Last month, we considered the definition and origin of the word "gossip." We also explored some reasons why we participate in negative gossip. But not all gossip is bad. Here's my advice to eliminate negative gossip and promote positive gossip.
Parts of this column were originally published in JAVMA.
Responding to bad gossip
What if we are the victims of negative gossip? How could we respond? My emotional tendencies sometimes result in my feeling hurt or offended. But hasn't each of us spoken unkindly about others? Haven't we revealed secrets we promised not to share?
Perhaps we should consider whether we're expecting more of others than of ourselves. If keeping information in confidence was too great a strain for us, should we expect others to overcome the strain we couldn't bear? Shouldn't we deal with the faults of others as gently as our own?
There are times when we should respond to malicious or slanderous rumors, but it's usually best to respond with truth, in word and deed, rather than with destructive criticism.We should avoid overreacting.
Our best defense against misrepresentation is fine conduct. We cannot control others' slanderous remarks, but we can choose ethical responses to help us disregard them.
Minimizing bad gossip
The most important step in stopping negative gossip is recognizing it. Before becoming involved in a conversation about another person, we should consider our motive for doing so. Is it fair? Is it necessary? Are we raising questions about another person's motive for doing something? (How do we know what they meant without asking them?)
Another important step in preventing negative gossip is to ask ourselves whether or not the statements we are making are true—or only partly true. Have we exaggerated or colored events to distort them?
We should never act on gossip unless we know that it's based on an absolutely reliable source. And even if the information is true, is it necessary to tell another? Sometimes the truth is told with the intent to injure another's reputation. Even if gossip is true, we should not repeat what might hurt another, unless it is of greater harm to someone else to conceal it. Does the information we're sharing about another leave us with a clear conscience? Would we make the same statement with the same tone of voice in front of the person we're talking about?
We should always beware of statements that begin with:
But what if the information we've heard about our colleagues, employees or clients appears to be of great importance to others? Before acting by passing it on to others, perhaps we should ask ourselves these questions:
What should we do if we find ourselves with colleagues whose conversation has drifted into negative gossip?
First, one should fight the urge to join this type of discussion. There might not be so many open mouths if there weren't so many open ears.
Second, if we're in a position to know the facts, we might try to correct damaging misinformation that we know to be untrue. If our colleagues were involved in gossiping about untrue information related to us, wouldn't we appreciate it if someone set the record straight?
Third, we should guard against being misled by a story just because it has been repeated many times. Mere repetition does not transform a lie into truth. Even though dozens of people make a foolish statement, it's still a foolish statement.
Fourth, if other strategies don't work, in order to prevent embarrassment to all concerned, we might courteously change the topic to something positive.
Supporting others with gossip
To make good or supportive statements involving people, we must continuously work on breaking the undesirable habit of participating in negative gossip. We must clearly separate conversations that talk about someone from those who talk against someone. We must recognize the difference between harmless and harmful conversation.
But to participate in good gossip, even more effort is required. When thinking about sharing personal gossip, ask yourself these three questions:
Kindness has been likened to oil that takes the friction out of living. Is it true? The greatest kindness we have to offer is to always tell the truth. Is it necessary? We should not only say kind things at the right time, but equally important and often more difficult, is to leave unsaid an unkind thing at a tempting moment. Just because we have the right to tell something, doesn't mean that it's right to tell it.
Is gossip ethical? It can be, if we talk about others in a way that we would like them to talk about us.
Dr. Carl Osborne, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, is professor of medicine in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota.