“When I see offices or workplaces that try to set up ‘No Gossip’ rules, I think you might as well ask people to stop breathing as to ask them to stop gossiping,” says gossip researcher Frank McAndrew. “It’s just so much a part of who we are.”
McAndrew’s conviction that gossip is about as common as breathing rings true to my experience of the workplace. I can count on one hand the number of coworkers I’ve had who I’ve never heard engage in gossip. My own name certainly isn’t on that hand! A fairly reliable formula is:
Human Being in Conversation + Human Being in Conversation = Gossip
If you want to counteract gossip at work, you have to cut against the grain of normal human behavior. Knowing exactly how to deal with gossip at work can flummox us.
The challenge of gossip is that it feels inevitable, but we also know it can be destructive. Those of us who are disciples of Jesus might also have in mind the warnings of Scripture about gossip. We’re tempted to think of gossip as a relatively benign vice, but it’s treated as a serious spiritual matter in the pages of the Bible.
When Paul breaks down the progress of sin among human beings, he mentions gossip in the same breath as murder and hatred of God (see Romans 1:28-32). In another passage, he lists gossip as one of the patterns of sin he is anxious the church may fall into, along with “discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, [and] slander,” as well as “arrogance and disorder” (2 Corinthians 12:20 NIV). If gossip is a petty criminal, it’s at least in the same gang as the ugliest killers. To deal with gossip at work as a Christian, you have to grapple with it not just as a social phenomenon, but as a dimension of sin and its power over our lives and relationships.
What is Gossip, Anyway?
Before we can deal with gossip at work, we need to understand what it is. Speaking the most broadly, gossip is simply talking about someone when they’re not present. At that level, gossip isn’t necessarily bad or harmful—it can even be a positive force in our social relationships. McAndrew says that, working off this broad definition, “Most of the talk that people engage in that can be classified as gossip is harmless or even positive.”
If you’ve ever overheard someone else talking about how great you are to someone else, you know it’s about the best feeling in the world. There’s an episode of The Good Place where the character Tahani Al-Jamil happens upon a pair of headphones that will play a recording of every good thing anyone ever said about her behind her back. Who wouldn’t want those headphones? This positive kind of “gossip” isn’t the sin that Scripture warns about, nor should it be discouraged!
So, to narrow our focus to the gossip we want to counteract, we could define gossip as talking about someone behind their back in a harmful way. Just as overhearing positive gossip about yourself is one of the best feelings, overhearing harmful gossip can be crushing. We want to believe that our colleagues have our back, that they’re for us. If they’re willing to criticize, mock, or betray a confidence when we’re not around, then we know they aren’t really on our side.
Note that gossip isn’t always the same as slander, which is spreading falsehoods about someone else. When we gossip, we often are saying true things. But we can use the truth as a weapon. Saying that we were telling the truth is no excuse for malicious or unthinking comments about others.
Why Do We Gossip?
To know how best to deal with gossip at work, we need to start by understanding why we gossip so much in the first place.
Gossip is all about intimacy: sharing secrets. When I share a secret with you, I bring you into my confidence. We bond over it. But with gossip, the secret we’re sharing involves harming someone else.
- It may be a literal secret, like a detail from the victim’s personal life that isn’t ours to share. (“Did you hear what Cassie did this weekend?”)
- It may be the “secret” of our own evaluation of the other person: it’s still a confidence, because we wouldn’t say it to the other person’s face. (“Jackson is such a jerk. Let me tell you what he just did in that meeting.”)
Gossip is a shortcut to intimacy. You offer something up that bonds you quickly with your listener, but at little sacrifice to yourself.
The genuine emotional need that drives our urge to gossip is our need for connection with other people. This gives us a clue for how to deal with gossip at work in a deeper way than a “No Gossip” rule ever could: Pursuing healthy connections instead.
Healthy Workplace Connections as Gossip Alternatives
If gossip is about sharing secrets that should remain unspoken, healthy intimacy is all about sharing secrets that are yours to share. To deal with gossip at work, start by prioritizing healthy connections for yourself.
You have a legitimate need for human connection, and your workplace is an obvious context for finding it. It just takes a little bit of effort and creativity to find healthy ways to connect with others. Here are a few ideas.
- If you’re having a tough day, you can be vulnerable about your feelings with someone else, and ask for their help.
- You can share the details of your own life. (“Let me tell you what I did this weekend!”)
- You can engage in “positive gossip,” even without Tahani Al-Jamil’s magical headphones.
- If you’re frustrated about a coworker, you can process your feelings in a journal, with a counselor, or with a safe friend who doesn’t know them. That way, you protect against any temptation to undermine your coworker’s reputation instead of just figuring out your own emotional response to them.
As appropriate, you can also share frank feedback and critique with your colleagues, to their face. Although it can be awkward, telling a coworker what you really think, with their best interest at heart, can actually build intimacy. It shows that you care more about them than about “being nice” in a superficial way. When a coworker engages in a behavior that needs to change or that seems off to you, talking with them directly is the right, trust-building alternative to gossip. (This doesn’t mean there aren’t situations where you might need to act as a whistleblower or involve HR.)
How to Stop Gossip at Work
In addition to fostering healthy connections in the place of gossip, we also need to be ready to deal with gossip when it comes up in our conversations at work.
Catch Yourself and Apologize
None of us has likely matured to the point where we never speak about a colleague behind their back. But we can start noticing when we do. Make an effort to pay attention to your own words about your coworkers, even things that seem benign or well-intentioned. You may be surprised how often you’re being a little rude, counting on your listener to empathize with you while you complain about someone else. When you catch yourself doing this, apologize to your listener. Say, “Hey, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be gossiping like this.”
Don’t Provide Empathy for Gossip
When someone begins critiquing a colleague behind their back or venting about their behavior, what they’re looking for from you is empathy. But empathizing in response to gossip only reinforces it, and makes you complicit in the harm to the victim. I have a range of non-empathetic options that I’ve employed when a coworker starts gossiping, with varying degrees of success:
- Extricating myself from the conversation.
- Changing the subject.
Directly, But Gently, Confront Gossip
When I’m feeling particularly courageous, I don’t just avoid participating in gossip, I actually say something about it. My usual line is, “Hey, I have a personal no-gossip policy.”
The challenge here is not to be judgmental or holier-than-thou, even while naming gossip as a problematic behavior. You’re not morally superior to your colleagues because you’re making an effort. Always show the benefit of the doubt, and remember how you’re still working on your own issues.
Sometimes when I deliver the “no-gossip policy” line, I shrug my shoulders and laugh, as if to say, “I wish I could help you with this gossip thing, but my hands are tied!” That can defuse the confrontation and put the other person at ease, while still effectively ending the gossip. Other times, if I’m honest, the line comes off a bit awkward. You’ll need to figure out an approach that fits your personality and allows you to still kindly engage all of your colleagues.
Gossip and Workplace Culture
When we take pains to stop ourselves from gossiping, and even to encourage others to do the same, we may find ourselves swimming upstream. It’s hard to fight back against something that is so automatic for so many of us. At the same time, when you make the effort, you help shape the culture of your workplace.
Culture-building is something that leaders have a particular responsibility for, but the influence of leaders is always partial. In a way, the most influential person for your immediate colleagues is you, regardless of your role or title. When you come alongside someone as a peer, the things you do and don’t participate in shape the micro-culture of your immediate team. Don’t underestimate what kind of effect you might have in your efforts to promote healthy connections and prevent harmful gossip.
Who knows, your colleagues might even end up saying behind your back how much they appreciate the way you talk about others.
Reflect and Practice
- Reflect on your past couple of days at work. When did you gossip?
- For you personally, what drives your urge to gossip? What kind of connection are you looking for? What would be a healthy way to meet that need?
- When you think about trying to disengage from gossip, or even confront it, how do you feel? How much courage would this take to do?
- What’s one way you can engage in “positive gossip” at work this week?