“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody come sit next to me.” ― Alice Roosevelt Longworth
I remember in second grade learning to play a game called Telephone. We’d sit in a circle on the floor. The teacher would think of a silly sentence, and whisper it in one child’s ear. The first child would repeat it to the second, and so on around the circle until it came all the way around. The last child would repeat what she had heard, and the circle would erupt into silly giggles at the nonsense that the words had morphed into. It always ended up radically different from how it had begun, even when only a few people were playing, as we all added a tiny bit of our own perception.
It easy to see, as adults, how gossip happens in the same way. No circle is immune to it – it happens in classrooms, in the work place, on internet forums, at family gatherings. Not even the birth community, with all of its warm-fuzziness, is excluded. Gossip, a sharp and poisonous weapon, severs connections, kills trust, and tears people apart.
So, what is gossip, exactly? It is anything said to bring another person down, when that person is not there to defend herself. It is seeing anyone do something wrong, and choosing to take the story to another person instead of confronting the offender. It is speaking of another person’s experience, instead of one’s own. It is the sharing of private information to make the teller appear better than someone else. Gossip is acting with the intention to create questions or doubts about another person’s character.
Gossip is gossip even when the speaker believes it to be the truth. It’s gossip, even when it begins with “I don’t mean to gossip, but…” It is damaging even when it is presented as being compassionate or concerned about someone else. “I feel so bad for so-and-so because…” or “We should really pray for her because…”, though worded kindly, can be used to cast another person in a bad light.
People often gossip from a lack of self-esteem, to make others appear “less than”, with the intention to change the way someone feels about another person. It’s an act of hostility – revealing the feeling of anger without actually owning up to feeling it. It’s like saying, “Look at me! If I can clearly see this flaw in his character, it means that my own character is better, and you should think more highly of me.” It’s an easier and faster way to feel good about oneself than owning up to and working on one’s own flaws. It’s Schadenfreude – feeling better about oneself from the misfortune of another.
The Buddhists say that everyone is a mirror – that we only see in others what we know, consciously or subconsciously, to be true about ourselves. This means that anyone repeating what they’ve heard is telling you more about himself or herself than they are about another person. By the same token, the Christian Bible asks humankind, “Why are you worried about the splinter in your friend’s eye, when you have a log in your own?” (Matthew 7:3) Author Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Common 12-step wisdom teaches, “If you spot it, you’ve got it.” One way or another, it all boils down to “What you see is thee.”
This is part of the work of living the path of being in service to others – to identify and work on our own issues, so that we can be present to the needs of another without our own baggage getting in the way. Being triggered by seeing or hearing something we don’t like is an opportunity to ask, “What is this about for me? When have I felt this way before, and what can I do about it now?”
To build a strong support network, create a strong family, or contribute to a functional working environment, knowing how to handle gossip is a necessary skill. So, what can you do when the Gossip Monster rears her ugly head? Here are a few steps to get you off to a good start:
*Expect it. We’re all human. We all like to belong, and to be thought of well. We all feel insecure sometimes, and might speak without thinking. Sooner or later, you’re going to hear something that isn’t very nice being said about someone else. Decide now what you will do when that happens.
* Reject it. Don’t believe anything you haven’t checked out for yourself. Approach the person being spoken about, if you have the opportunity. Listen to both sides of a story first, asking questions and seeking out the truth.
* Speak up, and step out. “The person you are talking about isn’t here. I’m probably not the person you need to talk to. Have you approached her about it directly?” Correct the behavior politely, without listening to more, and redirect the gossiping person to make peace with the person with whom they have the problem. Say what you would like to have said if it were about you. Don’t be surprised if the gossiping person now becomes annoyed with you, instead. It’s no fun to gossip with someone who won’t be part of it, and who won’t think better of you for it.
* Don’t repeat what you hear. Always give the benefit of the doubt toward the person being spoken against. Our integrity is only as strong as the next person who repeats our words.
*Be accountable for your own actions. If you have been involved in spreading gossip about another, it’s never too late to make it right. Approach the person you might have repeated gossip to, and let them know that you wish it hadn’t been said. Reach out to the person you were talking about, and give them the courtesy of letting them know that this mis-information is out there, and that you’re sorry for your role in it.
*Make a conscious decision to continue to learn and grow. Commit yourself to finding joy in the well-being of others. This includes not being part of tearing another person down. Hold yourself responsible for thinking before you speak, and for acting as the person you wish to be. In the long run, this will build you up, and bring more happiness to yourself and each life you touch.
*Choose your relationships wisely. A person who is willing to say, “Do you know what I heard?” to you will also be willing to say it about you. Make the decision to invest your time and energy in people who model what you wish to be.
“How would your life be different if…You walked away from gossip and verbal defamation? Let today be the day…You speak only the good you know of other people and encourage others to do the same.”
― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free
When we remember that we are all in this together, and we treat one another with dignity and respect, we all win.
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