What went on at the office party: Coping with the corrosive effects of gossip
Q: I am part of a large social group that I won't identify. Last month, we had our annual Christmas party, which got pretty lively. Now there's a story going around that one of the female members, who doesn't usually drink a lot, was drunk, and was seen fellating a married man in the car park. I feel very uncomfortable about this gossip because it is such a great group of people, and I know the woman, but I don't know how to react.
A: There are few things more toxic than gossip, which can easily tear any group, or community, apart. Roger Butler, premier facilitator at Curious Creatures, has witnessed this first-hand, and addressed the problem in a recent blog post on curiouscreatures.biz.
"When someone tells a story about someone else, it often seems so compelling that it's hard to imagine that there could even be another side of the story. Plus, as recent studies have shown (research "gossip and hormones"), if we don't act with awareness, we inadvertently use the very act of gossiping as a way of bonding and developing trust with the person we're chatting with – at the expense of the person we're chatting about. One thing leads to another, and what started out as one person's passing comment can calcify and become the whole story. And even if the story was true, or has some truth in it, what we're falling for is the idea that one side of the story is all there is; that the issues can't be resolved and that justice can't be served".
Ask yourself a few key questions:
Is this anybody else's business? Surely, the behaviour of two consenting adults is nothing to do with anyone else, no matter how sensational?
Was your tale teller actually there, or is the story coming second, third, or even fourth-hand? If they were not a witness there is no way of knowing the actual truth of any story, and passing it on often turns it into something that no longer has any veracity, as in a game of Chinese Whispers.
What is the motivation behind circulating this story? Is it fulfilling a prejudice, or serving as revenge?
Could you be next? Gossip poisons friendships. It isolates and dehumanises its subjects, and destroys trust and cohesion in a group. People who are willing to treat members of their community in this way could just as easily turn on you one day.
What effect is passing this on likely to have on the people being talked about, and on the community you value?
How would you feel if you were the subject of this gossip?
If this is going to damage someone, then have the courage to take responsibility for doing something about it. Be the one to act in a way that contributes to making a better world.
Butler offers a strategy that might help when gossip rears its ugly head.
"If someone comes to you to talk, discuss, debrief, or gossip about someone else, listen to them. Be there fully for them; support them with your ears and your heart ... once. If they come to you again, to talk about the same issue about the same person, find a way to say something like "I notice we've spoken about this before. I wonder if there's a way I can support you to bring these issues up with the person concerned, or process them in some way so that you can move on?" If they decline, respectfully let them know that you don't want to participate in gossip."
Put yourself in this couple's shoes. If people were telling tales about you, you would want to know about it, no matter how embarrassing. They have a right to be able to reply, to set the record straight, or prepare themselves for any blow back. Once they are aware of the situation they are no longer disempowered and isolated.
Are you brave enough to break the gossip chain, and go to these people? Is there something you can do to support them? Is there someone else in the group that you trust who might be able to support you in this?
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