Gossip serves a useful social purpose. It keeps us updated on what’s happening with our friends and co-workers. Spreading the word when someone is in trouble can bring offers of help. However, it can also be hurtful and spread illwill rather than goodwill. Here’s how to gossip less when that happens.
Good vs bad gossip
“Good gossip is just what’s going on. Bad gossip is stuff that is salacious, mean, and bitchy; the kind most people really enjoy.”
– Liz Smith
The difference lies in both the intention and the consequence. Good gossip should come with both well-meaning intentions and beneficial consequences for all. Bad gossip is when the intention or the consequence, or both, are not good.
Examples of good gossip could be:
- Parents talking about a difficult child and how to help him
- Spreading word about a project a colleague did well
- Warning a friend about someone’s suspicious behaviour in order to protect her from that person
Pruning the grapevine
Once gossip crosses over into the ‘bad’ category, what can we do? Tempting as it is to hear the juicy stories, most of us know in our hearts that we are compromising ourselves by taking part. You can adopt one of the following strategies:
- Remain silent: This is probably the easiest method. It allows you to continue listening without actively participating in it. The problem is you may be condoning the behaviour by being part of it.
- Speak up: Objecting forces others to recognise what they are doing. This requires more courage as you have to stand up to your pals and may come across as a self-righteous person.
- Change the subject: Safer and easier than directly confronting the speaker. The downside is that you may find yourself having to change the subject many times during the conversation.
- Walk away: Giving a reason to excuse yourself is a subtle way of sending a message that this activity is not acceptable to you. Unfortunately, not everyone gets a subtle message.
- Change friends: Drastic is this is, sometimes we have to accept that we have chosen the wrong friends, and the best thing we can do is to let go and find better ones.
Socrates’s Test of Three
Here are three questions you can ask the next time someone tries to engage you in gossip:
One day an acquaintance ran up to Socrates and said, “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”
“Wait a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me, I’d like you to pass the Test of Three. The first test is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”
“No,” the man replied, “actually I just heard about it.”
“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second test, the test of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?”
“No, on the contrary…”
“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him even though you’re not certain it’s true?”
The man shrugged, a little embarrassed.
Socrates continued, “You may still pass though, because there is a third test – the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”
“No, not really…”
“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither True not Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me at all?”
The man was defeated and ashamed and said no more. This is the reason Socrates was a great philosopher and held in such high esteem.
The healthy grapevine – good gossip only
Our grapevine keeps us connected to the community we live in. Good gossip has a role in our lives. But bad gossip is a cancer that has to be cut away before it gets out of control and harms us.
It’s not always easy to draw and maintain this fine line, but I’m going to try and hope you will too!
23 replies on “How to Gossip Less: Pruning the Grapevine”
We can do selective gossiping.. Spread what good or wholesome deeds so and so has done. Spread the good , discard the bad.. as some wise man has said “Nothing good to say don’t say.”
You make a good point about choosing to spread the ‘good gossip’. I’ll remember that! Thanks for dropping by to comment.
Hi Daphne, it’s precisely that – that they didn’t have anything better to do with their time and lives. Those few mums are really unhappy here unfortunately (have heard it from them a few times myself) and they have been channelling their negative vibes into bad gossip to try to make themselves feel better.
I would have confronted them if I hadn’t promised my source (who’s part of the English coffee crowd) not to get her into trouble with her peers. She wanted to warn me in case it really got out of hand.
So I just took the opportunity to warn my son to be careful what he tells his friends – that while I know he loves to impress them with my canes, it may get us into trouble as a family. And also how information when passed on in a chain could get so totally out of hand, exaggerated and untrue.
Otherwise I do not have a problem with this nonsense, I do not abuse my children and anybody can see that. My cane is like a ruler, wooden spoon or the naked hand that some other mothers use – in fact I think it scares quite well so one almost never has to use it. Actually, my kids use them for art and craft sometimes.
I do and try to use my time with other families constructively, so in any case I have a busy and fulfilling social life. In fact, that could be one reason why they dislike me 🙂
Daphne, it was interesting reading this wonderful post. As you may know, I socialise alot in our expat community and we have mothers from different parts of the world here.
I think that good gossip is indeed just about passing info, with no harm meant. And preferably with no names mentioned and information verified or only experienced first hand.
Recently, it has come to my attention that even women who do not know me personally have heard about me. And a story circulates about me locking my child up and caning him! And a few of them were wondering if they shouldn’t call the police or something!!!
It appears that my son shared with his class (during a group discussion about parental discipline) that I have canes at home as a tool for punishment. True, though God knows I never abuse my children physically, the canes are just used for scaring them. Anyway, a few of the classmates told their mums about it and these (English) women started talking about it in coffee mornings and next thing you know the story just gets more and more fascinating until it appears that I am a mad cane wielder and do horrible things to my child with it…
I know that the women who started the rumour were malicious because if they had the interest of the child in mind, they would check him out themselves or confront me directly. What would talking about it in coffee mornings do to help this child? Besides, the child dopes PE etc at school and if he had been abused it would be noticed immediately.
And imagine if someone who didn’t know the truth (because they do not know me) actually contacted the police? Will they take me or my children away? I do not know what those women were up to, but I wasn’t their first victim (through bad gossip) and I wonder how they could gain satisfaction from something that could harm other people.
When I read your comment I just had to reply immediately. Gosh, what a horrible rumour to spread about you. And yet this is how much of the world operates.
Besides the negative gossip, the other problem is judging people by our own standards. These other mothers probably have no idea how a cane is even used, but because they associate the word ‘cane’ with something barbaric, then they form all sorts of mental pictures. There’s a proverb “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.” Maybe they should find something better to do!
Really, what they say about you says more about them than about you. I know it’s hard to be on the receiving end, but you must know that you are above it all. The sad thing is that the children see what is happening and some will learn to spread malicious gossip, just as they’ve seen their parents doing. Hopefully your son is more immune, through your good example.
Humph! I feel a little bit angry on your behalf and if I were there I would be very tempted to confront these women and challenge them to think about what they’re doing. You’re more amiable than me though and I’m sure that after the initial upset you will shake it off and go find better friends (and help your son find friends with better moms too!)
Thanks for sharing so honestly. Your story is a good reminder to me that bad gossip can end up really hurting another person. I will remember this story whenever I feel tempted to pass on unverified ‘information’…
The tongue is a had thing to get control of, but I like your concept of good and bad gossip.
Hi Daphne, gossiping isn’t really that big of a problem for me because I tend to not hang out with people that just gossip all day. It irritates me because like what Socrates said, it’s not useful. It’s counter-productive which then builds a counter-productive person. I’m glad you shared this post to remind us the difference between good gossip and bad gossip. 🙂
Not hanging out with gossipy people is a good solution. For me it’s a last resort because I like to tell myself (or fool myself!) that I can navigate these tricky waters of gossip… yet you are right that once we realise we cannot influence things or we ourselves become influenced for the worse, it may be time to prune the friendships. Thanks for commenting!
Glad you liked the distinction… I just realised it was near impossible not to talk about other people AT ALL and so thought of the possibility that some ‘gossip’ is actually good and necessary.
Daphne — It’s been some time since I visited and I’m glad I came by today.
I liked all your suggestions about handling gossip and I loved the Socrates story. We should all use those three tests when someone starts gossiping.
One of my best life lessons was about gossiping. I was a teen and I wanted to fit in with this popular crowd. They were gossiping about a new girl in our class and I joined in the gossip. When I stood up to leave, I realized the new girl was right behind us and she looked at me. I will never forget the pain in her face.
I wish I could say I never gossiped again, but that would be a lie:~) I will say I’m much better about speaking out when gossip becomes cruel and, if that doesn’t work, walking away from it.
Thanks for this excellent post:~)
Heya Daphne! Great seeing a new post from you in my reader. 🙂
I too wrote about that story (Socrate’s Teaches The Test of 3) sometime during Aug in my blog.
You’ve expanded it further with the pruning away bad gossip. I do “walk away” sometimes or drop subtle hints like saying “oh?” while looking away or checking my mobile whenever I’m stuck in a situation where bad gossip appears.
@ The Other Daphne,
Hey Daphne, sorry for this extremely late reply. I have been very neglectful of this blog lately. Loved reading your cheery comment and am glad you like the Socrates story. I wish I had the courage to say those things to people!
Thanks for dropping by. Didn’t realise you’d posted the same story… it’s a great one, and worth telling many times! Saying “Oh?” is a good response – neutral yet meaningful. I’ll try it sometime, thanks for the suggestion!
Wow, that was a great story you told – great because it was your first-hand experience and because you remember it till today which means the incident left a lasting impression on you. We all have these learning moments, and like you I sometimes revert back to doing what I told myself I wouldn’t do… still, as you say we just keep trying. Thanks for this lovely comment!
Daphne! Hi, it’s the other Daphne! 🙂
I LOVE the Socrates story – I hadn’t heard it before. I now have a sticky note in my calendar that says “Is it True? Is it Good? Is it Useful?” I think this is a wonderful lesson for everything in life, especially as I try very hard to be less judgmental. Thank you so much for sharing it.
I have recently moved to a very small island where people do nothing but gossip. I came knowing this would be the case but when I was on the receiving end of it, and so blatant, I realised just how harmful and upsetting it can be.
I love the Socrates story. I am mindful of what I say, and try to say everything with loving kindness (it’s difficult to do this if you are gossiping!).
I guess my parents were right – think before you speak.
Thanks so much for the post, it was timely in keeping me on the straight non gossip path x
I know exactly what you mean about loving a good gossip. I used to stay silent or change the subject, but lately find myself drawn in against my better judgement. Maybe I should start telling that Socrates story too!
@ Island Girl,
Thanks so much for sharing your story – I loved hearing it because it’s such a real situation and puts things into perspective for me – I guess gossip isn’t much fun when you’re at the receiving end. Your comment is timely for me too, in reminding me that someone is getting hurt every time gossip takes place.
I used to love a good gossip! Not so much anymore though. I love to hear and pass on good news, but I’m not into the nasty stuff now. But eventhough I don’t partake, I probably am silent more than speak up when I feel uncomfortable about gossip being shared in my company.
I never heard that Socrates Test of Three before, but I think it’s a powerful lesson, and the next time I find myself in the midst of a gossiping session I hope I have the courage to share that story instead of staying quiet!
I enjoyed reading the story about Socrates that you posted. I don’t like to engage in gossips myself. I have few opportunities to anyway, since I am mostly too busy to go for high teas or call anyone for chit chat.
One of the Buddhist precept or undertaking that I have decided to follow is about using right speech. Hence, I try to be mindful as much as possible on what I say and the words I use.
Words can hurt or heal. As you’ve suggested, it is better to put our words to good use.
I like your use of ‘whose story is it’ to filter what you talk about and what you don’t. It’s a good guide for me to adopt. Sometimes I suggest people ask the person directly, and I think I’ll start doing that more often.
Thanks for the comment!
‘Right speech’ is a great precept to live by, and one of the reasons I admire Buddhism. I used to have few opportunities to gossip too, until I joined this new group – really nice people but perhaps I just need to adjust and find my feet. Thanks for your advice!
Great frame and great reminder on Socrates Test of 3!
I try to follow the rule that if I’m not involved in the story, then it’s not my story to share. If somehow I’m involved, then it is, unless it paints the other person in a bad way. Then I just try to keep my mouth shut.
If someone asks me about a mutual acquaintance,
I might let them know I’ve seen them and whether or not they seemed good. Beyond that, I usually say, “You’d be better off asking them yourself.”
Good luck and thanks for bringing this up!
I tend to remain silent… I don’t contribute, but I also don’t stop the behavior. I guess I could be doing better!
Thanks for being here and leaving your heartfelt words. I appreciate the time you spend writing comments because I know how much you are going through right now. Thank you.
“I don’t know anything about that”… is a phrase I must use more often! Thanks for the useful tip. Yes emotional hurt can last far longer than physical wounds which heal… the words can stay in our heads for years.
I could be doing much better myself… at least you remain silent. It’s a good stand to take!
There is so much truth in your words. I ususally speak up. If I’m asked to join in or asked something that’s inappropriate I’ll say, “I don’t know anything about that.” The end! The person or people get it.
We can do so much harm with words. Most people don’t think emotional abuse is as painful as physical abuse. Not true. I’ve heard so many women say, “I’d wish he’d hit me and get it over with.” The emotional goes on and on…
Hi Daphne .. good to see you here at Joyful Days again. When I talk to people in general I try to look on the bright side and say something positive, or take a positive take – but I hope like lots of others there are times when I slip and am not that complementary about others. There’s a phrase if you talk badly about others – think what they’re saying about you behind your back.
I love Socrates’ story – that should be something we should definitely carry round with us .. is it true, is it good, is it worthwhile – then fine .. tell.
Thank you – so good to have you back and your pearls of wisdom ..
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