You discover that others are talking about you — and you don’t like what they’re saying!
One of your closest friends tells you, “They’re saying the only reason you’re helping at the charity is to impress people.” Who are “they”? People who apparently know you.
At work, word goes around that you and Chris are in a romantic relationship. Yes, the two of you work together, but what they’re saying is absurd, and offensive.
One of your neighbours asks what seems like an innocent question about your family. It suggests people are making assumptions. Has one of your family members been telling tales about you?
The gossip is upsetting and is getting in the way of what you’re trying to do. You can’t get it out of your head. What can you do about it?
Reputations under attack
This is the fifth in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, derogatory labelling, guilt by association and online attacks.
Functions of gossip
You probably engage in gossiping yourself, so you know something about it. It’s a rare person who never says anything, or at least anything negative, about others behind their backs.
Why do people spend so much time talking about others? Researchers argue that gossip is part of what helps group members coordinate their relationships. By sharing thoughts about others, people build bonds. In the right circumstances, gossip can help a group operate more efficiently.
When you meet someone in one of your networks — neighbourhood, workplace, club or church — it’s useful to have a starting point, and it’s also useful to know something about them, so you don’t say the wrong thing. Gossip helps you learn something about them beforehand. It helps you interact with a wider circle of people without making a mess of it.
There’s lots of research on gossip, carried out in different ways, looking at positive and negative aspects and examining different functions and impacts. But researchers seem to have little to say about how to resist harmful gossip. The most practical advice I found is on WikiHow.
Resisting malicious gossip
Although gossip has positive functions, it can also be nasty — exceedingly nasty. It can spread falsehoods, poison relationships, promote prejudice and even drive someone out for no good reason.
If you think gossip is unfairly hurting your reputation, what can you do about it? Should you do anything about it? Consider these options.
In many cases, it’s best to ignore gossip, whether it’s about you or others. You might listen and learn, including to find out who repeats stories. Does one of your friends quickly pass on every confidential comment, with a few creative embellishments? If so, be careful not to say anything to them you don’t want repeated.
Learn, and possibly change
Sometimes you can learn what others think about you. If there’s a grain of truth in the gossip, and you don’t like that truth, you may decide to change your behaviour. Maybe you should be kinder in your comments, or more explicit. Maybe you should be more open about your beliefs and intentions, or more cautious in revealing them.
Maybe the gossip is benefiting your reputation. How? People who know you might be offended by nasty and unwarranted comments about you, and come to your defence. They might think less of the gossiper. The person trying to discredit you might actually be damaging their own reputation. Before you act, try to find out if this process is happening.
If everyone you know seems to have heard malicious gossip, you may choose to counter it. You could send an email to everyone, or just to a few individuals who you know will circulate it to others. Or you could print out a statement and put it in people’s mailboxes.
What should you say? You could say that some people are making negative comments about you, and then deny them, or present correct information. Your statement needs to be carefully worded. It’s usually best not to name or blame anyone: “Unfortunately, there’s been some incorrect information about what I’ve been doing. Here’s what’s really happening.” The idea is to appear magnanimous rather than distressed or vindictive.
An even better option is to find someone who will speak on your behalf, preferably someone with credibility. They can make a statement in defence. Alternatively, and usually more effectively, they can provide some news about you and what you’ve been doing. It’s positive news. It doesn’t mention the nasty gossip but counters it implicitly.
You can fight gossip with counter-gossip. You can try to start nasty rumours about the person or group you think are spreading comments about you.
This is a risky sort of response, because it might lead to an escalation of rumour-mongering. As well, you might gain a reputation as a malicious gossiper!
A safer approach is humour. You could make jokes about the gossip, or about yourself, that are obviously absurd. “Did you hear the story of how I climbed up the side of a building just to show off?” Be careful, though, because even apparently absurd stories can sometimes be taken seriously, or used against you.
Praise your enemy
Counter-intuitively, you can try saying nice things about the people spreading hostile gossip about you. This might confuse them or make them rethink. You might be able to start a virtuous cycle of positive comments.
Years ago, I attended an all-day workshop on “Dealing with difficult people.” Our presenter was experienced and wise. Someone asked her about malicious gossip. She told about a bold technique. She identified the source of the gossip and said to them, “Someone said you are spreading stories about me. Is that true?” The person denied spreading stories, but there weren’t any more after that.
Take legal action
You could threaten to sue for defamation. You could pay a lawyer to write a letter threatening legal action and demanding the person cease and desist.
Threats to sue are only credible if you have strong evidence of people gossiping about you, for example tape recordings. Threats might work against some people, but they might also lead to more hostile gossiping. Worst of all, threats poison the atmosphere. You might end up with a worse reputation than before.
“Mobbing” is collective bullying. In the workplace, it involves an organised attack on a target, which can include ostracism, petty harassment, onerous work demands, denunciations, referral to psychiatrists — and malicious gossip. If you are the target of mobbing, gossip is just one worry among many. You need to work out a plan to resist. Often, unfortunately, it is better to leave. Your health and wellbeing are more important than any job.
Gossip can be harmless. It can be functional, allowing people to share feelings about others. However, some gossip is misinformed and deliberately harmful. There are so many variations and possibilities that there’s no single best response to gossip that you think is harming your reputation.
Consider your options, including doing nothing. It might be that by behaving in an honourable and supportive way, you counter gossip through your actions, without saying anything. But sometimes this isn’t effective. Others may be trying to damage your reputation, and are afraid to say anything openly, and will persist. Before taking action, try to find one or two people you trust, and discuss options with them.
Try to be generous in whatever you do — even if you don’t feel generous! The way you respond to gossip may well form the basis for future gossip.
Thanks to Paula Arvela, Jungmin Choi, Caroline Colton, Kelly Gates, Julia LeMonde and Qinqing Xu for helpful comments.
Incidentally, most of the images about gossip I found show women as the gossipers, to other women or sometimes men, and hardly any showing men whispering to women.