Gossip Destroys, Especially When We Think We’re Not Gossiping but Really Are

From HBR, via ICHIRO/Getty Images
From HBR, via ICHIRO/Getty Images

I recently saw a survey given to young people that asked them something like, “Do you use your computer inappropriately?” The number was low, 10% or so of respondents answering yes. The next question was something like, “Do your peers use their computer inappropriately?” The number was much higher; if I recall, close to a majority of respondents said yes. In other words, I don’t do that, but they do.

I suspect that pattern holds with other destructive habits. Take gossip, for example. Deborah Grayson Riegel points out that in her coaching work, her clients often deny participating in workplace gossip, “with a look on their faces that indicates that they are insulted to have been asked such a question.” But when Grayson Riegel reframes the question, the response changes:

When I ask them whether they have ever participated in a “confirmation expedition” — whereby they 1) ask a colleague to confirm their own negative or challenging experience with a third colleague who is not present, or 2) welcome a similar line of confirmation inquiry from another colleague about a third colleague who is not present, most admit that this is, in fact, a regular part of their daily work life.

She talks about the importance of naming gossip (or a “confirmation expedition”) as such:

First, call gossip “gossip” to stop it in its tracks. If you are engaging in “informal and evaluative talk in an organization, usually among no more than a few individuals, about another member of that organization who is not present,” — especially if the aim is to confirm your experience rather than get constructive solutions — then you are participating in gossip.

The intertestamental book of Sirach goes further than just calling gossip “gossip.” It says, “Curse the gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many” (Sirach 28:13, NRSV). Gossip destroys the well-being of persons and disrupts whole communities.

The apostle Paul also warns his first century churches about “gossips,” which in Greek sure seems like an onomatopoeia: psithuristēs (whisperer). Think: “whisper networks,” but not the good, truth-telling kind that rightly bring down folks like Harvey Weinstein et al.

One of the dangers of gossip is that it seeks to confirm information (or at least claims to), but it risks getting reality wrong, because not all the involved people are in the room, including folks who may know more about a situation at hand. Not to mention that such furtive whispering is hard to hear, and often inaccurately conveys information when passed from one person to another (as happens in the kids’ game of “Telephone”).

Grayson Riegel has excellent advice for what to do about this dynamic (see her Harvard Business Review article here). I especially appreciate her “Let people know that you have a policy of ‘if you have a problem with me, please tell me first.’” (Although I think we need to be ready for the unfortunate possibility that some may simply ignore this request.)

I would add this prayer from Psalm 139:23-24, which could help us avoid doing what we are sure only others do:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

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