Pssst... (Don't) Pass it on

In today's society, with Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and other modes of social media, gossip is everywhere. Or, I should say, the potential for it is everywhere. But gossip is an age-old problem. Even in the book of Leviticus, God warns of the dangers of "slander". Not to sound like an old lady but back in my day, we didn't have all this instant media to spread around gossip world wide with the press of a button. We had the telephone and had to call people one by one to spread rumors and slander them. It took a lot longer! 

I don't think anyone reading this blog would argue that gossip is good and we should be doing more of it, so why am I even bothering to write this blog at all? Because I care about the psychological effect of gossiping--not just on the subject of the gossip but on the person who first chooses to gossip about them AND the person that listens to the gossip.

The subject, invariably, feels some level of hurt. Their trust has been broken. They and their issues have been thrust into the spotlight.

The instigator of the gossip, the one that has or imagines to have information to share, feels excited because they have information that others don't. They get to look important because they know things. I also think there's the drama-seeker piece at work in this person--"just wait until I tell her about this! I can't wait to see what she'll see (or do)!" There may also be a belief on the part of the instigator that sharing information will help them to gain friends because there's a "common enemy".

Finally, the person that listens to gossip. Most people don't think about this person. This is where most of us probably fit, though. We know not to gossip but we typically don't think there's anything really wrong with listening to it--as long as we're not continuing to spread it. But is this really true? I think that the listener also experiences negative emotion--perhaps saying to themselves "if this person is gossiping to me, maybe they're gossiping about me!" so we see a breaking of trust. The listener may also begin to compare themselves to the subject of the gossip and feel defensive or insecure.  If the listener decides to act in some way based on the information that was passed to them, this can lead to all sorts of terrible things. For example, mis-information being spread on Facebook may lead the readers of this to feel angry at the subject, leading them to continue to pass it on or leading them to act in some way on the information. Even if, later on, the gossip is found to have been untrue, the damage will have already been done.

Let's look at an invented piece of gossip. For demonstration, I'll tell a bit of gossip about my dog (she's less likely to care about gossip being spread among people about her!) So I'll tell my Facebook friends "My dog failed her math class!"--a bit of information I learned from helping the teacher grade final exams. Now this information gets out to people that know my dog and they continue to share it with others--maybe because they think its funny, maybe because they want to hurt my dog's feelings, maybe because they think a dog shouldn't be taking a math class in the first place, maybe to feel better about their own low grade!

How does my dog feel? Well, in this case, obviously, she doesn't care at all, but if she was a person, I can imagine her feeling embarrased, enraged, and betrayed. 

Now, if we take this scenario a step farther and we find that the information I originally shared was actually incorrect: she failed her final but didn't end up failing the class. Now, I can post this correction to Facebook, but there's a very good chance that not everyone that saw the original post will see the revised one. Perhaps my dog will have gotten a bad reputation based on the incorrect information I originally posted and that will continue even with my revision. This exact thing has happened repeatedly on Facebook and other social media--sometimes with devastating results. 

Okay, so we know enough about the dangers of gossip, but how do we stop it? I think the first step is to recognize it--sometimes it can be hard to tell if what we're hearing is gossip. If the subject is not present, that might be a good indication that we're getting close to a gossip situation. Secondly, if what is being said is not said with the intention of being helpful (the person telling the information or listening to the information is not in a position to do anything to help the subject) that is a big indication that now we're really close if not fully into a gossip situation.

Once we recognize that we are hearing gossip, it's important to shut it down as quickly as possible. Saying something like "I don't have enough information about that to discuss it" might stall out the telling. I also like to try to give a gossiper the benefit of the doubt by saying: "it sounds like you're very worried about this person. Have you talked to her about your concerns?"

Finally, we can try to speak positively about everyone. Its that old adage "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Can you talk about a person's strengths and downplay their "faults"? 

Let's use the example of my dog. Was my dog present when I was posting about her failure? Probably not. She might have been on her computer and saw my post but I was probably not typing it right in front of her. Second, was my intention to help her do better in math? Probably not, since if my intention was noble, it would have been more effective for me to have sat down with her and told her I was concerned about her grades and maybe we need to look into tutoring for her. So, clearly, this is an example of gossip. Could I have avoided all of this drama by merely saying nothing about the failure and maybe posted "I have the best dog in the universe" instead? If my dog was feeling bad about her low grade, this would have let her know that I thought she was the best and that her worth was not determined by a grade. The people that read my post would probably think I'm just proud of my dog. They might think I'm a thoughtful, loving pet owner instead of some negative things they might have thought about me if I was gossiping about my dog instead.

Building people up instead of tearing them down is so much better for every one of us. When we do, everyone ends up feeling more positive instead of negative.