gossip at work
February 16, 2010 5:46 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to handle someone at work who starts to gossip negatively about someone else?

I handle gossip in an "ok" manner. But I would like to hear from the metafilter community because I trust that it will provide me with better/more varied insight. Personal experiences are absolutely welcome.

The situation: I am against gossip. By that I mean any negative talk about another person when they aren't there to defend themselves (even in instances where I might have every right not to care for the person being gossiped about; even if the gossip at hand is true). And, especially at work, where it brings down morale (even if it is only my morale that's being brought down at that moment). And, at work, it's constant. In fact, at every job I've ever had it was constant. And I don't know how to get past it without being negative myself (which in real life is fine, but at work can be a disaster = politics, etc).

Currently I hedge/change the subject. Which, in my experience, doesn't stop the gossip.

Question: Is there something better I can do that might stop people from trying to gossip with me?
posted by marimeko to Human Relations (39 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: "i'm sorry, i'm not comfortable with gossip in any form. let's talk about ______ instead"

or "cindy is sleeping with the payroll clerk?? hey, cindy, come over here!"

(i'd use the first one, personally)
posted by nadawi at 5:49 PM on February 16, 2010

I was going to suggest a variation on nadawi's second idea, but then again I'm kind of an asshole.

The idea is that after the fallout, they'll never gossip to you again. Problem solved.
posted by rokusan at 5:51 PM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: I love that, but these are my superiors and I can't make them feel like I've (?) judged them (does that make sense?)..
posted by marimeko at 5:51 PM on February 16, 2010

Change the subject in a way that lets them know you aren't the person to talk to about that.
posted by anniecat at 5:53 PM on February 16, 2010

Best answer: "that's not my experience of Cindy at all. She's always been...not sleeping with Fred in accounting when I see her." Repeat as necessary.

Be prepared not to get useful dirt, and/or get pegged as naive.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:54 PM on February 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Stand up for the person being gossiped about - that's good. But what if it's not true?
posted by marimeko at 5:57 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm one of *these* people: "I don't know dude, that's not any of my business," or "I don't know, dude; hey what's going on with project x?"

Adjust the dudes as you see fit. I just find it lets them know I'm serious but without coming off as a total jerk. Although in situations like these it's somewhat warranted.
posted by june made him a gemini at 5:57 PM on February 16, 2010 [6 favorites]

"I don't know, this conversation doesn't sound very professional" may work, or a variation of it.
posted by 6:1 at 6:02 PM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: It's my BOSS! I can't say that to her.. (again, in real life I have no problem getting past this - with attitude galore, believe me, but at WORK..?)
posted by marimeko at 6:05 PM on February 16, 2010

Feel free to defend people who don't deserve the negative comments. I wouldn't censure other people, I would just counter with something positive, e.g.:

"Cindy sleeps around."
"Huh. I don't know about that, but I really like Cindy. She's got a great attitude and she's fun to be around."

Do not say you don't want to hear gossip, though. It could be Cindy who sleeps around today, but tomorrow, it could be info about the company in trouble tomorrow, or about you getting a new boss or something like that. I've learned a lot of important and useful info by being in the know about company gossip.
posted by tk at 6:06 PM on February 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

"Gods, I wonder what they say about us?"
posted by Pragmatica at 6:08 PM on February 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I love that, but these are my superiors and I can't make them feel like I've (?) judged them (does that make sense?)..

Makes lots of sense. Make non-committal noises, like when you're on the phone but not really paying attention. "Hmmm." If they ask for a specific response, say "Oh, I don't know."

It's not fun to gossip with someone who won't get into it.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:08 PM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

i've never had a boss where i couldn't say "i'm sorry, i'm not comfortable with gossip. let's talk about ______ instead" to them.

now, not participating in gossip is not participating in the social make up of your work environment and that might mean consequences down the line in the form of lost promotions and crappy projects. sucks, but it is the way that it is if you have a gossipy boss.
posted by nadawi at 6:11 PM on February 16, 2010

If your boss is the one gossiping, maybe try something like "well, I don't think it's affecting her performance at tasks x, y, and z, so what does it matter?"
posted by Jon_Evil at 6:13 PM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: nadawi: exactly.

What I need is to somehow not become "the person who doesn't gossip" WHILE being the person who doesn't gossip.
posted by marimeko at 6:15 PM on February 16, 2010

A better thing to say, if you can, is "I'm sorry, but this conversation makes me uncomfortable. Could we discuss something else?"

If you can't say that, then just plain old change the subject. "So, did you get a chance to review my powerpoint yet?" says that you're not comfortable.
posted by micawber at 6:15 PM on February 16, 2010

Best answer: Just kind of stand there silently when someone starts gossiping to you. Maybe nod your head a little to acknowledge that you heard, but don't respond. That has shut me up many a time when I've been gossipy. You can't keep going if the other party to the conversation won't participate.
posted by amro at 6:19 PM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: then all you can do is to keep on keeping on - if trying to casually change the subject isn't working and you're not willing to take a stand because the consequences are unfavorable to you, then you'll have to stomach the gossip.
posted by nadawi at 6:19 PM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: Lot's of great advice so far, thank you!
posted by marimeko at 6:20 PM on February 16, 2010

"Wow, that's interesting. Actually, I had a question for you. [Insert work question here.]"
posted by sallybrown at 6:21 PM on February 16, 2010

When my coworkers try to gossip with me, I usually pretend I don't know what they're talking about. Example: "What do you think of Coworker's ridiculous hair?" "Oh, I didn't notice it."

That way they can't really gossip with me, but I don't have to take a stand or get uppity about it.
posted by leafeater at 6:21 PM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: nadawi: true that, it calls for the passive-agressive (which I'm also against).. Can't there be a magic spell. or something..? (joking)

(sort of)
posted by marimeko at 6:25 PM on February 16, 2010

I had similar problem with this -- and found this to be helpful - I am quoting from my "Catholics for Dummies" text pp 194-195.

"The Eighth Commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor," condems lying. Because God is regarded as the author of all truth, humans are obligated in the Eight Commandment to honor the truth.

Lies come in many different forms, and sometimes even the truth can be sinful, depending on your intentions.

Calumny: telling a lie about someone with the purpose of ruining his reputation

Detraction is telling the truth about someone, usually something embarassing and confidential, with the intent and purpose of ruining their reputation

Slander is verbally telling lies about someone.


Libel is publishing a lie in print."

Your problem with your boss is the uncomfortable way it makes you feel when she is engaging you in either Calumny or Detraction.

Detraction -- doesn't sound like it should be a sin does it? You are just telling/hearing the truth right? But it is, and that is why it makes you squirm. Because it is wrong, even if it is true, to say things which cause others to lose a measure of dignity

It also makes you squirm because it is your boss doing it which, in your view makes you feel powerless to make her stop.

She knows that - and is using her authority over you in an abusive manner - you have to set her straight regardless of her position over you in the heirarchy.

You are trying hard to fight this temptation to sin, and I applaud you; but you need to put up your defenses in a very firm way.

Your conscience is speaking to you clearly -- listen to it, pray about it, and find the strength to let your boss know you don't want to hear what you consider to be "gossip" about the people you work with -- you can have a personal relationship with the people you work with without having to participate in gossip in order to get ahead.

Good luck to you -- but it is time to "cowboy up" and tell your boss how you feel.
posted by cactus86 at 6:30 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: cactus86: yes. And this is so like Buddhist Right Speech (uncanny).
posted by marimeko at 6:36 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just a warning about specifically saying you're not interested in gossip: people who gossip usually know it's considered wrong/trashy/rude, and they do it anyways and hate themselves a little for it.

You saying you're not interested (while accurate and an admirable thing to do) may be interpreted as "My name is Miss Holier-Than-Thou and I'm a better person than you are." This reaction would be ridiculous and immature and all of that, yes. But it could also have adverse effects on your work relationships.
posted by sallybrown at 6:46 PM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

"What do you say about me when I'm not around?" I use this when necessary.

Regarding Cindy and x sleeping together: "Have you seen them in bed together?" (Or "in the act of coitus" if necessary for a rumored affair at the office itself.)
posted by jgirl at 6:47 PM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: Right on, get that, and I'm so not better than thou. Just *hate it*
posted by marimeko at 6:49 PM on February 16, 2010

Best answer: I almost always have my cell in hand when walking through certain areas of the building, so I can do the fake call/fake text (or real, sometimes!) so as to avoid the gossip zones. When they see me thus engaged, they don't try to stop me and fan the gossip flames.

At my desk, I have a little rear-view mirror at my cube and (luckily) have good hearing so when I see or hear someone coming, I can pretty much instantly judge whether to remain and interact (for non-gossip persons or bosses) or bolt to the loo/coffee room/whatever with the ol' cell if the visitor a known gossip/time-waster. I'm in IT so this constant phone adherence is totally accepted. It's worked really well.

Over time, many have really stopped even trying- they are used to the fact that I am always "waiting for a call" or "late for a webinar" or otherwise can't stop to chat.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:37 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

When it's personal gossip about people, I say "wow, you know, there are just some things I don't want to know about people I work with" in a joking way, but then don't continue gossiping. That way you don't look like an uptight person, but you're not encouraging gossip either.

When it's gossip about reorganizations/promotions/people getting fired, I say "yea? I don't know, I always hear rumors and they never turn out to be true, I've stopped trying to get involved." This way you can process the information but not seem gossipy because you're not all like "omg really? and who else is doing what?"
posted by KateHasQuestions at 7:55 PM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

My office is a nest of gossips, and I make a point of defending people, even from my bosses. When they start up the 'well, let me tell you all blahblahblah's business', I come back with 'You know, blahblahblah is a great person and they work really hard.'

I find something nice to say about them, even if it's completely unconnected with whatever the negative thing is.

Then again, I am the completely humorless feminist/GBLT ally/cultural diversity cheerleader, so there is not a lot that my coworkers talk to me about. I am okay with that. In my experience people will fight to the death to share gossip with you about everything, so if they know you'll gossip about work but not about people, that is the route they will take. You don't lose out by refusing to backbite people. I personally hate that kind of behavior because I know perfectly well that the instant I leave the room they do it to me, too.

Nadawi is right. You have to either neutrally nod whenever they start and cut out as soon as you can, or you take a stand against it.
posted by winna at 8:10 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I usually tell people to imagine that they are the other person. Most people brush it off and don't do what I suggest, but when they do, the results are great. The whole point of gossip is to create a [me vs. them] kind of world. If you're working together on a team, the only way the team works is if you think of it as a me and them kind of world.

I'm not saying this to point out that you're wrong, or even that you're right:
Start by making a "team" with you and your boss. Then when you guys are "team" (but not necessarily in agreement) offer your perspective about the other person or the shit-talk. But make sure to mention this other person specifically.

The important thing here is for YOU to be the link between the boss and the smacktalk-ee, just offering smidgens of the other persons POV from time to time and it will eventually solidify into a whole different relationship than when it started. This way your boss doesn't feel threatened by any holier-than-thou attitude from you,(which only pops up when you try to change somebody's point of view) and the subject of the shit-talk has no idea what happened but loves working with you, and your boss. Rinse and repeat as necessary. It works like a backwards embryo division video. This is how people say things like "I thought you were a little bitch, but you're actually all-right in my book" or something like that.

I did the above where I used to work, it was a coffee shop with a crew of about 25 people that constantly complained about each other to each other. After about 7 months the gossip was down to a minimum and work was actually a lot of fun.
posted by bam at 8:13 PM on February 16, 2010

This may be too far along the self-righteous standpoint, but could you say you'd taken the Words Can Heal pledge? It is true that you get left out of some potentially important stuff by not being in on the gossip. My strategy at my last job was to look blank, avoid, and befriend the office gossip who considered me a curiosity but still made sure I knew about the most important stuff. I have, in the past, said that I couldn't talk about that for religious reasons.
posted by eleanna at 8:13 PM on February 16, 2010

My strategy (which also works when people say something racist, that may not be gossip) is "I'm sorry you feel that way" followed by either segueing into some other topic, or leaving.

Acting totally confused and not understanding why someone is telling you these things may also send a message. "What? Okay, do you need me to do something about this? Why are you telling me this? Is this a problem?" Such a response often throws people off guard.
posted by Tesseractive at 9:21 PM on February 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I hate gossip when it's mean and hurtful and the sort of thing one would never say to someone's face.

Maybe you could explicitly put gossip into question as a valid thing to do. You could say (to the gossiper), I feel really bad when I say cutting things about people behind their backs. Don't you ever feel like it's kind of petty and mean? Or maybe find a more tactful way to say it. Basically, you just share your discomfort with it openly and say what you think about it in a non-judgmental way, and invite them to share their rationale for why it's okay.
posted by clockzero at 11:41 PM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, great ideas!

Tesseractive: "What? Okay, do you need me to do something about this? Why are you telling me this? That's perfect.
posted by marimeko at 3:36 AM on February 17, 2010

Maybe I'm just different, but if a boss is so unprofessional that they sit there and gossip all the time to me about other co-workers of mine, I have no problem throwing unprofessional language in there to underline and emphasize how inappropriate I think it is, dude.
posted by june made him a gemini at 4:24 AM on February 17, 2010

Since you mentioned the Buddhist precept of Right Speech, here's a good article about it. Here's a more casual "Miss Manners" type article from a Buddhist perspective.
posted by desjardins at 7:06 AM on February 17, 2010

"hm, interesting. That reminds me, [introduce non-gossipy topic of conversation]."
posted by Billegible at 10:46 AM on February 17, 2010

Makes lots of sense. Make non-committal noises, like when you're on the phone but not really paying attention. "Hmmm." If they ask for a specific response, say "Oh, I don't know."

It's not fun to gossip with someone who won't get into it.

Yeah, true. Very true. Nobody likes to be boring.

Another option is to keep gossiping but about nice things. Who is dating, maybe, or who is doing something cool. Gossip is a good way to spread information and you can do it without being catty. Although I do think that spreading true negative information is not wrong in any way; everyone is informed of the negative as well as the positive and that's fine by me.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:37 AM on February 20, 2010

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