It's easy to get caught up in gossip. A friend or colleague starts talking about someone you both know. She lays out some juicy information you haven't heard before, almost baiting you to chime in. Whether it's true or not, you reflexively up the ante by spilling a rumor you recently heard about that person, too. Later, you wonder why you responded that way or even regret that you got sucked into the conversation.
To some extent, it's human nature to talk about mutual acquaintances and most chitchat is innocuous. When two friends pass along information about other people within the context of a confidential, trusting relationship, it gives them a chance to vent and, perhaps, even to avoid and work out problems.
However, pleasant chitchat morphs into nasty gossip when it's characterized by critical comments that are unnecessary and, perhaps, untrue -- uttered or whispered behind someone's back for no good reason. Spreading rumors and making innuendos can be hurtful and destructive, reflecting poorly not only on the target but also on the purveyor. Yet, because the temptation is strong, especially in the workplace, people are commonly placed in the uncomfortable position of listening to or engaging in gossip, feeling awkward but not knowing what to do.
A study by sociologists Tim Hallett, Donna Eder, and Brent Harger of Indiana University, published in the October issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, hints at some ways to redirect negative gossip. While it wasn't the researchers' intent at the onset of their study, they wound up videotaping 25 incidences of gossip that cropped up in their recordings of 13 teacher-led formal staff meetings, which were each about 40 minutes long.
The meetings took place over two years during a difficult managerial transition at the school, offering a unique laboratory to examine "gossip" systematically. The researchers found that negative gossip can be "subtly derailed" in three ways: by changing the subject, by targeting someone else, and by pre-empting criticism with positive comments.
When people are jockeying for positions and power, being able to broker "inside" information can offer an employee a valuable edge. However, the use of gossip comes with a price. If a woman or a group becomes the target of unflattering or untrue gossip, or gets a reputation for trafficking in gossip, it can derail careers and poison the work environment.
Thus, managers need to find ways to promote informal communication while minimizing destructive gossip and knife-in-the-back criticism that impairs relationships, lowers morale, and decreases productivity. These outcomes can be averted if appropriate avenues are provided so employees can informally discuss work and relationship problems with their supervisors and amongst colleagues.
So back to friendship: Next time you find yourself in a group of gossips, you don't have to passively accept it. You can use some of the simple techniques described above to seize control of the conversation and curb potentially hurtful gossip. Have any other ideas of your own?
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Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Her new book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, was recently published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at href="http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-friendship-doctor">PsychologyToday.com.