Gossip and the Negativity Contagion

One of the most difficult Lenten sacrifices I ever had to make was the abstinence from gossip.

Many years ago, leaving an all-girls’ school was a step, I hoped, to finally be rid of petty talk about others. Moving to a bigger university for me meant social groups that engaged in deeper and philosophical discussions—ideally satisfying my teenaged existentialist drama.

I wish I knew and accepted then what I have now: gossip is an inextricable part of human social behavior.

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Photo credit: NPR and Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Defined as idle talk or rumor especially about the personal affairs of others (read here), gossip is a form of social interaction.

We cannot possibly deny that it is an anthropological and historical reality, a “part of human psychology since ancient times.”

Because individuals need alliances to survive, gossip activities help in the formation of alliances by creating a social bond among people.

All accounts of recorded human history spanning the times of Siddhartha, Jesus, Cleopatra, Winston Churchill, et. al. can reveal flavors of gossip stirred into the mix.

Perception is not equivalent to reality. This is something every adult knows to be true. As such, people need to make sense of other people by creating or perpetuating perceptions, whichever is convenient.

From students engaging in petty talk about our professors, we would discover as we graduate from school that workplaces are actually more harmful breeding grounds of gossip.

I found myself learning that rumor mills multiply at lunch breaks, smoking areas, elevators, in between cubicles and meeting rooms, among others.

“A research from the University of Amsterdam found that 90 percent of total office conversation qualifies as gossip. A research at the Georgia Institute of Technology concluded that gossip makes up 15 percent of office e-mail.”

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Photo credit: machodeverdade.com.br

At any waking second, we can bet that people are gossiping, knowingly or not. People even mistake gossip as real news nowadays. We can see that tabloid business is still very much in business.

Peggy Drexler, Ph. D. says it well here: gossip is a standard currency of human connection.

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Whoever has been the subject of other people’s curiosity knows the sad discomfort of being talked about, rather than asked.

This way of human connection many times show a lack of empathy and human kindness.

My abstinence from gossip stemmed from my frustration at work meetings and encounters that normally wasted a substantial amount of time when people use these as avenues for complaints about other co-workers.

While these complaints are common in the workplace, I know that these sentiments are oft-times highly subjective, personal, one-sided, and unverified.

Let us establish it here. Gossip can be positive, neutral, or negative. We can positively gossip about an absent co-worker who is doing an extraordinary job. We can also engage in a neutral gossip stating the reason behind another of many fire drills.

Experts may say that gossip can be functional. Not everyone can engage in detailed discussions about the economy, business, current affairs, etc. But we need to make human connections, right? A solution? Make small talk.

“Gossip serves as a social tool to build relationships rather than only engaging in meaningful, cerebral dialogues. It adds a little spice to otherwise mundane interactions,” writes Gigi Engle.

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Also, gossip takes the shape of a social commentary—a way for us to understand the social norms in a community. An EverUp article explains that “gossiping provides humans with the opportunity to compare ourselves with others, to examine where we actually fit in the grand mosaic of human behavior.”

The challenge lies in the predominant, mindless, and ugly use of negative gossip that hurt other people.

Engle writes, “It may sound crass, but something about having knowledge about a superior, a coworker, a celebrity or an acquaintance makes each more human. We tend to deify people in positions of power. Once they’re brought down to earth, they become accessible.

What is it about talking about others that makes us so self-satisfied? What is it about knowing intimate details of another person’s flaws that adds some meaning to our lives? When we gossip, we gain “social capital” — a secret weapon of sorts over those around us.”

In the workplace, I find it interesting that Peter Vajda identifies gossip as a form of workplace violence, noting that it is “essentially a form of attack.” It is thought by many to “empower one person while disempowering another.”

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I would assert that there is a politics of information. People who have information use it to empower themselves. And this in itself should not be seen as bad.

The dynamics of stock markets, investments, and much of economics are proof that information can lead to gains or losses in the market.

In a government and company where limited information is released to the majority, people are left to handle this lack of knowing through speculation. Gossips make and break an election.

In a small scale of groups within an organization, people use ownership of information through gossip as a way to isolate and ostracize other people.

Needless to say, it becomes hurtful, divisive as people take sides, damaging to relationships, and erosive of other people’s reputations.

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Psychologist Paul Coleman explains, “Gossiping keeps some people ‘in the loop’ and others ‘out of the loop’ so it is also a way of keeping less desirable folks on the periphery. People who gossip a great deal may need to feel this pseudo-connection because other ways of relating are not as effective.”

Gould further writes, “Though gossiping, or being gossiped to, can be a form of quasi-bonding or elevate our own sense of importance, it ultimately creates an ugly veneer of distrust.”

“Gossiping makes people feel better about themselves, or their own lives, to say something negative about someone else. This is a classic case of trying to diminish your own pain, anxiety and worry by drawing attention to another person,” reinforces Coleman.

Chronic negative gossiping is a disease, and when others are not mindful, it is contagious. This negativity contagion is an invisible force that operates everywhere—making people more hurtful than they think they are.

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Photo credit: teamworkandleadership.com

So how can we stop this intuitively humane behavior of gossiping? The truth is that: unless one wishes to become a hermit in no need to talk to other people, it is not possible.

As you may have guessed, I failed in this Lenten sacrifice. I found that walking out of a conversation where there was gossip was extremely difficult, most specially when people refuse to believe that they’re causing any harm.

People expect you to show an acknowledging response when a juicy piece of gossip is shared to you, and it takes some kind of bold rebellion to go against it.

Admittedly, I’ve been perceived as rude for not saying anything. My other tactics have included: feigning deafness (yes, unfortunately), swiftly changing the topic, or letting the conversation pass me by without showing any hint of interest.

Keeping an open mind is difficult, but important. I can never forget an officemate who chose to ask me for the truth rather than to easily believe what she heard. I wish I have done that more times than I actually did. I hope more people can do the same.

Engaging in loose talk is our participation in the negativity contagion. Let’s remember to stick to neutral and positive speech, be unafraid to be quiet in the face of so much negative noise, and to dare a degree of empathy with the absent.

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Other articles about gossip:

http://socialpsychonline.com/2015/09/psychology-why-rumors-spread/

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/16/your-money/studies-find-gossip-isnt-just-loose-talk.html

http://www.wikihow.com/Avoid-Gossiping

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