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Gossip can cause trouble in your inner life as well as your outer life. Here’s how to rein it in.
Mullah Nasruddin, the famous Middle Eastern trickster figure, once—so the story goes—took a pilgrimage with a priest and a yogi. On this spiritual journey, they were inspired to purify themselves through mutual confession. They decided to confess to each other their most embarrassing ethical lapse. “I had an affair with my assistant,” said the yogi. “I once embezzled 10,000 rupees from the church,” said the priest. Nasruddin was silent. Finally, the others said, “Come on, Mullah, it’s your turn!”
Nasruddin said, “I didn’t know how to tell you, holy brothers. But my worst sin is that I’m a compulsive gossip!” This fable cuts right to the swampy heart of human nature. Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, will admit that we’ve been on both sides of the gossip aisle. I certainly have. I’ve been the one who confided an embarrassing secret to a trusted friend, only to discover a month later that it had gone viral. I’ve also, to my shame, been the one who couldn’t resist sharing a juicy bit of information, even when it meant betraying a confidence.
Gossip is one of our most widely shared—and, often, most unconscious—addictions. People rarely consider themselves gossip addicts, even when they’re filling the empty spaces in conversation with tales about mutual acquaintances. Someone like Adrian, who’ll leave a message on your voice mail with the entire story behind John’s recent firing—now, he’s a gossip. And so is Susan, who considers anything you say to be fair game for her blog. But is that kind of compulsive sharing the same as your natural desire to talk to your sister about whether your other sister’s boyfriend is right for her? Or the pleasure you take in hashing over a public figure’s marital problems?
Maybe not. Yet, if you were to spend a day noticing how you talk about other people, you might begin to recognize a slightly compulsive quality in your desire to share the news. Maybe you do it to be entertaining or to lighten the atmosphere. Maybe your impulse is purely social, a way of bonding with others. But anyone who’s tried to stop gossiping usually finds out that it isn’t an easy habit to break. And that should tell you something about why the great yogic and spiritual traditions are so down on it. Any real yogic journey, any journey to spiritual maturity, will at some point demand that you learn to observe your own tendency to gossip, and then to control it.
Of course, only a committed hermit can completely abstain from talking about other people. After all, if we didn’t gossip, what would we talk about? Public policy? Yogic principles? Well, yes, but all the time? The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar maintains that the gossip instinct is basically hardwired in us, and that language evolved because early humans needed to talk about each other in order to survive as social groups. He also reports having conducted a study on workplace sociability in which he and his colleagues found that 65 percent of the conversation in the office was people talking about—you guessed it—themselves or someone else. His point: We can’t help gossiping. What makes gossip problematic is not that we do it, but how and why we do it. Some kinds of gossip help grease the wheels of human interaction and contribute to human delight. Other types of gossip are more like junk food for the mind. And then there’s the nasty gossip—the kind that creates rifts between people, wrecks reputations, and even breaks up communities.
So, how do we tell the difference between good gossip and harmful gossip? When is gossip helpful, or at least harmless? And how can we engage in the harmless kind without stepping over the line?
Good Gossip: Understand the Nuances of the Human Drama
Gossip has three important social functions. First, it facilitates the informal exchange of information. Dunbar points out that gossip is indispensable to the running of institutions. In a university, or a yoga studio, students informally rate the teachers. When you’re trying to find a teacher, or get to know a new person, you ask around and find out what different people say about him. Is George someone I should work with? What did so-and-so really think of the meeting?
Gossip is also, for better or worse, a form of social monitoring. It’s one way society keeps its members in line. If a person or institution behaves erratically or unethically, people will start talking about it. The evolutionary psychologists describe this as the social need to control “free riders”—that is, those who contribute less than they take. The idea is that the fear of word getting out may keep people from, say, abusing their family members or exploiting their employees.
But my favorite argument for the usefulness of gossip is that it gives us insight into other human beings and helps us understand the nuances of the human drama. God loves stories, says a Hasidic proverb, and so do the rest of us. When you talk about other people, you often do it partly from the love of a tale and partly in a genuine spirit of inquiry, a desire to unravel the mystery of another person. Why do you think he said that? What does her behavior teach me about what to do and what not to do? Is that just the way he talks to people, or does he have something against me?
Bad-Mouthing: How to Identify Good vs. Bad Gossip
But then, of course, you step over the line. The good story becomes just too irresistible, and you find yourself offering up a detail you know a friend would not want shared, or saying, “Yes, that’s what I love about Ned, but doesn’t this other thing about him drive you nuts?”
When you’re addicted to gossip, even harmless gossip can be a slippery slope. Have you ever hung up after a gossipy phone conversation feeling wasted, as though you’d lost energy and time? Or felt depressed after lunch with a friend, realizing that you spent your time on tidbits of idle news and speculation—but missed the opportunity to connect in a more intimate way? Have you ever spent an hour dissecting Jeff’s character and then felt guilty the next time you saw him? So-called idle gossip can easily tip over into snarky put-downs, or sarcasm, or a recitation of your grievances against the person you’re talking about.
One sure way to know you’re in the realm of bad or compulsive gossip is by its aftertaste. Good gossip leaves a friendly aftertaste. You feel closer to the person you’ve been talking about, more connected to the world around you. Good gossip feels pleasantly informative, like catching up on old friends. It doesn’t leave you feeling out of sorts, angry, or jealous.
I first began considering these questions several years ago, after a series of conversations with my friend S. She and I were taking a walk when she began to share her dissatisfaction with another friend, whom I’ll call Fran. Fran is someone I’ve always loved and respected. She’s generous, smart, and fun, and she goes out of her way to help others. Of course, like most of us, she has her foibles, but certainly nothing that diminishes her essential attractiveness and good nature.
S and I started out talking about how much we liked Fran. But then S mentioned she was having a hard time working with Fran, that she found Fran to be careless about details and selfish about sharing. I realized that S was using our conversation cathartically, trying to work through some of her anger at her friend. So I tried to take a more or less objective perspective, defending Fran while doing my best to “help” S work through her feelings. Only in hindsight did it occur to me to suggest that S discuss these things with Fran herself rather than bad-mouthing Fran to me. For the next few months, S rarely let a lunch or a walk go by without a comment about our mutual friend. After a while, I stopped defending Fran. In fact, for a while I stopped seeing so much of her. Instead of a friend I adored, Fran had become someone I didn’t quite respect. Not because I had had any negative experience of her, but because I had allowed myself to get pickled in someone else’s negative gossip. That was when I began to consider how deeply other people’s words can skew our opinions and even our feelings for a friend, teacher, or colleague.
Stop the Spread: Harmful Speech and How to Avoid It
Yoga circles are like other communities: perfect arenas for newsgathering. Like other communities, they offer endless opportunities for spreading rumors. A spicy secret will sometimes start a game of telephone, in which slight distortions mount up, and by the time the story has made the rounds, it often bears only the slightest relationship to the truth. So when someone tells you that X is mean to people, or is having private meltdowns at odds with her public image, or inflating his credentials, you never really know if it’s exaggerated or downright false. And even if the story is true, there’s the deeper and equally serious question of how much harm you would cause by spreading it.
In some situations you definitely have a responsibility to say what you know about another person. If Amanda is going out with a guy known for his Don Juan complex, she might appreciate your passing the information on to her, especially if you preface it by saying, “I heard” or “Someone told me that…” rather than claiming it as absolute truth. When you know that the person Loren is considering going to work for cheats or abuses employees, you should tell him. But many tales, rumors, opinions, and even facts don’t need to be passed on to others.
That’s the point made in the Buddhist Lojong precept “Don’t speak ill of others’ injured limbs.” In the Jewish tradition, there is a specific prohibition against spreading negative information that is true.
This is the core of the ethical issue: Most of us wouldn’t knowingly repeat false information about someone else. But we don’t have the same prohibition against repeating something that happens to be true—even if it could cause deep and unnecessary damage if it got around.
Harmful speech, as defined in Buddhism and other traditions, is anything you communicate that could needlessly and pointlessly hurt others. It’s a fairly broad category, since we don’t even have to use words to comment on someone’s missteps or character foibles. The eye roll you give behind Larry’s back. The sarcastic or condescending tone you use to damn with faint praise (“Jim is such a cool guy”—said in a tone that conveys that Jim is exactly the opposite!).
This kind of gossip is like a triple-bladed ax. When you speak harshly of George—even if what you say is more or less true—you will probably affect the way other people think of him. But you will also make it hard for other people to trust you. As a Spanish proverb goes: “He who gossips with you will also gossip about you.”
The third edge of negative gossip is what it does to your own mind. I no longer see S—partly because I’m afraid of what she might say about me, but also because I always came away from our encounters feeling unsettled.
Negative gossip leaves an especially nasty aftertaste, whether you speak it or hear it. That aftertaste is the inner karmic effect of gossip, and it’s a useful indication that your words or tone have done some damage to the delicate fabric of your own consciousness. On the subtle level, you cannot direct negativity toward someone else without having it hurt you. Even so-called idle gossip can leave a painful residue, especially if you’re sensitive to the nuances of your inner state. Try reading an entire issue of Us Weekly, and then notice the feeling state in your mind. Isn’t there a subtle agitation, a feeling of vague discontent, a disturbance in the force field of your own consciousness?
Kick the Habit: Make Your Conversations Count
Perhaps you suspect that you’re a little bit addicted to gossip. If you want to change a gossip habit, it’s a good idea to start by taking an honest look at what you get out of it and what motivation lies behind your impulse. Part of the thrill of gossip—any gossip—is simply the pleasure of being in on a secret. With negative gossip, there’s another hook: It’s comforting to feel that you’re not the only person who makes mistakes, suffers losses, fails. Somehow, knowing that Jennifer Aniston got dumped makes you feel a little better about your own painful breakup.
Talking about other people can also be a way to avoid looking at something difficult or painful in yourself. A woman on a family vacation found herself complaining about her sister-in-law’s casual parenting style. Only later did she realize that her sister-in-law’s way of handling the kids had brought up her own insecurities about parenting, and that she’d used gossip as a way of keeping her maternal insecurity at bay.
It’s not always an easy thing to admit, but behind most negative gossip, especially when it’s about friends, relatives, or colleagues, is some form of jealousy. The German word schadenfreude describes one of the more shadowy aspects of human nature—the tendency to take just the tiniest degree of pleasure in another person’s misfortune. Gossip is a way of getting that feeling. Maybe you have a moment of slight satisfaction in hearing that a college friend was left by his wife, or that a professional colleague was passed over for a promotion. Nearly always, this feeling comes up when the other person is a peer and, thus, a hook for your sibling issues or your projected negative feelings about yourself. In other words, when there’s jealousy.
Most human beings have some insecurity about the amount of abundance that’s available in the world. Most of us also tend to measure ourselves against our peers. Sometimes, we even feel that another person’s success takes something away from us. That’s when we might find ourselves resorting to gossip as a political or social weapon to neutralize rivals, especially if we feel that they take up space in the world that we’d like to have ourselves.
Perhaps the darkest reason behind gossiping is a desire for, to put it bluntly, getting even. A lover leaves you. A teacher dismisses you from class or criticizes you more sharply than usual. You have a fight with a friend. You’re hurt or angry, and you don’t feel that you can clear it up by talking to the person with whom you’re upset. When you share the story, you discharge some of the pain. Of course, talking to a friend about your heartbreak or confusion can be genuinely cathartic: One reason you need friends is to have someone who’ll listen when you’re in emotional turmoil!
But there is a line between cathartic sharing and vengeful gossip. You know you’ve crossed it when you find yourself sharing only your side of the story. You exaggerate a little bit. You paint the person’s behavior as more unfair or cruel than it actually was. You don’t reveal that you had been making sotto voce wisecracks in the teacher’s class, or that you had spent years dumping criticism onto the friend who no longer wants to see you, or that your “unfaithful” ex-boyfriend had made it clear when you began dating that he didn’t want to commit to being in an exclusive relationship.
Instead, you impute dishonest or unethical motives to the other person, bring in gossip you’ve heard from others, theorize about their possible pathologies. “She’s a clinical narcissist,” someone says about a friend who refused to become a lover. “He has horrible boundary problems,” a man says about his former teaching partner. We do this, consciously or not, with the intention of getting the person we’re talking with to share our anger and validate our own feelings.
This is seventh-grade behavior, of course, but that’s not to negate its seriousness. This is the kind of gossip that starts feuds, creates wedges in spiritual communities, and dissolves reputations. A man I know is still dealing with the fallout from the breakup of his marriage. His wife had not wanted to break up. When he insisted, she mobilized all her friends and circulated a letter on the Internet in which she accused him of infidelity, of abusing his kids, and of failing to credit sources in his work. At no point in the letter did she mention her own contributions to the failure of the marriage. The stories have been picked up and spread through blogs, tweets, and word of mouth. As a result, many of the man’s students and friends no longer trust him.
We all gossip. We all listen to gossip. But it is possible, if you’re willing to exercise awareness, to begin to discriminate about how and when you do it. Like wine or chocolate, which can be good for you in measured doses, gossip can be delightful—but only when you are honest with yourself about what you’re saying and what its effect might be.
Obviously, you can’t cut out all conversation about other people, and you don’t have to. Instead, you can make your conversations more conscious, more disciplined, more measured. You can contemplate exactly why you sometimes feel compelled to bad-mouth a friend, or to spread a rumor that might cause harm. You can look into the feeling of emptiness that often lurks behind the urge to fill spaces in a conversation with gossip. And you can consider whether one of the greatest fruits of our practice is the ability to remain silent, even when you’re dying to share a piece of juicy gossip or justify your dissatisfaction with a friend.
6 Steps to Recover From a Gossip Addiction
Here are some tips by Sarah Wilkins for monitoring and controlling your tendency to talk negatively about others.
1. Pick a gossip buddy.
One spiritual teacher suggests that you confine your gossiping to one or two people, perhaps your best friend, spouse, or significant other. If you have a designated gossip buddy, it’s much easier to practice restraint with the other people in your life. Choose someone who can keep secrets and who will support you in your desire to be more conscious of what you say.
2. Catch yourself.
Learn to notice when you’re about to make a snarky remark, and stop yourself before you do. If one slips out, apologize.
3. Notice the aftertaste.
Become aware of what it feels like after you gossip. It will be different for everyone, but for me the aftertaste of gossip feels like anxiety (tight shoulders, tight stomach) and what I can only describe as a worried, slightly sinking feeling that comes from sensing I might have said something I’ll regret. Note where you feel the tension in your own body the next time you engage in a gossip fest.
4. Just say no.
Turn down invitations to pick others apart. Try changing the subject when a friend wants to have a bad-mouthing session. Ask them (tactfully) to talk about something else, and tell them that you’re trying to break yourself of the negative gossip habit. You’ll find that many people will actually thank you.
5. Don’t rush to judgment.
When someone confides a piece of gossipy information about someone else, question it. Check the source. Don’t believe something unless you have clear proof—and the fact that a whole lot of people are saying something does not constitute clear proof.
6. Try a one-day gossip fast.
Decide that for one whole day you won’t talk about other people. Then, notice when that’s especially difficult. Observe what feelings prompt you to share news about someone or repeat something you’ve heard. Does your desire to gossip come from a feeling of emptiness or boredom? Does it come from a desire for intimacy with the person you’re talking to? What happens inside you when you deny the urge? How do you feel when you’ve gone through a whole conversation without once saying, Have you heard?