, the man was a saint. The gossipper generally doesn’t have all the facts, but we like to believe they do, so we can judge someone else and feel superior.

Would we want our story represented like that… only sharing the negative and not looking at all the facts – or someone not taking into account all the motivations that led to the behavior? Of course not, so we need to stop doing it to each other. Gossip is an infection that does nothing but destroy. Since we spend so much time at work talking with coworkers, there will always be some discussion about each other. Sometimes there are issues that need to be discussed and sorted out. How do we avoid the pitfalls of gossip? How do we know when we’ve left the realm of discussing work and entered into the destructive habit of gossip? In an article worth reading titled “The Danger of Workplace Gossip,” Mary Abbajay states, “If the discussion is hurtful or damaging or negative, then yes, it is gossip… …If the story is told with negativity and without good will, then it’s gossip.”

Next time you start talking about someone, there are 3 simple questions to ask youself before you speak – Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? If the answer to any of those is “no,” keep it to yourself. I’m working on that, but still have a long way to go. It’s a tough standard to live up to, but our workplaces and friendships would be better off for the attempt.