“You will never believe what I just heard about Jane. …”
How does a phrase like this grab our attention and pull us in so quickly? Even if we think we’re above all that, it can be difficult to resist hearing a story likely to be a lot more interesting than what we’re doing at the moment.
Gossip has been part of how we’ve shared information for centuries. We use it to gather interest or support our point of view – and occasionally as a means of gaining attention (I know something you don’t know – or aren’t supposed to know).
This type of communication can spark strong opinions, reveal insights into office culture and shine a spotlight on how inclusive a group really is.
So I think we should pay attention to it.
Most of us are drawn to a good story. Stories capture our focus and weave themselves into our hearts and imaginations. They lower our guard and raise our emotions. We’re tribal and stories help us relate to other people. They’re a form of gossip.
When good news is spread about, we label it a testimonial or a fan review. When the story is less desirable, or (even worse) exaggerated or untrue, we call it gossip. The activity in both cases is the same – influential communication.
When the story shared is juicy, it can be a bit like witnessing a train wreck – you simply can’t pry your eyes (or ears) away from it. This is often how we suddenly find ourselves mesmerized by gossip.
I’d like to say that I’ve never gossiped or been passive-aggressive at work, but I’d be lying. There were plenty of times in my law enforcement career that I felt stressed, powerless or even unfairly treated by someone, and those feelings led to a bit of griping about my own perception of the causes of that frustration. No doubt I had some great gossip to share.
We aren’t robots (even if we might be replaced by them in years to come), and it’s tough not to get sucked in when you’re building relationships with colleagues, celebrating victories and commiserating over failures.
But when we participate in this style of storytelling, our character and integrity are on the line. Even if all we’re doing is quietly listening.
Good communication is hypnotic. It holds attention, shifts perception and influences behavioural responses. So when we repeat an inaccurate story, the consequences can be psychologically, legally and financially damaging to the individuals being spoken about.
Like death and taxes, storytelling isn’t going to go away. It makes no sense to focus only on fact, since facts aren’t dialogue. People don’t need more facts, they want a new story to share. We gravitate toward stories because they create an experience that evokes an emotional response – curiosity, passion, authenticity, hope or connection.
So if gossip is here to stay, setting boundaries around what you’re willing to hear and share is paramount. The next time someone comes to you with a story about someone else, invite them to answer these questions first:
- Have you made sure that what you’re about to share with me is true?
- Is what you’re about to share with me good news?
- Is what you’re about to share with me going to be useful in some way?
If what’s being shared is not proven to be true, good or useful, why tell it to me or to anyone else?
Of course, you’ll have to rein in your own curiosity for this to work.
Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.