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 concepts
Gossip: 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.
There is a difference between talking about other people and talking against other people. When we talk against other people, we enter into the arena of harmful or malicious gossip. One example might be, "The only reason Dr. Opportunist spoke up was to get on the boss's good side. What an apple polisher."
Talking against others distances the speakers from those they are talking about rather than bringing them closer together. It may needlessly separate good friends. An example might be, "Did you hear what Dr. Harm said about you to Dr. Twist?" It may also lessen or destroy the good influence another may have by exposing his or her shortcomings. For example, "Don't trust Dr. Speak. He can't keep his mouth shut."
When we gossip against someone, we hurt at least three individuals: 1) the person we're talking about, 2) the person we're talking to and 3) ourselves. The same is true if we listen and react to harmful gossip. Harmful gossip can be compared to mud thrown on a clean wall. It may not stick, but it always leaves a dirty mark.
Gossiping in a harmful way demonstrates a lack of empathy and compassion. The veterinary medical ethical code encompasses the principle that we will treat our patients with compassion. Shouldn't we treat our colleagues and employees the same way? To paraphrase Hippocrates, as with our treatment, our speech should do no harm. Malicious gossip against a person's reputation may be likened to murder. In the long term, to murder a person's name by slander is akin to murdering the person. "The tongue of the slanderer is brother to the dagger of the assassin," theologian Tryon Edwards stated.
What might be some motives that prompt us to talk about others, even our closest friends? Why is it that we are quicker to criticize than commend? Why do we at times emphasize the bad and overlook the good? Why do we find it difficult to keep secrets that we have pledged to keep in confidence? Please consider the following motives:
1. Sometimes our motive might be to gain personal recognition. When we have juicy information that others do not have, for an instant, we are in the limelight. Gossip can generate an immediate and satisfying sense of power.
2. Another reason we might share negative gossip is to generate a close alliance against a third party. We may be telling our version of a story to justify our position. If our confidants respond in the desired way, the alliance may grow to involve others, and thus, gossip may become self-sustaining.
3. We might spread or create negative gossip because of boredom. The chance for scandalous conversation can often be measured in proportion to the deficiency of other topics of conversation. A rhyme by Ella Wheeler Wilcox states, "We flatter those we scarcely know, we please the fleeting guest. And deal many a thoughtless blow to those who love us best."
4. Sometimes negative gossip is an attempt to be humorous. Who among us hasn't laughed at another person's misfortune?
5. Sometimes gossip takes the form of criticism or judgment that is premature because we don't know all the facts. The consequences of such gossip are highlighted in the following aphorism: "I shot an error into the air. It fell upon a ready ear somewhere. And though I've often tried to retract, some still call my error fact."
6. Sometimes gossip takes the form of criticism to boost one's self-esteem. But we must remember, to speak ill of others is a self-centered way of praising ourselves.
7. Sometimes gossip starts harmlessly, but its nature shifts because of miscommunication or misinterpretation. Many may recall participating in a children's game where all players gather in a circle to whisper a sentence into the adjacent person's ear, who in turn does the same, until the sentence passes full circle. Then the beginning and ending versions are compared. Because of miscommunication and misinterpretation, the sentences are rarely the same. Although many of us have played the game, how many of us apply its lesson?
What role do rumors play?
Rumors often begin because of a lack of understanding. If, as a result of unclear directives by employers or administrators, employees or colleagues don't understand why an event happened or if they don't know what to expect, rumors often proliferate. In this setting, rumors may represent an attempt to rationalize or explain the unknown. Likewise, when conflict is present, we may spread rumors to support our position in the conflict.
We hear rumors through the grapevine, but the grapevine often yields bitter fruit. A popular rhyme, paraphrasing poet Alexander Pope, summarizes rumors this way: "The flying rumors gathered as they rolled. Almost every tale heard was then soon told. And those who told them added something new. Those who heard them made enlargements, too."
Why do rumors, once started, spread with such persistence? Often the reason is that we want to believe them. Some news reporters make a career of repeating rumors about prominent people. Gossip and rumors have gone from the front porch to the front pages of newspapers and magazines.
Part 2 of this series will follow next month.
Note: This article was adapted from Osborne CA. The ethics and etiquette of good gossip. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1995;206:1534-1537.
Dr. Osborne is a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota.