The Danger of Gossip
It should come of no surprise that gossiping about people isn’t a particularly nice or positive thing to be doing. When called a ‘gossip’ most people react pretty negatively to the epithet. Really the issue around gossip is how it can sneak in without our noticing. How we’re all susceptible to partaking in and dishing out gossip every once in a while, even if we aren’t aware of it. It’s small wonder that the world wars saw the popularity of slogans like ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships’ and ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’. Gossip can be conjured and released without too much thought or care.
Gossip usually concerns the taboo, or a topic of shame or personal humiliation. People love secrets, they love finding them out and they love keeping them. It’s probably why gossip appeals. Humans are naturally curious, we love to uncover, and we love to be in the know. Often the topic of gossip isn’t even what we’re interested in, what we care about is instead the mystery surrounding the information and that someone wants it kept under wraps. People often gossip without a thought of what/who is being discussed because they want to be in the ‘in group’. They want to know because they don’t want to be left out. But all gossip does is perpetuate social exclusion. It’s a malicious powerplay, a type of game almost. And it spreads like a virus. What separates gossiping about someone from merely discussing someone, is that it holds no benefit for the subject. Gossip is inherently selfish.
In psychological study gossip has been shown to occur across time and cultures, perpetrated by people of all ages and sexes. In other words it’s a very common and very human phenomenon. Renowned evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar explains gossip as an offshoot of social grooming. A way for smaller groups to emerge and align within larger groups. The sort of thing primates do.
Office environments are a breeding ground for gossip because you have a consistent body of people, brought together by circumstances, whos personal relationships are largely incidental and cursory. When gossiping we extract ourselves from the context, often the subject of gossip isn’t even someone we know all that well, perhaps just a casual acquaintance. The sort that is common in an office environment. It makes the act all the more nefarious and it’s what often keeps gossip afloat. A perceived harmlessness. A perception that is almost always misguided.
At the end of the day, it’s all remarkably childish. The topics of gossip may be adult in nature. Who slept with who, who’s having an affair (it’s almost always about sex isn’t it?). Really though it’s just about digging dirt and giggling about it. That isn’t an excuse to partake. It doesn’t make the act trivial, especially for the person being talked about. For a childish problem let’s take a childish solution. Just think about if it was you being gossiped about. Would you like it? Have you ever enjoyed being gossiped about? Doubtful.
All this being said, gossip is unfortunately somewhat inevitable. It’s persisted through human history and it will continue to do so. A smattering here and there isn’t the end of the world. But repeated and hateful backbiting is little more than bullying and cowardice. Remember that gossip dies when participation dies. Gossipy people only succeed when they have an audience. The buck stops with you. Learn to recognise and call it out, and keep track of what you yourself are saying. You might not even realise you’re gossiping until after you’ve done it. By then, it’s too late.