The difference between news and gossip is whether you raise your voice or lower it.
Whoever coined that phrase may have hit upon the best definition of determining if the information we are spreading is gossip or news. The dictionary doesn’t help much, with gossip being variously defined as “idle talk about other people’s affairs,” and news as “information about recent events.” Gossip can be factual and true, and news can be all about people’s affairs. Tell me where one ends and the other begins, and you get a Nobel Prize!
In fact, it is this blurring of the boundaries between gossip and news, writ large, that is at the heart of uncivil discourse and behavior (hint: some campaign ads, some media outlets).
Since we cannot rely on simple definitions to guide us toward civility in what we say about someone, we must go below the surface to get to what really matters – our intentions. Specifically, we need to determine whether what we say or write is intended to do harm, or even likely to do harm. In short, if we do harm to others, directly or indirectly, it’s probably gossip. If we genuinely attempt to help by sharing information, it’s probably news.
There are plenty of reasons we use gossip, all of which say a lot more about us than the person we are hurting. We try to raise our own esteem and reputation by destroying the same in others. We deflect our own problems and faults by pointing out those of others. We use gossip to express envy, jealousy, resentment and to exact revenge.
There is one dynamic I find particularly interesting: using gossip about a person who is not present as a way of creating a special connection with those who are present, while projecting ourselves as somehow superior because we have exclusive knowledge no one else has. It is a useful exercise in civility to examine our intentions before we say a word about someone who is not present.
It is also a useful exercise in civility to recognize in others the intent to do harm, and nip it in the bud. People try to fool themselves, and us, by couching gossip as intent to help; in a hushed voice, we might hear, “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m concerned about…” Or, we might even hear, “We need to pray for so-and-so, whose husband just…”
The effects of gossip are many: damaged relationships, ruined reputations (including the perpetrator’s), distorted reality (misrepresentations, exaggerations, lies), escalating retaliation, such as slander and libel back and forth, and violence. Gossip in the workplace and the school reduces productivity, wastes time, creates factions, and more. Being known as a gossip will cause others not to trust us.
Before gossip gets a completely bum rap, there are some aspects I want to defend. Without the element of doing harm, gossip is a normal and necessary part of the human condition. We want, and some would say we need, to know one another in all of our imperfections. Talking about one another, including those who are not present at the time, is how we connect. As long as we are going to talk about one another, let’s do it prudently and tactfully, not allowing or repeating anything hurtful.
Psst…it’s all about our intentions.
Each month we are highlighting one of the nine principles of the Door County Civility Project. This month Door County Civility Project team member Susan McAninch writes about Principle No. 4: Don’t Gossip. For more on the project or to sign the Civility Pledge, visit doorcountycivilityproject.org.
Have you witnessed a Random Act of Civility? Let us know about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan McAninch is a retired clinical social worker and psychotherapist.
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