Lately I've been thinking a lot about communication - the art of conversation, what we need when we share ourselves with others, the difference between a good talker and a good listener, which kinds of interpersonal dynamics are healthy and positive, which ones are not. Being able to communicate with others in an appropriate, effective manner can make a huge difference in the quality of oneís life. In fact, itís so important that I believe this subject ought to be taught extensively during the school years.
One form of communication which can have negative, destructive consequences is gossip. Why do we gossip? What do we get out of it? Researching this subject, I found a funny quote: A gossip is someone who talks to you about others; a bore is someone who talks to you about himself; and a brilliant conversationalist is someone who talks to you about yourself.
Humour aside, how we talk with others reveals much about ourselves and our social milieu. Often when there is chronic gossip amongst members of a community, there is actually a need for a deeper and more authentic community, for relationships based upon more positive values. When I reflect upon this, a bunch of questions arise. When I gossip, am I coming from a place of caring and concern? Will my words sow goodwill, peace and harmony? Does what I am about to reveal about someone have their dignity in mind? Does what I say have the potential to harm the person about whom I'm talking? If I know the person, did that person ask me to be discreet? Do I value my relationship with that person? Would I want to be in their shoes, knowing that someone I trusted had betrayed my confidence? And if gossiping is the normal order of things, would I really be able to trust anyone with my confidences? For let us remember, as a Spanish proverb goes, Whomever gossips to you will gossip of you.
Sure, itís true that some gossip is relatively innocuous and actually serves a social purpose. Maybe you've just met someone and a variety of conversation topics build a bond between you. Sometimes gossip is a form of commiserating: If his situation is bad, and it seems worse than mine, then maybe I can feel a bit better about myself and my life. Or itís a way to relieve boredom. Perhaps my job leaves me seriously underwhelmed and a bit of gossip passes the time. Or maybe I secretly admire the person for living in a manner which I myself would like to do but don't have the courage. Sometimes gossip is just a bad habit, plain and simple.
And sometimes gossip can be a way to blow off steam in a safe manner because telling someone to her face what you think about her behaviour is confrontational and could actually be dangerous. So gossip fills a gap - due to communication skills being low on our educational priorities, most of us don't generally possess the skills to handle conflict well.
When there is conflict without effective, appropriate communications, what happens? Gossip can become malevolent, and can function to uphold a destructive group dynamic. Itís been my observation that malicious, chronic gossip is often about character assassination and there is usually one strong personality leading that charge. I have seen this time and time again. A popular person gathers people around him and he revels in the attention. There's laughter and camaraderie and on the surface things look as though they are functioning well. Eventually the dynamic shifts and takes on uglier tones. Now the group is a gang. And when their leader is popular, charismatic and blind to ego, s/he can do a lot of damage. Soon the whole group is trading half-truths in a large-scale character assassination. In extreme situations such as this, gossip can really harm.
As I mull over these issues, I think that one of the worst aspects of gossip is how it wounds our own selfesteem. If we know we are not trustworthy, if we know that we've engaged in these bad behaviours, what does that say about us? As they say, talk is cheap. But it doesnít have to be.