Gossiping or speaking negatively about others when they are not present can be a way to avoid confronting our own problems by deflecting attention and blame onto others. It is much easier to search for faults in others, criticize them, or belittle them instead of focusing our attention and energy on what we could change and improve about ourselves.
Gossip can create the illusion that we are powerful – by comparing ourselves to those we gossip about, we may feel superior or luckier. We may feel good momentarily about how our lives look in comparison to theirs. But is it really so? We may also feel powerful or important by possessing certain information about someone else that we may or may not choose to share as we please.
However, when we disclose information that we know would harm someone else's image or life, or worse, when we embellish, exaggerate, or invent things, we use gossip as a tool for revenge. Often, people seek to harm or hurt others not because those persons have done something to them, but simply out of envy, frustration, or because they feel bad about themselves and their own lives. Others’ happiness or success confronts them with their own shortcomings and discontent. For example, when we compare ourselves to those who are much better than us in a field where we also have aspirations, our self-esteem suffers. And as no one likes to feel bad about themselves and wants to maintain a positive image, we may tend to discredit those we compare ourselves to – saying they "got lucky," "there must be something dishonest going on," "they are charlatans who deceived others and that's why they succeeded," and so on.
People who deep down feel inferior but mask it with a superiority complex believe they are entitled to criticize others, humiliate them, highlight their mistakes, or gossip about them to stand out and look better than those they criticize, to inflate their own ego. However, truly self-confident people do not criticize, judge, or devalue others to seek attention or position themselves above others, belittling them.
Gossip also involves a lack of accountability – we lack the courage to tell others to their face what we believe about them, what bothers us about them, but we speak ill of them behind their backs, complaining, playing the victim, and seeking alliances against them. In doing so, we show a lack of integrity because there is no alignment between what we think, say, and do. If we don't like someone, it's best not to associate with them rather than being fake. If we have to interact with them, we should strive to remain authentic without disrespecting them.
People want inclusion and connection with others, and in the absence of authentic relationships and communication, gossip can become a binding agent. We talk about others instead of ourselves because it satisfies our need for social interaction without having to confront our own fears and vulnerabilities.
Gossip is also prevalent in the workplace because people can use the information they know about colleagues or superiors (including blackmail) to their advantage. They can find out with whom to ally and from whom to stay away (don't take anyone's word for it; but observe the reality yourself) or intentionally start rumors to discredit a colleague and eliminate competition.
In all these cases, we can observe how destructive gossip and rumors are, as reputation is crucial in the professional and business world and can be easily damaged even if there is no grain of truth in those rumors. Competition scares those who are insufficiently prepared in many respects but still want to gain the respect and advantages enjoyed by those who have proven their worth over years of hard work and effort.
If you are gossiped about, it doesn't mean you're doing something wrong; rather, it suggests you're doing something right – you're doing your job well and minding your own business. Gossip often stems from envy, and people seek to destroy what they envy. Avoid participating in your colleagues’ gossip because just as they gossip about others, you can be sure they gossip about you as well.
If we're talking about someone who is not present but we're not speaking ill of them, is it still gossip? In theory, yes. Gossip doesn't always have negative connotations; it can also be positive or neutral. However, it's essential to be aware of what we say and that our words have an impact, whether we realize that impact or not.
For instance, if you and your closest friend have mutual friends, don't start telling them things and details about your friend, even if they ask, "how is he/she doing?" Be reserved or provide general answers because what seems harmless to you may be perceived as an invasion of privacy by your friend. If your friend has shared certain things with you, even if they are positive (e.g., changing jobs or getting a promotion), don't spread this information around because it's their choice whom to tell, when to tell, and whether to tell at all.
Also, observe how you feel when you gossip and understand why you do it. For example, when you start a new job and want to integrate into the team, get closer to people, and not feel like an "outsider," you might start attending certain gossipy discussions and eventually engage in gossip yourself. Try to observe people and get to know them before labeling, criticizing, or judging them. Maintain your integrity and authenticity, tell people directly and assertively if there is something that bothers you about them, do your work as best as you can, and be fair-play. People who share the same values and principles as you will certainly gravitate towards you. People who put effort into following their own path to success don't have time and energy to waste on gossip, drama, or negativity. If you're one of them, you surely want to surround yourself with like-minded individuals and not squander your energy on trivial matters.
And if you're doing your best to be liked, if you flatter others or pretend to be on good terms with them (even if you gossip about them behind their backs) because you believe it's the only way to gain certain benefits, consider that sooner or later, those around you will see through this facade. While you may gain those short-term benefits, in the long run, both your reputation and the trust others have in you will suffer.
If you're the subject of gossip, don't try to prove others wrong because they will perceive only what they want to perceive. Even if you're the one being gossiped about, remember that gossip doesn't reflect on you but on the person spreading it.
Gossip, criticism, judgment, labeling, drama, and negativity are the domains of people with low self-respect, and as such, they can’t respect others.
Adopt a behavior that honors you, be a model of respect and good manners, and ignore all those messages loaded with malice, frustration, and envy emitted by those around you. However, if gossip turns into bullying (meaning abusive, aggressive, intimidating behavior) and your safety is at risk, do not ignore it; take action, including legal action if necessary.
People who focus on the negative tend to suffocate under the weight of their own negative energy, so choose wisely where you invest your energy. Seek and build the beautiful and positive to have a harmonious and fulfilling life. Instead of focusing on what's not okay with other people, turn your gaze inward and start making any changes you deem necessary to be content with yourself and your life.
Dr. Ursula Sandner