Gossip is Toxic – Remember What Your Mother Taught You!
Guest post by Jay Remer
If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Does this ring a bell? Mothers’ wisdom is timeless, never goes out of style, and bears regular repeating. And when we are not saying something nice, we are likely gossiping. But what actually results from gossiping? Sadly, many people engage in gossip. Gossip, by its definition, has as its foundation the intent to discredit others.
This behaviour is usually first learned at home, reinforced at school, and then carried further out into the world. Gossip is a form of bullying. It is a chronic form of toxic communication. All of us can fall prey to gossiping and we can also be the targets of gossip. Although this dynamic is prevalent throughout today’s society, it is not a necessary component for a healthy community, and in fact can tear apart relationships, families, businesses and communities.
Western culture promotes and encourages getting ahead in the world. Despite other cultures where belittling other people is not an acceptable path to success, here we have come to accept it as a legitimate way of gaining power. Gossip falls short in all of the principles of civility except awareness. Those who gossip are often very focused and intent on elevating themselves to the detriment of others. They fully aware of how they affect other people, or at least how they would like to affect them.
Innocent bystanders can easily fall into the grip of gossip. Peer pressure can tighten the grip as a way of becoming accepted into a small group or clique.
When we hear gossip that we know is untrue, it is incumbent upon us to dispel whatever the untruth may be. Challenging the source of the myth is a first step in stemming the spread of the misinformation. If the person to whom we are speaking is the source, explaining why the gossip is untrue is important. Beware, however, because the myth is often more exciting than the truth, and gossip mongers are rarely interested in having their tale disproved by fact. They can become so invested in the outcome of the gossip – discrediting others – that the truth is dismissed as irrelevant.
If the person who is spreading the gossip is not the original source, discovering the where it began may be impossible. Nonetheless, I encourage people to go to the person from whom they heard it, and let them know that it is untrue, and to suggest that they inform their source, until eventually the myth dissipates.
Why do people gossip? In addition to hoping to discredit others, the underlying reason is to elevate themselves, and to satisfy a twisted need for power over another. This is based in a low self-esteem, more often than not as the result of being bullied themselves at some time in their lives. This toxic behaviour can be corrected, but it requires an intervention where rules are established that reflect the values of humility, gratitude and compassion.
When we notice ourselves engaging in gossip, we would do well to remind ourselves of one of the principles espoused by Stephen Covey. To paraphrase, never speak about someone who is not present in a way differently than if they were present. Most people who gossip would never say the things they say in front of the target. They hide behind the fact that they are absent. This is true as well in cyber-bullying, where the perpetrator conveniently ducks behind the computer screen taking cruel pot shots at their targets.
What are your best options when dealing with gossip? First of all, do not engage in it. Do whatever you can to defend the target if you know the gossip to be untrue. Ask for the details of the gossip, find out the who, what, where and why of the information you are hearing, and if you know the statements to be untrue tell the person spreading the lies to stop. Currying favour by agreeing with the often-slanderous remarks discredits you by removing respect for yourself. Further spreading untruths only serves to diminish you. If you encourage and participate in gossiping, this leads to the erosion of a healthy community and honest relationships.
Speak only the truth. Encourage others to do the same. This must begin at a very early age and become second nature. When in school, stick up for your friends who may be the target of malicious gossip. At work, establish policies that forbid gossip while finding ways to engage in healthy communications. We all have the right to live in a safe world. Remember always to do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Gossip hurts.