Gossip, A Necessary Evil

| | Personal Leadership

Gossip makes up 80% of our conversations according to Dr. Nicholas Emler as cited in an article in the NY Daily Mail.  I’ve heard a similar statistic cited many times.  Whether this number is right or wrong the point is we humans spend a whole lot of time doing it.

Webster defines a gossip as someone who relates personal or sensational facts about others.  While I question the choice of the word “facts” in the definition, we all know what it means.  While we all gossip, we reserve the label of a “gossip” for a select few who seem to take it to an extreme, especially those who do little else or who cause harm.

Gossip has a clear purpose in human existence – social survival.  Ironically when we talk about gossip it has a negative connotation, but when we are engaged in gossip it feels normal, and dare I say, it can actually feel good.  We can get on our soapbox about the evils of gossip all we want, but to expect people to completely stop gossiping goes against our nature.

Gossip may not be all bad. Perhaps it is a necessary evil. But there are no excuses for being mindless about it.

Many years ago I worked for a company that had a no gossip policy.  The people in this company were amazingly rigorous about it.  Not that we didn’t gossip at all, but when one of us did we were usually either called on it at some point or felt a whole lot of guilt about it.  At one point though the company leaders  declared a moratorium on the “no gossip rule”. They had been sensing a lot of discontent and it seemed it was beginning to boil over.  Wow, what a relief.

We started talking to each other openly and honestly.  The conversations at first were pretty raw.  The gossip, the dirt and the dissatisfaction, started flying.  The interesting thing though was how quickly we then started talking about what we really wanted and what we could do about what wasn’t working.  It was like a pressure valve in the environment had been released and with it so was the intensity of the tension.

On the other hand, the commitment behind our no gossip policy remained alive and well: to focus our conversations with each other on the things that matter, that can improve our relationships and that move us forward.

So if gossip isn’t all bad, how can we combat it’s potential deleterious effects?  The simple answer is to become mindful of the purpose for every conversation we are in.

Here are just a few of the purposes I could think of for which we engage in gossip, for better or for worse:

  • Listening to gossip can inform us of the cultural norms and values of the group.
  • Sharing what we believe to be the “truth” about a person or a situations is a way we protect people we care about by making sure they know the “real” story or get the “inside” information they need to make smart choices.
  • Leaking and or listening to leaked “confidential” information makes us feel important.
  • Venting about what someone else said or did can help us blow off steam so we can deal with the situation and/or person rationally at another time.
  • Venting about what someone else said or did can help us build our “camp”.  By gaining agreement from others we somehow justify how good or right we are and how bad or wrong “they” are and we even somehow feel safer.
  • Sharing stories and agreement about others shortcomings make us feel better about ourselves.
  • Spreading rumors can be used to get ahead.
  • Talking about others keeps attention off of us and keeps us from having to talk about the real issues.

While gossip may be normal and even necessary social behavior, all too often we are letting our survival instincts get in the way of progress.  In fact, I believe we put the health of any organized human system at risk, whether it is a business, a community, a family, etc. when we let gossip rule us rather than serve us.

Yet how and where can we draw the line between when it serves a useful function in the social system and when it does damage or perpetuates the status quo?

Gossip is always about the past.  If we are not mindful it will keep us stuck in the past.  If we don’t participate in it people won’t trust us.  If we participate too much, especially as the source, people won’t trust us.  To be successful in a social system requires that we learn to walk that fine line.

Through gossip we learn the acceptable and often unwritten rules of conduct.  Gossip draws the box that we must stay within to be included in the group.  Step out of the box in any way, even if you are trying to make things better, and you become a potential target of the gossip.

It may have a purpose when it comes to social survival, but when we gossip we all too often unwittingly collude for mediocrity in ourselves and those around us.

Dr. Emler makes this very important point as well: “Gossiping can be a surrogate for connecting and for creating real relationships,” he says “When people gossip, they tend to create phony relationships rather than sharing real issues.”

As I thought about the reasons why we gossip it occurred to me that when we engage in any conversation there is one fundamental choice for us to make:

Will we collude for mediocrity or stand for a possibility?

If you want to be a leader in any moment there is only one choice.

This holiday season is a great opportunity to be a leader in our workplaces, our families and our communities.

What kind of conversations will you be having that will foster real relationships and ignite possibilities for the new year just ahead?


Enter A Comment

Rick Ross   |   22 November 2010   |   Reply

While everyone feels the compulsion to gossip, learning to replace it with beneficial behaviors can transform personal relationships and work environments. Leaders need to discuss and model alternatives.

At the top of the list, is learning to transform the urge to gossip into action that opens communication. This is never easy, but it’s almost always dramatically effective and transformative.

Very thought-provoking article and one to which everyone can relate. Thank you Susan.

Susan Mazza   |   22 November 2010   |   Reply

Great point Rick. This idea, that we focus on “learning to transform the urge to gossip into action that opens communication” is well said and gets to the heart of how we can take a natural urge and mindfully leverage it to make a difference. Thanks!

Georgia   |   22 November 2010   |   Reply

Loved the post. Many think that gossip is conversation. I like what you said about meaningful conversation, and how you need to step out of the gossip in order to have it. Gossip is tantamount to saying that you absolutely “know” something, when in fact, you may know nothing! Thanks for keeping us in the moment.


Susan Mazza   |   22 November 2010   |   Reply

Thank you Georgia. It is amazing how much credibility gossip is given. The researcher I referenced noted that only 5% of gossip is malicious, but how much damage is done by the spread of false information?

Thomas Waterhouse   |   25 November 2010   |  

I keep the whole issue of gossip simple. First, if it’s evil, then it’s not necessary. Second, if the person is present, then it’s not gossip. Third, I have a few standards I use if I do have to say “tough stuff” to people. I begin by checking my motive. If it’s loving, then I consider the next point. I check my outcome, or outcome vision. If it’s redemptive in nature, inviting the other person to “higher ground”, then I feel free to speak. I do think that sometimes we have to check things out with another before we address an issue with someone. I have a few folks who have incredible integrity and healthy boundaries that I can talk to about negative sentiments I’m having towards another. They are a “reality check” on the above criteria, and they always point me straight to the person I’m talking about. Gossip in it’s pure form is small talk, scandal, and rumor. There’s no room for it in any setting. As for “conversations that foster real relationships and ignite possibilities”, that’s very sweet stuff, born of light! Great article, Susan! As always, you choose the “meaty stuff” and run masterfully with it. By the way, did you hear about Monica??? 🙂

Susan Mazza   |   25 November 2010   |  

There is such richness in your comment Thomas (as always). Thank you!

I think you point to an excellent way to ensure your conversations are consistent with your commitments in cases where you need to process your negative assessments of another. Choose to engage in those conversations about others only with people who have high integrity and healthy boundaries and who you give permission to holding you to accountable to those same standards.

Robyn Stratton-Berkessel   |   23 November 2010   |   Reply

We do engage in gossipy conversations for better or worse, and you have a pretty good list of why we might. And the fine line you describe is about being fully conscious of the consequences of our actions and intentions, which is an act of leadership, I agree. Curious if that wasn’t experienced in any way in the organization that had a no-gossip policy.

I think you can gossip about the future as well – that’s when you have conversations about possibilities that open up all sorts of rumor mongering. That’s how you bring relationships, families and cultures down.

I try to keep myself in check in two ways: I say things about others that I would also say to them – so rule one is: don’t’ talk about me, without me; and rule two is: I ask myself is this a developmental conversation or a gossipy one? That means if I can’t turn it into a developmental conversation, best not to go there. By developmental, I mean shift the conversation from collusion to personal responsibility.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving.

Susan Mazza   |   25 November 2010   |  

It is about being conscious. The no gossip policy contributed to consciousness and was fundamental to walking our talk as an organization.

However, when there were challenges and the no gossip policy took on an interpretation that there should also be no “negative conversation” about the company or the leaders of the company, the lines of authentic communication somehow started to shut down.

The more risky it is perceived to be in an organization to tell the “truth” publicly the more vibrant the gossip mill will be.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Robyn. I love your “rules” too!

Gwyn Teatro   |   22 November 2010   |   Reply

Susan, I found your story around the “no gossip” policy quite fascinating especially how people were affected when the moratorium was declared. I can see how conversations would have been stifled prior to the moratorium from the perspective that gossip has so many faces, it becomes difficult to distinguish it from meaningful or benign conversations. As such it’s often easier to simply keep one’s mouth shut.

As well, the filters that people use to guide their own thinking and conversations often vary. One might consider their discussion completely innocuous while another might view that same discussion as gossip.

A fascinating topic, Susan. Thanks for giving me another serving of food for thought.

Susan Mazza   |   25 November 2010   |   Reply

Thank Gwyn. Gossip does have many faces. That’s why I think the ultimate litmus test for any conversation is to ask ourselves the question “for what purpose am I in this conversation?”

Tom Volkar / Delightful Work   |   02 December 2010   |   Reply

I’m really starting to believe that gossip is more prevalent in the employed workplace than in cultures of self-employment. I’ve recently been a part of a partnership of all self-employed individuals and there really is no gossip because we have pledged authentic transparency. If you create a culture of unconditional support there is no gossip simply because there is no judgment. All energy can then be focused on positive creation. It’s marvelous!

Susan Mazza   |   03 December 2010   |   Reply

Great insight Tom. My response here is a bit of thinking out loud as you triggered an interesting inquiry for me – can we (or how could we) bring the context of unconditional support into the workplace?

There is a big difference between the context of a workplace and a group of individuals choosing to support each other.

The workplace has a tribal nature to it. Inside of a tribe you will have people vying for position, inclusion, etc. Gossip is a survival tactic.

In the context of a group of self employed individuals who choose to support one another there is nothing to compete for. Gossip would actually likely get you kicked out of the group! You are supported, but not dependent on each other for anything really.

I think in an organization there is an interdependence that challenges us socially in ways the group you are pointing to does not.

Thanks for stimulating this line of thinking. Obviously I have a lot more thinking to do on this one!

Shawn Murphy   |   05 December 2010   |   Reply

Gossip is the grapevine for which leaders can inform their actions, words, and even decisions. I was of the camp that believed gossip to have no place in the workplace. But after years of helping company’s transform, gossip became an important way to learn where pockets of people are with change.

This is an important topic to continue. Thank you for sharing your insights with us, Susan.

Susan Mazza   |   06 December 2010   |   Reply

Well said Shawn. The grapevine is indeed a source of very important information for leaders. I think the trick is to listen for the patterns of conversation (and the underlying beliefs) rather than the details.

Kent Julian   |   24 July 2012   |   Reply

First off, I love the title of this post; it definitely caught my attention! Second, the list you gave of why we engage in gossips, for better or for worse, has definitely given me a new leadership perspective. Thanks Susan!

Susan Mazza   |   24 July 2012   |   Reply

Thank you Kent! Always happy to know I have contributed new leadership perspective.