Pssst. Did you hear about my neighbor? I can't believe what she did. But I guess it serves her right for all the trouble she's caused her kids. She's just so selfish and inconsiderate, it's no wonder that this happened. Why, I remember when ...
Ah, yes. Gossip. It's the age-old pastime of making derogatory comments about people when they are out of earshot. The hostile remarks tend to focus on folks we know the best and interact with most often. And they are accompanied by a sense of judgment and superiority over the target of the barbs.
Gossip extends beyond the neutral act of sharing information because it is caustic and condescending in nature. For example, reporting that a friend had an automobile accident last week is news. Adding that you're not surprised because he always drank too much and that you can understand why his wife left him is gossip.
It even differs from assessing someone's performance. I may not recommend a particular house painter because I found him to be unreliable and difficult to work with. But I'm not making negative statements about his personal life that are irrelevant to his house-painting skills.
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No, gossip is its own special form of seemingly safe aggression toward an acquaintance that momentarily boosts the perpetrator's morale.
Why gossip is bad
It may seem harmless enough. After all, the focus of the gossip may never hear what's being said behind his or her back. But it actually creates its own set of problems that most perpetrators fail to overlook.
Gossip is inherently negative. Gossipers relish reporting on others' shortcomings but ignore their areas of strength.
Gossip creates anxiety and suspicion. Although friends and co-workers may laugh about the derogatory comments aimed toward another person, they inwardly fear being the next victim of the attack.
Gossip wastes valuable mental resources. Each of us has a finite amount of emotional energy at our disposal. When we choose to direct those mental energies toward backstabbing another person we have less to use for more constructive endeavors.
Finally, gossiping provides a poor role model. Moms and dads who cringe when their children poke fun of other classmates think nothing about making snide remarks about those very same students' parents.
Of course, the art of gossip is a multimillion-dollar industry. Professional gossip mongers build their careers keeping us posted on the plastic surgeries, divorces and fashion faux pas of our favorite movie stars. And even though we may slip the current edition of People magazine into our shopping cart, few of us would choose to label ourselves as full-fledged busybodies.
Are you spreading gossip?
Not sure if what you are saying is gossip? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Am I saying something about another person that I would never say if he or she were present?
2. Am I saying something about another person that is personal in nature?
3. Am I saying something that degrades that person?
4. Do I feel good about making that person look bad?
If you answered yes to all four, then you're probably gossiping. But don't worry. With a little awareness and effort you can minimize the incidence of gossip and make it a behavior of the past. Here's how:
Notice the behavior. Awareness is your best ally. Start listening to the phrases that come out of your mouth and ask, "Are these the topics I want to be discussing?" If not, then take the necessary steps to implement a change.
Make this pact with yourself: "If I wouldn't say it to the person's face, I won't say it at all." This rule easily separates the hostile tattling you want to avoid from the positive statements that will take its place.
Focus on the positive. Make an effort to notice others' laudable characteristics and behaviors. Yes, your sister-in-law may seem controlling, but she's wonderful at planning events and getting things done.
Disengage from others' gossiping. You can't control what family members, neighbors and co-workers talk about. But you can refrain from joining in the bashing. You might even toss out a different opinion, such as "I know he's had his problems. But he's working hard to get his life back on track."
Dish out the compliments. Let old, critical habits fall by the wayside. Instead, decide to say something nice to each person that you meet. Your comments needn't be monumental. But a simple, "You have the greatest smile," or "It's obvious that you've really worked hard on your yard," puts others at ease in your presence and draws your attention to the good to be found in those around you.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, go to lindalewisgriffith.com.