Why is gossip such a tough habit to quit?

2013

The term "workplace violence", normally conjures up images of physical harm. But for me there's another type of workplace violence that is just as, if not more, threatening and hurtful. That violence is verbal: workplace gossip.

I define gossip as the sort of language that results in another person experiencing pain, suffering or confusion, language that is used when that other person to whom it's directed is not present.

Over the years, I've come across hundreds of workplace situations where gossip was seen as "business as usual", part and parcel of the culture. And in many cases, the individuals involved would even claim to be "against" gossip.

Yet even after attending formal meetings to explore the "gossip issue", or after sensitivity training sessions intended to reduce the gossiping, or after organizational mandates that "no more gossiping will be tolerated" and even after individuals "signed the pledge" to speak openly and directly and to reduce the "gossip problem", even after all this, a fair number of people who had apparently committed to change the culture continued to engage in gossiping.

So what is it with gossip? Why is it such a tough habit to quit?

Competing commitments

Consciously or unconsciously, most gossip is fear-based. So someone's commitment not to gossip can be subsumed by fear, anxiety or concern about who they might become if they stopped gossiping.

For example:

  • Who would I be then?
  • What would I do then (instead of gossiping)?
  • Would I no longer be "one of the guys/gals?" (the odd one out)
  • Would anyone still have lunch with me?
  • Would I lose my friends?
  • Would folks ostracize me as "spiritual" or some other (in their perspective) pejorative?

People who gossip often have a disproportionate need to be seen, acknowledge, liked, wanted or accepted. They need others to feel comfortable around them, and so acquiesce when drawn into gossip. Why?

Gossiping is a protective mechanism

Stopping yourself from talking about others can be very challenging, even painful. That's because many of us have great difficulty being open and authentic or acknowledging our vulnerability.

Gossiping acts as a defense mechanism that diverts attention away from us. By putting the focus on someone else, it means we don't have to disclose our own feelings or emotions or have to "open up" to others.

Gossiping then becomes a way of not having to reveal anything about ourselves. Most gossipers have lived life behind a mask, putting on false identities when they get dressed to face the world, always needing to protect themselves from showing their authenticity. They feel frightened and threatened.

Do no harm

SOME QUESTIONS FOR SELF-REFLECTION

  • Why do I engage in gossiping or support others who do?
  • What does gossiping get me?
  • Is there another way to get the same result without harming others?
  • Does gossiping align with my personal values around respecting others?
  • Would I repeat gossip I hear or generate directly to the person it's about?
  • Would I want to be quoted on TV or in the company newsletter?
  • Would I encourage my children to gossip?
  • Would I engage in gossiping it if it were about a relative or personal friend?
  • Am I expressing my authenticity and integrity when I gossip?
  • Do I feel ethical when I'm gossiping?
  • What was my experience of gossip when I was growing up?

The commitment to quit gossip is not simply a mental or intellectual choice. To behave authentically and sincerely requires an inner intention that emanates from a deep sense of integrity and real desire to do no harm in our lives.

Without this deep commitment, or if quitting gossip and doing no harm are perceived as policies or principles imposed from outside, gossipers often fall off the gossip wagon. Simply making a mental choice to quit gossip isn't enough. Like other addictions, it's not just a mind-over-matter equation. So, at the end of the day (and throughout the day), the commitment not to gossip often dissipates rather quickly.

It's an inside-out proposition

Unless we're aware of the nature of our perceptions, our orientation to the world and the people in it, the nature of our judgments of others and the underlying nature of our emotions, we'll be challenged to resist the urge to gossip.

To free ourselves from the pernicious and insidious effects of gossiping and to free ourselves from inflicting harm upon others, we need to explore and heal the split between our outer and inner selves. Only then can we live honest, sincere and gossip free lives.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.