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?