Be a good gossip: Part 1
In describing principles of veterinary medical ethics, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends that veterinarians respect the rights of clients, colleagues and other health professionals. It states, "No member shall injure or belittle the professional standing of another member of the profession." Yet how many of us have been the subject of gossip? Is gossip consistent with veterinary medical ethics? Many might initially think not. Yet how many times have we participated in gossip? The fact that so many of us who disapprove of gossip find ourselves engaging in it emphasizes its power. This being the case, how can we change our approach to gossip so that we approve of it?
The purpose of this two-part series is to explore different perspectives and paradigms about the meaning and potential of gossip. My goal is to foster positive relationships among all participants in the veterinary profession. We can do this if we consider the word "gossip" as an acronym meaning Good Or Supportive Statements Involving People.
Terms and conceptsGossip: Gossip means many things to different people and different things to the same individuals at different times and under different circumstances. One dictionary defines gossip as "a person who chatters or repeats idle talk and rumors, especially about the private affairs of those who aren't present." Details about our activities become gossip when the person to whom we told them repeats them to someone else.
To better understand the meaning of the word gossip, let us consider its etymology. Gossip is derived from the Middle English root words gos meaning god and sibb meaning kinsman or relative. Gossip originally referred to people who shared good news about their families with their relatives, especially news about the birth of a child. With time, its meaning was expanded to encompass close friends in addition to relatives. However, with time the meaning of gossip underwent a process of degradation.
In the early 1800s, gossip as a noun designated a mode of conversation rather than a kind of person. The connotation of gossip was idle talk, especially unwarranted concern about the private lives of others. Today, gossip as a noun and verb appears to have lost all dignity in the dictionary. A modern thesaurus gives the following synonyms for gossip: hearsay, backbiting, scandal, tattletale, chatter, scuttlebutt, busybody, idle talk and rumor.
Why is gossip equated with negative and sometimes unethical characteristics? Gossip readily inspires paranoia because of its immeasurable threat to one's reputation and because it may affect the way others think about us and because we can do so little to counter the information if it's false. Many of us learned the rhyme, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." Why were we taught this phrase? Wasn't it to help us youngsters rise above the verbal forces we rightly feared?
Rumor: Rumor is not a precise synonym of gossip. According to a dictionary, rumor is "talk or opinion that is widely disseminated with no discernable source." Therefore, its truth—or lack of truth—cannot be verified. If gossip can be linked to a verifiable origin, it is not rumor.
Slander: Under the law, slander is defined as defamation by speech, while defamation by writing is libel. Thus, gossip may or may not encompass slander. Gossip becomes slander when there is intent to misrepresent, defame or damage another's reputation. Because slander is intentionally harmful, it may be called malicious gossip.
Sarcasm: Sometimes gossip is sarcastic. Those with medical training will recognize the Greek word sarc in sarcasm. It is the same root word in sarcoma and means flesh. Sarcastic is derived from the Greek word sarkasmos and means to tear flesh like dogs. A sarcastic remark symbolically tears a person's reputation apart.
Beneficial gossip: Most of us gossip because we are social creatures. We are interested in the details of the lives of our colleagues, associates, friends and acquaintances, and we like to share details about our lives with others. Thus, the most common form of gossip is not malicious. It is often linked to idle talk, that is, talk without a definite purpose. It comes from our conscious and unconscious desire to say something without having to think too deeply. We all socialize by means of casual conversation. Examples might be questions such as, "How is Dr. Carpenter's practice doing?" "What is Professor Nice doing these days?" "Did you hear what happened to Dr. Good?"
Talking about someone who is not there can be a way of establishing rapport with those who are there. Students gossip about teachers, employees gossip about employers, employers gossip about employees, wives gossip about husbands and vice versa; clients gossip about veterinarians and veterinarians gossip about clients. In many veterinary practices, it is common to gossip before and after staff meetings in order to create an intimate working environment. We also gossip at receptions, dinners and banquets held at veterinary association meetings. Our conversations often involve topics such as events, places and especially names, which we often discuss in minute detail. To do so shows others that we really care.
We may also tell secrets to our friends—or potential friends—because sharing secrets is evidence of close friendship. For example, if you ask, "Did you hear what Dr. Jones told Dr. Smith?" the expected response is, "Thanks for confiding in me." By telling secrets, acquaintances may become friends. Most of this type of gossip is harmless, and it is often beneficial. It represents Good Or Supportive Statements Involving People.