Earlier this week, I posted on Killing Monsters and how harmful gossip is within a small group. It distracts us from our true purpose and undermines trust.
When I wrote that post, I considered following up with a post of specific techniques to shut gossip down. But I didn’t really plan to. I thought that now that I was aware of all the gossip I’d become involved in, I would just stop engaging in that destructive behavior. That’s how it has always worked for me. (1) Realize my group is gossiping. (2) Walk away or redirect the conversation when gossip starts. (3) People stop gossiping with me. That’s strategy #1: Starve the gossip of the attention it needs to survive.
So I tried that. And it worked a little, but not well. Much to my shock.
In the 36 hours after I wrote that post, I found myself in several prolonged conversations with my best friends that were filled with gossip. We framed the gossip in a “strategic” context–allegedly trying to equip ourselves to better handle person x’s situation (based on supposition of how they were going to act or how others would react to them).
But then we moved on to person y. And person z. And by the fourth person, my brain was finally catching onto the fact that this “context” was a thin veil over pure gossip. Which was when I realized (much to my distress) that this was more serious than I’d previously thought.
In the past, the “Starvation Strategy” worked because we were only casually gossiping in addition to all the real life things we talked about. But this was deeper than that. Somehow this time we’d let gossip become part of the foundation and rhythm of our relationships. And I sat there thinking “I don’t know how to tell this person that they have to stop talking to me about this without seriously offending them.”
So it’s time to explore other strategies.
But first! My good friend Ted Birt had two good points that I want to mention before I jump into my four strategies to fight gossip. He took a different approach that hadn’t even occurred to me, and pointed out how ineffective gossip is in accomplishing the “goals” we often use as excuses in participating in it.
First, gossip is one big game of telephone. I used to teach three year olds at the Rock and we’d play telephone. When I told the kid at the beginning of the line “Jesus loves you,” the kid at the end of the line invariable ended up saying “Elephants are whales” or something equally insightful.
The same thing happens with gossip. One person is offended by something someone says. By the time it’s gone through 8 people, it has morphed into “person x hates women.” When all person x originally said was “I think high heels are impractical.” But now we all hate him because we heard he hates women. And we’re strategizing how to survive a year in a small group with someone who hates women. A problem that doesn’t exist. I’m not exaggerating here. I’ve seen things that ridiculous happen.
Second, gossip never feels quite as bad when you’re telling your best (or five best) friends something. There’s an implied assumption that everything you tell them is told in confidence. But their five best friends might not be the same as yours. And what you said gets out of your tight circle and into theirs, and then into the next one, and the next one. And then it’s all over and probably distorted from the telephone problem. The bottom line is, don’t tell your best friend someone else’s secrets or stories. They’re not yours to share.
(Apologies to Ted if I’ve completely misinterpreted your comments!)
Okay, if Ted and I haven’t convinced you that gossip is both useless and hurtful, or if you (like me) sometimes freeze up when people are gossiping to you and don’t know how to make them stop without kicking them in the shins or putting your hand over their mouth (both of which do not go over well, in my experience), then… onward to four strategies to stop gossip. The first two are to stop yourself from gossiping. The last two are alternatives to kicking people in the shins to stop them from gossiping to you.
Nonviolent Strategies to Stop Gossip:
1. Starvation. People can read your body language. When I start talking about how fascinating it is that expats can actually have a lower tax rate when they… see, you just stopped listening to me. Your focus shifted elsewhere. You may not even be reading this and have already moved on to the next point. When people start talking about things we aren’t interested in, our bodies and reactions let them know that we’re not interested. And they pick up on that and switch topics. So when we lean back and lose eye contact and become less engaged in the conversation, the topic naturally changes. But when we lean in and our eyes are glued to their face and we start interrogating them to make sure we get all the details… yeah, that’s pretty much like pouring gasoline on a fire. (I have a whole different analogy in my head about handing back and forth a gossip crack pipe, but my word count is already too high. [get it?] So I won’t go into it. But don’t do drugs. Just sayin’.)
“Honesty, without compassion and understanding, is not honest, but subtle hostility.” – Rose N. Franzblau
2. THINK before you gossip. Before you gossip, consider the following:
- T: Is it true? (For example, something true would be “Kate is 5’6”.” Something that doesn’t quite qualify as true would be “I think Kate doesn’t like me.” Unless I’ve punched you in the face. Then it’s probably true. In which case you should just say “Kate punched me in the face.” What I’m trying to say is that what you think someone else thinks doesn’t qualify as truth about that person.)
- H: Is it helpful? (See point 4 below. Why are you telling the other person this?)
- I: Is it inspiring? (Does it elevate the conversation or is it just an excuse for a moment of mutual superiority while you and your friends look down on the person you’re talking about? If it’s the second scenario, is that who you want to be?)
- N: Is it necessary? (Ahem, other than trying to get someone help if they’re threatening to hurt themselves or someone else, I can’t really think of a situation when it would be necessary…)
- K: Is it kind? (For example, “I heard person X hates women” would not qualify as kind.)
(Thank you Ashley Halland for the acronym!)
3. Don’t use names (and don’t cheat and use details that clearly identify the person). Sometimes you need advice on how to help someone or handle how they’re treating you. The more involved we are in real community together, the messier it gets. You might need help navigating through the messy, emotional awesomeness that goes with the territory. But you don’t have to use names. Pretend you’re a psychologist asking another psychologist how you should help a patient. Clearly they wouldn’t use names.
4. Ask the other person, “Why are you telling me this?” Ouch. This one can be a little brutal, but in my experience it’s highly effective. (And at least it’s not physically violent. Double bonus.) Trying to answer this question gets really embarrassing really fast if the reason you’re telling someone something is negative (as gossip usually is). Asking this can be kind of hilarious (but a little mean) as you watch the person try to come up with an answer that doesn’t sound horrible. I advise taking pity on them after they’ve made that blank shocked face and opened and closed their mouth twice like a fish. Just shrug and switch topics. And enjoy the almost immediate halt of gossip-based conversations with that person.
Let’s end with The Paradox of Gossip and Friendship. It feels good when people ask our advice and trust us with their deepest, darkest secrets. It makes us feel close to them and allows us to emotionally connect. Gossip (in my opinion) is a twisted way of trying to meet those same emotional needs. Instead of being trustworthy and forging real connections, we settle for the attention and false inclusion created by gossiping with our friends. But if we stopped the gossip, we’d get what we really want–trust and deep emotional connections. Worth a shot, right? I agree. (I’m assuming you’re nodding your head yes. If you’re shaking your head no, then I disagree…)
“You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things.” (Romans 2:1 NLT)