When we communicate with other people we have the choice to speak, listen, respond, or be silent. We choose to talk in loud, moderate, or hushed tones. Depending on the content and context of our dialogues and how we feel about the person or subject, we share with some degree of forcefulness or gentleness.
While speaking in loud tones produces immediate attention, speaking in hushed tones does not minimize. In fact, often it maximizes the attention given to the speaker or the topic at hand. It is a powerful tool to quiet one’s voice when revealing something serious or important. Speaking quietly works well when sharing something private or personal, when teaching a child self-control and listening skills, and when making a strong point without fanfare or volume.
Delving into conversations, nuances flow between the words and tones and feelings are transmitted. Do inappropriate or off-handed comments spoken in hushed tones make them any less affecting? Who suffers: the givers, the receivers, or those not present?
I can remember as a child hearing people talk in soft, whispering tones as they gossiped about who was struck by the unfortunate disease of cancer. I could barely hear the word through the whispers of this killer disease. It was terrifying and shared in secrecy. It was as if when the word cancer was spoken outright and with solid articulation it became profane and taboo.
Still, gossip about those with cancer proliferated. The same thing happened when HIV/AIDS became a new life-threatening disease. We had no knowledge, treatment, or experience wrestling with these people killers. No matter what plight someone is dealing with, it is their story and they have the right to share it or not.
So whose business is it to share the details of one’s life, other than the person living it? If private information is shared about someone who is not present to give their consent, is this considered gossip? Does the information divulged seem innocent and innocuous or something more?
If the person being talked about would feel this is an unwelcome boundary violation, invasion of privacy, or would feel mortified to learn of it, then yes, it is gossip. Gossip can destroy trust if exposed. It can create a secondary distrust when witnessing it and creates doubt; one wonders if they will be the next victim. The act of gossip separates people rather than unifies them.
Here are some ideas for avoiding gossip:
- Stay in your integrity. Don’t be pulled into peer pressure or the drama of those who enjoy trash-talking.
- It is okay to say, “I’d rather not hear that information or share their name. I prefer to keep it general.” And “I don’t participate in gossip.”
- Redirect the conversation to encourage individuals who are present to speak for themselves and model by using “I” statements.
- Make a pledge to engage in healthy, productive relationships and avoid unhealthy, destructive dynamics.
- Trust yourself and your instincts. Trust how much to share and with whom, and learn as you go.
- Have empathy for the person gossiping as well as the person being gossiped about. Know that there is a root cause of some element of pain and then redirect the conversation as you see fit.
- If you accidentally participate in gossip, forgive yourself, apologize to the listener to hold yourself accountable, and choose to eliminate it from your life.
People who habitually gossip about others do so for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons may include:
- the need to compare
- to feel better about themselves
- to express an attack
- to process uncomfortable feelings or interactions
- to complain and (hopefully to) learn
- to gang up on someone
- to be disloyal
- to have an alliance in a triangulated relationship
- to invite a witness to misdoings
- to express jealousy, competition or judgment
- to use gossip as a dumping ground
Another reason to talk about others is to avoid being transparent, seen, heard, and known. Some feel inhibited, lack confidence, feel unsafe, or fear not being heard.
In some cases, those who prefer to talk behind others backs do so to connect the talker to the listener as they share a common enemy or frenemy, and that is what bonds them. In those kinds of divisive associations, it can be risky and uncomfortable to be fully open and revealing as the dynamic focuses outwardly.
There are many types of relationships and interaction styles, so notice where you stand in yours. The best you can be is a good listener to others, stand up for what you believe in, and speak clearly for yourself.