How do I stop being catty?
February 16, 2012 5:50 PM   Subscribe

What are some strategies to stop being catty when surrounded by people who like to be catty and gossip?

Many of the people with whom I work are quite catty and enjoy talking about others behind their backs. Unfortunately, I regularly find myself sucked into this activity. It's terrible, juvenile, and poisonous for everyone because it makes us all insecure (e.g., "Oh no, I'm about to leave. Are they going to talk about me?" etc.)

What's worse is, I feel like now they expect me to be catty, as if it is particularly my shtick. Indeed, I have gotten a lot of attention by saying hurtful things and by being a smart aleck, but it is not something I want to be known for any longer. When I'm quiet or in general not playing the role they think I should, a few will ask me what is wrong or why I am sad. I think it makes us uncomfortable to have nothing to say, so instead we like to talk about our other co-workers behind their backs. I want to lead by example and be more mindful.

Is insecurity the source of this behavior? In general, how does one become a less judgmental, bitchy person? What are some disarming things I can say when the catty train screeches into town?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Three options:

Confront it, if you don't mind losing them as "friends".

Be silent, but that really implies agreement.

Walk away.

And spend some time considering if these are the type of people you want to fill your life with.
posted by HuronBob at 5:56 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Uh ohs, you've been pigeonholed. Avoidance won't work because you're at your job and silence won't work cause they'll ask you if you're sad, they expect a performance.

So I'm afraid you have to perform, but not necessarily in the way they expect. Try ruthlessly changing the subject over and over in these circumstances.

Or you could directly say "I don't want to gossip anymore. Let's stop." That's probably the "mature" "adult" but nuclear option. I'd still go for that at this point in my life, but dread it up until the moment I shotgunned the words from my mouth.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 5:59 PM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Rigorously changing the subject is probably the only thing that will work.
posted by mleigh at 6:05 PM on February 16, 2012

Insecurity is one source for the behavior. But sometimes people are looking to draw closer, and don't have a lot of common source material.

Are there other things that interest more than one person in the group? TV shows? Sports? Pastimes? Interest in news items? Steering conversation in those directions -- and portraying an opinion you have about them as a shared confidence -- might achieve some of the same ends, without the hurt.
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:09 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think insecurity might be the root of this problem, but then a vicious cycle gets created which is evident in your question. You realize that you aren't interested in doing this and yet you do it because people question you when you don't act catty or talk about others.

Don't say anything negative. Follow the two golden rules: 1) Treat others how you want to be treated and 2) If you have nothing nice to say then don't say anything at all.

Realize that it's better to keep your mouth shut even if people expect you to say catty remarks because this doesn't coincide with your values or your interests. I personally don't like talking negatively about others because I feel ashamed about it later on so that helps me.


I agree for the most part with HuronBob, but I would say that you have ONE more option:

Counteract every negative comment from others with a positive comment of your own.

For instance, if someone says "Anonymous is such a bitch," or "look at what Anonymous is wearing" or whatever people say, then counteract by saying "Actually, Anonymous is really nice. I think it takes a while to get to know her, but she's pretty cool" or "I really like her scarf."

You are still talking about this person, but you are also letting others know that it's not cool to talk about Anonymous that way. If you keep doing it then people will catch on and realize that you aren't into talking about others. Also, stop initiating conversations about others if you still do that!
posted by livinglearning at 6:09 PM on February 16, 2012 [10 favorites]

Talk about neutral yet interesting things that are going on in the world or in your industry. Or talk about people but in a positive light (though, personally, I still think that that's gossip). Things that you could do that would be disarming would be to completely change the subject when gossiping starts or to actually defend the person who is being gossiped about. Insecurity could play a role but most people probably resort to gossiping because it's easy, it's kind of a default mode of bonding in the workplace and because of a sort of mob mentality that makes it acceptable when 'everyone's doing it'.
posted by marimeko at 6:10 PM on February 16, 2012

go out of your way to interact more with the people you formerly gossiped about - it'll help break your habits, and probably be a loud and clear signal you are no longer interested in gossiping
posted by nondescript at 6:10 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

My tack is similar to livinglearning's approach outlined above. When the bitchiness settles in, I make a point of making ONE very simple positive comment, and nothing further on the subject. "Her glasses are cool" or "he smells good". Then leave it at that.
posted by msali at 6:12 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, I asked a similar question a while ago and got some great advice.
posted by marimeko at 6:19 PM on February 16, 2012

Do you happen to have any kind of spiritual or mindfulness practice? If it wouldn't seem like it was coming straight out of the blue, you might tell your co-workers that for the next (week/month/whatever) you're trying an exercise recommended by a Zen teacher* and not talking about anybody who isn't present. Then when they start getting catty you can just smile sweetly and say "Gotta bow out of this conversation — I'm doing that personal-growth exercise, remember?"

* During a discussion before a book-signing, Zen teacher Cheri Huber was talking about projection. An audience member asked a question about "but what if we all agree that person X really is (mean/short-tempered/whatever)?"

"The thing is," Cheri said, "I have difficulty imagining a situation in which talking about a third party who isn't present is the useful or compassionate or skillful thing to do. So I do my best to not talk about people."

Misquoted from memory…

posted by Lexica at 6:29 PM on February 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's tricky to maintain good relationships with catty people because they tend to feel a little rejected if you counter their nasty remarks with positive ones. I've found it helpful to make a preemptive strike with this type of person, by telling them how great some third person is because they're always so positive and always see the best in others. Just sort of telling them obliquely what I think is cool. I realize that won't help you with the people who already think you're one of them, but, you know, for future reference.
posted by HotToddy at 6:30 PM on February 16, 2012

What works for me is to both sympathize with their venting and also say something positive about the person they are putting down. I always just say (but in an understanding voice), "Oh, really? I always thought she was really sweet/I haven't gotten that impression!" This reaction seems to be the most diplomatic--I haven't lost any friends yet, and people don't say catty things around me ever.
posted by 200burritos at 6:32 PM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Another advice--a useful thing to say is, "Well! I'm sure she has many fine qualities" then change the subject. You can use whatever inflection you like to adjust the meaning. It can be utterly sincere, and it can also quite clearly mean "Yes, everyone knows that person is utterly loathesome, but I still don't want to gossip about her."
posted by HotToddy at 6:43 PM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

My dad says that you whenever someone starts gossiping to you, you should listen politely, perhaps nodding occasionally, and then when they are finished say, "That's a surprise to me, Paul. I didn't know you felt that way about Joe." And then shut up.

Of course, my dad believes you should do that because then you know Paul doesn't like Joe, but Paul doesn't know anything about how you feel. My dad is kind of Machiavellian, but it works just as well if you don't want to contribute anything to the cattiness. It strikes me that "Is that so?" would work just as well, too.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:46 PM on February 16, 2012 [20 favorites]

Oh Hai. I looooove to gossip. I am talkative, and a great storyteller. Gossiping makes me feel connected to my community. Here's the thing: I very consciously use my powers for good. When someone starts down a negative/scandalous path, if at all possible I spin it as positively as possible in my response, and then direct the conversation to more flattering gossip. Example:

Catty person: Ohhh, man, Joe is such a huge manslut; did you know he's already slept with Claire AND Lisa?
Me: Haha really? He's such a charmer! Oooh, speaking of Lisa, did you see the shoes she had on yesterday? I neeeed them. SO CUTE. Made her legs look awesome too. *blah, blah, fashion, total conversation derail, blah blah blah*

People who gossip are connecting socially. Gossiping is a communal bonding activity. To shut it down cold feels incredibly anti-social to people who bond in that style. Sometimes the tone just gets negative, and it snowballs and people who are otherwise decent human beings make a habit of saying really nasty things. It's like how you can't stop eating Pringles once you start, and then you're stuffing yourself with greasy deliciousness that is ultimately terrible for you and if only someone would take the can from you and hand you some Strawberries...anyway, if you want to avoid getting ostracized by these people, the best approach is to participate in the gossip and keep it super positive. Hand them some strawberries and keep hiding the Pringles can.

That said, if these people are actually just really enjoying feeling superior, and wouldn't enjoy gossiping about good things, you probably ought to find new friends.
posted by JuliaIglesias at 6:48 PM on February 16, 2012 [22 favorites]

Start the conversations, and make them positive about the people you're talking to. "How's that art project you're doing? I love that you take time every night to work on it!"

"Thanks for the help with that report. I really appreciate you."

It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but in order to counteract the bitchiness, you need to fill the void, and very few people get defensive when you are truly complimentary toward them, and if you then stop the conversation before it gets catty (walk away, say you have to work), then you've engaged people, said things they want to hear, but haven't gone into territory that you don't want to.
posted by xingcat at 6:57 PM on February 16, 2012

I was coming in to say almost exactly what lexica said. Put it on you, as something you're doing to "try to focus on the positive in every being" or something. That's not directly judging the gossipers, and hopefully you'll be a good influence on everyone.
posted by cyndigo at 7:06 PM on February 16, 2012

I used to work in an office like this, and I eventually realized we gossiped because we had nothing in common besides knowing our coworkers. There was nothing else to talk about. I don't think any of us liked being catty, we just also didn't like sitting around in uncomfortable silence when we went out for lunch or were getting coffee at the same time.

I started on a quest of actively seeking out other things we had in common, so I could steer conversations away from gossiping. I'm not generally a big pop-culture person, but I started paying attention to some celebrity news. I don't care much for spectator sports, but I started at least checking to see when our local teams were playing and whether they had won. I chose those topics because they were the things that most of my coworkers were interested in, which made it easier to derail a gossip-session at lunch with 5 other people.

I also tried to get to know my coworkers' lives outside of the office better, so I could find individual things to relate to them about when it was just 2 of us chatting. If you can ask about somebody's kid, or their brownie recipe, or how their grandma's doing after surgery, or how the wedding planning is going, then you don't have to talk about your office mates behind their backs.

It won't solve all the gossip, certainly, but trying to think up a conversation topic change spur of the moment when gossip erupts can be nearly impossible. Brainstorming and studying ahead of time makes it easier.
posted by vytae at 7:13 PM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

The point of saying, "Well, I think she is nice!" is well taken, but I find that off-putting. Yes, I know that person is probably nice. They probably do have many sterling qualities. But what I am bitching about here is that they did x, and x was a stupid fucking thing to do!

If you want to keep your principles and your friends, I would just laugh and wave my hand, and then say something off topic. "Guess what I did last night?"
posted by amodelcitizen at 7:28 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had a similar problem with a group of teachers at my school.

I stopped eating lunch with them, and started seeking out people who are either more positive, or who make it clear that they are there to do there job first.

There are probably people who the catty people will not gossip in front of, because those people project a certain air of professionalism that pre-empts bad behavior, like it would diminish this highly respected person's opinion of you to gossip in front of them. For me, it was a matter of deciding I was going to become one of those people, and, after a certain amount of time, I realized that the air-of-professionalism folks readily accepted me as one of their own.

Of course, the catty people will start to dislike you, but then it becomes a matter of realizing that their cattiness is a symptom of their tendency to find fault with anyone, no matter what, and that seeking the approval of people like this is an inherently destructive enterprise that you'll never succeed at unless you diminish yourself tremendously as a person.

Give yourself permission to set firm boundaries with them without guilt.

They are probably a self-contained group, with marginal influence, and the true professionals you work with won't give them a whole lot of weight other than as an unpleasant and destructive force.

To combat gossip, stick up for the person being gossiped about.

Tell them you are giving up gossip for Lent.
posted by alphanerd at 7:34 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Based on my experience, yes, insecure people are catty. Secure people do not need to find reasons to look down upon others(especially people they don't even know!) Since you're asking this question, it sounds like you are not genuinely the catty, judgmental type.

I used to hang out with a lot of catty people and found myself being cattier when I was around them. Eventually I got tired of talking about people and realized I'm not the catty type, so I've sort of lost touch with most of them. There are a couple of people from this group who I still see(usually one on one) and I just don't cave in to any cattiness and then they stop. In my case the cattiness would be talking about random other people "look at what she's wearing!" type stuff.

I don't think you need to say anything to them - that could get awkward fast and if they're coworkers you might be more interested in keeping the peace as well. Just don't join in or subtly change the subject.
posted by fromageball at 8:00 PM on February 16, 2012

I think your response to the cattiness depends on its flavor: is it personal (omg, did you see how X looked today? so skanky! prolly having an affair with our boss!) vs. professional/undermining the work (X's project is never going to work because it's stupid! She doesn't know what she's doing!).

If the latter, I usually say something positive about the project or offer an alternative/positive point of view on it. (I think X's goal is blahblahblah, and this is good for the department/company because of...). If the former, geez... I think I would just say "Huh!" or "Wow!" or some other insipid non-comment then change the conversation to shoes or something.
posted by sfkiddo at 8:11 PM on February 16, 2012

I've mentioned this on here before, but I dumped an entire crowd of my friends because of this kind of behavior. Their nastiness was infectious and it started turning me into someone I didn't really like.

Worse, catty people are catty about everyone, so if you think friendship insulates you, you should hear what they say when you're not around. I got to the point where I didn't like feeling as if I could never try anything new without being judged and derided (often behind my back). So I just pulled the plug and ended the relationships--all at once.

That was one of the best decisions I ever made.
posted by yellowcandy at 8:32 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Leave. Not worth your time.
posted by ead at 9:13 PM on February 16, 2012

Less confrontational options:

Act as if they're being naughty in a relatively harmless way, but one you won't join them in.

Shaking your head slowly. "You guys are baaad." Accompany with
smile. Turn back to your work.

Holding up your hands. "My name's Paul and this is between y'all."

If you recast yourself as friendly, bemused, slightly too busy observer, it's easier for them not to feel judged, and they can either carry on without you or the whole thing will deflate on its own.

I used to work in a similar-sounding situation. Six or seven people in one room and a few people's behavior was so obnoxious that the rest of us needed a pressure valve release whenever one of them left the room. I'm sure they were talking about me, too, because I cringe at the stuff I used to do, sitting there in abject boredom. Like pick the beginnings of dreadlocks out of my long, curly hair. Riiiiipp. LOL. They're probably still talking about it.

The others are right in that you may ultimately need to find a new, more positive environment.
posted by gentian at 10:26 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh hello earlier-me in an earlier job! It is from insecurity and boredom. I relied on catty directness to lay bare the immature shenanigans - like:
"Oh darlings, it's a such good thing we're all perfect!"
"Fuck me, remind me never to leave you unsupervised. You must have an over flowing filing cabinet of shit on me."
"Gah, don't anyone leave the room, or we'll make up some embarrassing flatulence stories about you till you get back."
"I'm telling you this so you'll have something to bitch about when I'm not around"
"TRY not to bitch about me when I go to the loo. I know what you vixens are like."
"As the dandy said, 'if you've got nothing nice to say, come sit with us' - is that right?"
"Remind me never to tell you gals anything juicy."
Look over their shoulder and say loudly "Oh Hi X!" the subject of the bitchery.
"I'm gonna tape you moles one day and blackmail you all - bwah ha ha."
"You know we do the same about you when you're in the loo, right?"
"If we're gonna bitch about anyone can it be someone interesting? This shit on Candice is so boring. She had a boob job. Big whoop."

And I think in-group repartee and piss-take is so much more fun. Try to turn the repartee to those within the group so you can lightheartedly dig at each other out in the open. Like in front of everyone "Oh before you go Ellen, just so you know that we're going to be fugging your see-through blouse during lunch. Have you got anything to put on our agenda? We've already got 'She also wore it at last year's Christmas Party', 'wtf? blue floral bra' and 'Colin from photocopying's embarrassing hard-on'. Anything else?"

It might not work if you're workplace is more formal, but if you are expected to be the storytelling, witty one, work your magic in a different way that laughs at, and shames, the dynamic.
posted by honey-barbara at 12:19 AM on February 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

What is wrong with my 'your' and 'you're' motor neurons lately? Jeez. Try not to bitch about me.
posted by honey-barbara at 12:21 AM on February 17, 2012

Starting Wednesday, if you or any of your catty coworkers belong to any kind of a Christian tradition: "I'm giving up gossiping for Lent!"
posted by mskyle at 6:29 AM on February 17, 2012

My dad says that you whenever someone starts gossiping to you, you should listen politely, perhaps nodding occasionally, and then when they are finished say, "That's a surprise to me, Paul. I didn't know you felt that way about Joe." And then shut up.

I would go with this, changing the subject, and tactics like that because - and this is not true of you - I am an awful human being and it galls me to say something nice about someone who is in fact a nasty piece of work or is in fact screwing up deadlines and making more work for everyone or whatever might actually be true. There's no point in being catty behind someone's back and I think that behavior is soul-destroying, but my own bitter soul is always a little bruised by denying actual problems.

A lot of catty behavior is just nasty, but it's likely that some of it is venting about legitimate issues. Instead of trying to counter the bad, just ignore or change the subject.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:34 AM on February 17, 2012

You know what else might help? Pretend that you can't talk about people because of confidentiality issues. That should make it easier to nod and smile and change the subject.

Just consider everything you know about everyone who is not in the room to be PII/privileged/HIPAA so that anything you say would be actionable.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:41 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

See this video by Tara Brach

chances are your coworkers who also gossip are feeling equally icky after the gossipfest. People do it to bond but it also breaks trust so I totally understand your desire to stop the pattern.
posted by BlueMartini7 at 4:50 PM on February 17, 2012

This is why they invented tabloid journalism. Everybody's got an opinion.

Bonus: You'll never have to worry about Nicki Minaj overhearing you, or what Madonna's saying behind your back.
posted by Space Kitty at 5:45 PM on February 17, 2012

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