I hate to admit it, but I love gossip. It’s fun, it’s easy, and as I am a naturally nosy person, completely satisfying. But as with drive-thru French fries, some delicious habits simply are not good for you. Despite my love for it, I’ve had to reduce my indulgence.
I live in a small wine country town, and, as you can imagine, we socialize at lots of wine and food events. In this kind of atmosphere, it’s a real challenge to avoid talking about each other. Wine-fueled + small-town = the perfect storm for gossip.
A quick definition: Gossip is social talk that judges someone when they’re not there to defend themselves. It’s usually personal, sensational, or far too intimate. Often, gossip is mean-spirited.
An easy test for me to decide whether or not something is gossip is by asking myself the question, “Is this something I want the subject to hear?” If the answer is no, well, it’s gossip.
Avoiding gossip is tough because we humans are hard-wired to share information about each other to each other. Gossip helps us enforce social norms. We set our community rules by sharing the personal stories of others and then passing judgment. Gossip provides a way for society to punish wrongdoers by semi-public shaming.
There is evidence to support the good kind of information sharing. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that most people share accurate gossip and that for the most part, they use it for the good of everyone.
However, information sharing isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about mean-spirited gossip. Gossip is something I always regret. Indulging in gossip implies that I am not brave enough to talk to the person myself. Especially in an office setting, gossip reflects poorly on me. I never feel good about it afterwards.
So to combat my own gossipy nature, I’ve collected some tips to avoid both spreading and listening to gossip.
1. Share a Story About Myself
The easiest way to thwart myself from talking about someone else is by talking about myself. When I feel the urge to share someone’s personal information, I reveal something personal about myself. Granted, this can go too far and I risk becoming a bore, but as a one-off tactic, it works wonders.
2. Share Only Good News
Share news about other people that they’d be proud to overhear. Talking about people in a positive way is another way to stop the bad habit of mean-spirited gossip.
3. Limit Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol makes me both more likely to be interested in someone else’s gossip and more likely to spread gossip. The less alcohol I drink, the less I’m tempted.
Since hearing gossip is almost as bad as spreading it, I’ve also developed some strategies to stop the other person from gossiping to me.
4. Describe Similarities
When someone is sharing a third party’s bad qualities, I’ve found that finding similarities between me and the person that’s being discussed is a method for heading off mean-spirited gossip. The gossiper doesn’t want to speak badly about me, so they’re less likely to continue.
5. Ask Questions
By actually focusing on the person I’m speaking to (how novel!), I can hit two goals, one of becoming a better conversationalist as well as avoiding gossip.
6. Admit My Weakness
This is a tricky one, I don’t want to come off as “holier than,” so I choose my subject and timing carefully. Admitting “I am trying to limit my gossiping, do you think we could talk about [insert appropriate topic here]?” can be freeing – if I’m admitting it to a friend who’s supportive.
7. Excuse Myself From the Room
It may be the sneakiest way out of gossip, but a well-timed trip to the restroom or phone call outside might be your best bet. By excusing myself, I did not have to expose any tawdry tales.
But the easiest way for me to remember that gossiping isn’t good for me is to remember that I always regret it. Gossip makes me feel bad every single time I indulge. When I talk about someone in a way I would not talk to their face, it makes my stomach hurt with the worry of being found out. And that worry alone makes it not worth it.
Since cutting down on gossiping, the biggest benefit has been less fear in social situations. I’m less afraid someone will know what I’ve said about them and more likely to feel a benevolent, “live and let live” attitude.
One final reason to avoid gossiping: it just might make you live longer. Teresa Hsu Chih, a Singaporean woman who lived to be 113 years old, credited avoiding gossip and keeping a peaceful mind as her secret to longevity. Living longer and feeling better, I’ll take it.
This piece was originally published on September 8, 2015.
(Illustration: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)