Stop talking smack.
July 8, 2007 11:50 AM   Subscribe

How can I stop gossiping and repair my image?

I gossip occasionally, and I always feel terrible the day after a gossip session. Recently I said something about a friend to two other mutual friends that went something like this, "Jane said XYZ at Pierre's the other night. Isn't that crazy? Oh, but don't get me wrong, I love Jane!"

The next day I felt terrible. I feel like a flake. I question my intentions. Why would I even mention that? Am I trying to belong? Do I want people to know I am above saying something such as Jane said?

I want to stop gossiping but I feel like I've already ruined my image. I don't want to be a person that flippantly makes snarky remarks about friends. I don't gossip constantly. Most of the time my outings with friends are gossip-free. I would never retell a damaging secret or say something mean-spirited, but I do gossip in a way that would be hurtful if the party in question knew what I was saying. Comments such as, "She isnt' a very warm person, she has built a wall around herself." Or, "She's in a mountain of debt, but she still buys Jimmy Choo's."

It's relatively easy to create a new rule for myself: Stop gossiping. But, how do I repair my image with my existing friends? I don't want to gossip anymore, and I don't want to be perceived as a person that gossips.

I've read that it is common to gossip with friends. But I feel like it's something that should have stopped post high-school. Is this true? How bad is it to gossip? I don't like the feelings of guilt I have after I gossip, but I do it anyway.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
In my opinion gossiping is about getting attention. To make you feel you are "in-the-know." The only way to repair it is to just stop it. Gossip is a terrible ailment. It does you no good and it certainly does the object of your gossip no good and is so unfair.
posted by JayRwv at 12:10 PM on July 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Gossip is normal human behavior. Today's NYT magazine has a interesting article titled The Gregarious Brain that talks about the important role gossip plays in helping humans assess our place in the web of social relationships that is essential to our survival:

“The conventional view,” Dunbar notes in his book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” “is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively. . . . I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.”

...gossip means any conversation about social relationships: who did what to whom, who is what to whom, at every level, from family to work or school group to global politics. Defined this way, gossip accounts for about two-thirds of our conversation.

There's nothing wrong about talking about people we know. When done in a loving way, gossip can help us understand and appreciate each other's foibles, and give us a chance to work through relationship issues with a sympathetic outsider.

But when gossip is motivated by an impulse to tear others down, making ourselves look good at their expense, it can be very damaging. You're right to look critically at this habit, and to want to change it.

The test you mention -- would I say this if the person was listening? -- is a good one. Get in the habit of asking yourself that question when you feel the impulse to dish.

And don't worry so much about your reputation with your friends. In particular, don't let that worry keep you from changing your behavior.

If they're people you trust, you might say something like this: "You know, I realize that I don't feel good about the way I've been gossiping. I want to change that behavior -- will you help me by pointing it out if you hear me gossiping in a nasty way?"

But for most friends, your changed behavior will speak for itself.
posted by ottereroticist at 12:15 PM on July 8, 2007 [5 favorites]

how do I repair my image with my existing friends?

There are two (very similar) ways:

1) Be really open and honest about what you're trying to do. Tell your friends that you know you've been a horrible gossip and that you intend to stop. And that you hope you'll earn their trust in the future.

Then stop. If you say this, you HAVE to stop. Otherwise, it will be a betrayal.

Don't tell friends you're going to "try" to stop.

2) Don't say anything, but do change your behavior. After a while, people will see that you've changed. At first they may be suspicious that it's not permanent, but eventually they'll realize that you've turned over a new leaf.

Whichever one you try, realize two things about (most) people.

-- they are open to the idea that people change. It's actually hard to tarnish your image forever. Change and most people will see that you've changed and accept it. And gradually, they will forget all about the old you.

-- people take time doing the above. Don't expect to change for one day and have people instantly feel better about you. It will take time. For some people it will take a longer time than for others. You have to commit to the long haul knowing that there will be no immediate rewards (except maybe one's you can feel coming from within yourself).

As for kicking the habit, do you feel that it's bad as you're doing it but can't stop yourself. Or do you only feel bad about it afterwards? You don't have to answer that here, but give it some thought.

Do you just need to kick yourself in the ass and STOP it? Or are you literally unable to stop, no matter how hard you try? If so, you might have an impulse control problem. Those are hard to curb on your own. You may need professional help with that.

By the way, I think you should work to change behavior that makes you feel bad and hurts others, but I don't think you should beat yourself up too badly. Gossiping is a pretty common human foible.
posted by grumblebee at 12:55 PM on July 8, 2007

In my early 20s I used to gossip a bit and I hated how it felt. Two things helped me, the first was reading in The Four Agreements about how I should make my words mean something and that they have power.

The second was a vow I made to myself. I am not allowed to say anything about ANYONE that I would not be willing to and prepared to say to the person themselves. I may word it a little gentler, but if I pass something on I also have to be able to, if necessary, face the person honestly & take responsibility for my actions & words. If I'm considering saying something that I would never be willing to say to that person's face, then I shut the Hell up.

It's not okay to just make things up to be cruel or just repeat rumors for the sake of doing it -- I wouldn't want anyone to do that to me -- and that rule helps put perspective on it.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:57 PM on July 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Gossip is not an easy habit to break. It often is a matter of wanting to fit in and can foster a sense of closeness with others.

However, whenever I have found out that someone has said something about me behind my back, it was very hurtful. I also find I have a lower opinion of people who maliciously gossip. Quite simply, I do not want to be this kind of a person and this is what I try to remind myself when I feel the urge to gossip. I don't want to hurt people and I don't want to be viewed as engaging in petty behaviour.

I agree completely with ottereroticist in that gossip is normal and does not have to be hurtful and when I am talking about other people, I do use the rule that if I wouldn't say it to their face, I don't say it at all.

However, it is still a battle I fight all the time, and it is not made any easier that I work in an exceptionally gossipy (not in a good way) office. One the one hand, I want to be friends with people I work with, but on the other hand I want to do what I feel is the right thing. On a good day, I can steer the conversation to something that doesn't involove slagging off other people, on a bad day all I can do is keep my mouth shut and not contribute, while listening to the other person go on.

Ultimately, while gossip may be fun, it is not worth it to me when I consider how it makes me feel, and you're right, the damage to your reputation isn't nice either. Hopefully, whatever good thing you may lose from being a gossip, you'll make up for by gaining respect from others.
posted by triggerfinger at 1:00 PM on July 8, 2007

By the way, that doesn't mean I never gossip, but my gossip has become much more harmless fun & not hurtful. Also, I have gotten a lot better at counseling people who are being negatively gossiped about in an honest way instead of avoiding the topic with them. I've learned how to seem openly concerned instead of catty.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:02 PM on July 8, 2007

I think some gossip is natural and good. It establishes standards of behavior in the group.

Example, from just the other day around here: "She's got such a potty mouth. You know what she said? X. And such and such's kids were right there." That reminds the whole group that that's frowned-on behavior. Now, nobody would pick on "her" about it and make an uncomfortable scene, but maybe she will hear about the gossip later and feel embarrased and watch herself later.

It's the way women (some women, that I have known, moreso than the men I have known blah blah...) do that. Me, I'd be more likely to say "Damn, Potty mouth! How about watching your fucking language around the kids?" and make a half-serious joke about it right then.

When you feel bad about it, remember, they're gossiping about you too.
posted by ctmf at 1:06 PM on July 8, 2007

Wow, I may be the only one, but I think you are completely overreacting. Gossip is, in itself, nothing more than talking about friends with other friends. And why shouldn't we? We talk about all sorts of things with our friends. With some friends we talk about very intimate and private things. Gossip, i.e. a discussion of mutually interesting topic (that other friend of ours), is no big deal.

The only real problem is if you gossip maliciously. Do you talk about friends in order to cast them in a negative light, or to make yourself look better by comparison? If so, then it's the malicious intent behind the gossiping that's the problem not the gossip itself. If you want to stop that, then just stop doing it. Don't make any big announcements, don't make a big deal out of it all; simply stop doing it.
posted by oddman at 1:06 PM on July 8, 2007

Also, are you actually losing friends because of this, or have you heard that you're considered a terrible gossip? If not, it's likely that nobody considers you any worse than anyone else. It's a normal thing. High school was only practice. Try a Navy Wives Club Meeting, or any suburban neighborhood for the big league gossiping.

Not that you shouldn't try to improve yourself. Just don't beat yourself up over it. You're not a horrible person (more than anyone else.) On preview: I'm with oddman.
posted by ctmf at 1:15 PM on July 8, 2007

I give you major respect for recognizing this and wanting to change! I agree that gossiping is common, but that doesn't make it right or healthy. Also, its something that we do to impress others and be on the "in", but like you said, it often just turns other people off, not to mention hurting other people and breaking trust.

Are there particular incidents that you want to remedy? I would encourage you to talk to the person that you gossiped about and tell them what you said, that you feel bad about it, and ask their forgiveness. Not only will you establish yourself as a person of integrity, but your relationship with that friend will be much the better for it. Things like that tend to be not much fun in the moment, but ultimately build trust and affection.

As for fixing your reputation with your group of friends, I think it depends on what you think they think about your gossiping:

If they tend to gossip just as much as you, then you probably haven't stood out. If you're the sort of group that can handle a non-superficial conversation, you could bring it up with them as a group. "Does anyone else feel like we all gossip too much? Its been bugging me recently..." Should be a good conversation.

If you have tended to gossip more than your friends and you think they have noticed (which is the impression I get from your question), then I would bring it up with your friends in a casual manner, and simply tell them you've realised that you have acted this way and that you're working on adjusting your behavior. That will go a long way to win back their trust and respect!
posted by jpdoane at 1:19 PM on July 8, 2007

I feel a bit like you're over reacting a bit. The examples you shared seems like a normal thing to share between friends. Hell, I hope my friends are evaluating me and can help guide my behavior!

I also didn't see any evidence that you have a damaged reputation from it, just that you feel bad about things you've said.

Anyway, the best way I know to stop things like this is to start and end of the day journal. Do a post-mortem at the end of the day every day. Write down what you said that you feel badly about. Write down why you feel badly about it and what you could have said that would have been less gossipy and more helpful. And write down the good things you said too, the places that you could have gossiped but didn't. Make sure you review it every once and a while so you can see your progress.
posted by Ookseer at 1:43 PM on July 8, 2007

eh, the occasional gossiping isn't awful, i don't think. we all do it. i think doing it on a regular basis is a bad habit, though, but it doesn't sound like you do.

i think now that you're sensitive to it, you're probably less likely to engage in it.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:02 PM on July 8, 2007

Instead of just making yourself feel more miserable and hopeless than you already should from gossiping, the next time it happens take some action and hit yourself where you might actually take heed. Something simple such as going without coffee or tea for 24 hours, or doing without that thing you like (such as a website). This will be a far more effective reminder/rehab to wait for the words to appear on your mind's screen before they exit to the tongue*.

Obligatory footnote disclaimer: This is something my sufi sheikh suggests to help correct a number of venal sins. Gossip is looked at very unfavorably in Islam.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:36 PM on July 8, 2007

Also, I'll second the suggestion to read The Four Agreements. I rarely can get through more than a page of "self-help" books, but that one transcends the genre and the contents should be considered by anyone who has ever experience remorse of conscience about anything period.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:40 PM on July 8, 2007

You do all sorts of things that could be misrepresented, you know. Trivial things -- like there's an honor box in breakroom, and you don't have your purse, so you take the donut, then go get your purse to pay right then. Let's say someone sees you take the donut and not pay, but doesn't see you come back and pay. What if they were to say -- "I saw Anon take a donut without paying!" to someone else? They're not lying; it's completely true. Yet it is also completely unfair to you and actually inaccurate as a reflection on your character.

Well, all situations are like that. You don't know the whole story, you never know the whole story, so it's best to give somebody the benefit of the doubt, at least out loud. Just as you hope people will give it to you.

And harsh judgments are contagious. I've worked with people like that. If you and your friends have created this environment where people talk shit about others, it becomes harder to give people the benefit of the doubt -- you sound insincere, like a Pollyanna, or worse, sarcastic. And after a while, defensive -- you can't expect people will give you the benefit of the doubt either. Which is when you start to have a frenemies situation. You don't want that.
posted by Methylviolet at 4:58 PM on July 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

In addition to asking yourself the question "Would I say this to their face?" you should also ask the question "Is it any of my business to tell person B what's going on in person A's life?" Realize that some people are private and prefer even the smallest details of their life to remain so.

I agree that some gossip is harmless, but it's sometimes hurtful for a person to know they were the topic of a discussion — ANY discussion, positive or negative — when they weren't around.

I use this gauge — is it any of my business? — to both avoid spreading gossip myself and to change the conversation when someone else is trying to gossip with me.
posted by Brittanie at 5:21 PM on July 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Compliment people behind their back. :)
posted by -harlequin- at 9:43 PM on July 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

Another method you might use to gauge what you are about to say: is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? In my experience, most things fail either the kind or necessary test, and very little negative gossip is probably necessary.
posted by fuse theorem at 9:46 PM on July 8, 2007

I have a completely allergic reaction to the advice given by ctfm and Ookseer. I don't think gossip is cool or useful. Gossip is about people behind their back.

This is not an effective way to communicate with the person who is ostensibly of interest, rather it's a way to build alliances with other people based on a shared judgment of another human. If you want life to resemble a catty reality TV show then gossip away. But you've said you don't want that.

Why? You report you're worried "about your image." Seriously, think about that language you're using. Image is a trap. Focus on doing things and being in a way that helps you feel like you're living with integrity. Do that and the appeal of gossip will wane and the concern about image will recede. I'd wager you'll feel happier in general. Oh, and your reputation--based on your actions--will take care of itself.

P.S. Miss lynster dished some excellent advice.
posted by donovan at 11:34 PM on July 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

There is some kind of incentive driving this behavior. You need to be honest with yourself and figure out what is motivating you to gossip in the first place.

For some, it's to put others down in order to feel better. Other people gossip because they crave social interaction and gossip is less challenging than other forms of conversation.

Once you figure out your motivation to gossip, you'll most likely realize that gossip is not the best way to achieve that goal. It may become apparent how boring and pointless it all is too.

I like hearing people talk about things they are excited about, things they have learned, new ideas and concepts they thought up. Gossip is none of these, it's someone preoccupied with picking apart another persons inconsequential behavior. It's one of the most boring, unsatisfying ways to interact. Be honest with yourself, and you'll likely find it similarly repulsive. Stopping will be a breeze, and people will accept the change very quickly.
posted by yorick at 7:00 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

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