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toxic gossip

Expert Source: Frank T. McAndrew, PhD, professor of psychology, Knox College, Galesburg, Ill., and author of “Can Gossip Be Good?” (Scientific American, October/November 2008)

It can start up in any small group, prefaced with “Did you hear . . . ?” or “I shouldn’t tell you this, but . . . ” followed by some juicy tidbit about a coworker or friend. Hearing something secret about someone you know (and maybe adding a detail of your own) often brings up a moral quandary. Should you indulge, denounce, ignore or withdraw from the gossip?

And what if you discover that you are the one being gossiped about? Should you confront the rumor, berate those who are spreading it or just let it go? Social psychologist Frank McAndrew suggests seeing gossip for what it is: a natural human impulse and a social habit. Separate well-intended sharing from wounding stealth attacks, and take a few simple steps to protect yourself from the damage gossip can do.

Barriers to Overcome

  • Internal conflict. We all have the tendency to gossip, explains McAndrew. But knowing that it’s going on behind someone’s back can make you feel awful.
  • Uncertainty. Gossip, by definition, is talk that the subject of the chatter is not intended to hear, says McAndrew. So if you hear gossip about a good friend, it can put you in an awkward position (to tell or not to tell?). Similarly, if you believe you are being gossiped about, you may be left wondering how (or whether) to address it.
  • Blowback anxiety. “If you originate or pass along gossip you’re not supposed to share, you may worry about what will happen to you if the information gets traced back to you,” says McAndrew.
  • Fear of rejection. If you don’t take part in gossip, you may fear rejection by the group. And if you confront a rumor head on, or tell the subject of the gossip what you’ve heard, you may spark a social conflict or come off as a tattletale.

Strategies For Success

  • Accept the inevitable. Gossip is typically framed as a bad thing, but in some cases, it is harmless (or even well meaning), and in many respects, it’s a regular part of our social life, says McAndrew. Our evolutionary ancestors had to know whom they could trust, and people who were good at finding out about others were more successful than people who weren’t. It’s also a bonding ritual in groups, since if a person shares information with others, it means he trusts them.
  • Refrain, reaffirm or redirect. If you prefer not to join in a mean-spirited gossip session but are worried about projecting an “outsider” vibe, McAndrew suggests that you remove yourself from the group unobtrusively, or redirect the conversation while remaining friendly and upbeat. You can also decide to participate only in innocuous gossip (celebrity news or a recent political scandal).
  • Correct the record. “If you’re being gossiped about,” says McAndrew, “approach the person in the group who’s the hub of information and let that person know that you know what’s being said, and that it’s untrue, hurtful or both.”
  • Take it in stride. Realize that, if people are gossiping about you, they’re not necessarily making you a target of ill will. “Gossip is a habit people have,” says McAndrew. You don’t have to take it personally or turn it into a big drama. In fact, your best bet may simply be ignoring the chatter or confidently shrugging it off and trusting that the group will soon find something juicier to talk about than you.
Illustration by: Daniel Krall

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