Talk is Cheap

Avoiding the gossip mill at work
illustration by Tony Healey
Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and managing editor of Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes.

 

One of those universal concepts that both religious and non-religious people can agree on is that gossip is bad. Most (though I believe it’s all) religious traditions outright condemn the act. For example, in a 2013 homily, Pope Francis echoed the words of Jesus in the gospel reading from Matthew 7: 3-5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” The pope went on to warn, “Gossip always has a criminal side to it. There is no such thing as innocent gossip.”

In Buddhism, gossip is addressed under “right speech” or “virtuous speech.” Right speech is included in the core principles of Buddhism and is a practice deeply ingrained in the daily lives of its practitioners. Before speaking, practitioners are encouraged to ask: Is what I’m about to say true?; Is it necessary?; and is it kind?

In the world of etiquette, gossip is also widely discouraged both socially and in business and the research backs it up. In a 2008 survey of more than 2,000 executives by TheLadders.com, gossip was listed as one of the top five office etiquette offenses to avoid.

Daniel Senning of the Emily Post Institute writes, “Gossip can change the quality of a work environment and distract employees.”

But how can we avoid gossip? Especially if we are present when someone or a group begins gossiping?

“Let your co-workers know that you won’t engage in gossip,” Senning writes. “If you find yourself in a position where others are gossiping, change the conversation or exit the room.”

If being explicit or leaving the room feels a little too confrontational, consider the following advice from Cynthia Kane, author, speaker, certified meditation and mindfulness instructor and founder of The Intentional Communication Institute.

    •    Prepare yourself before meeting
        those you know who speak this way
         — remind yourself that you don’t have
        to engage, that they will be speaking
        negatively, and that you have options
        for how you respond.
    •    Don’t engage when others are speaking
        negatively about others. You can let
        them finish and then change the subject.
    •    If you can, limit your time around those
        who are speaking this way.

That said, there is a pro-gossip camp.

According to a 2016 Entrepreneur.com article, not all gossip (in contrast to what Pope Francis said) has a criminal side and sometimes it can even be a good thing. The piece states, “Harmless gossip between colleagues can build stronger workplace relationships and boost overall morale.” The keyword here is harmless. It goes on to say that to prevent gossip from getting toxic, it’s important that the company promotes a culture of transparency and accountability; that peer-to-peer feedback should be encouraged; and that it’s important to bring teams together when possible to foster strong relationships. In so doing, employees will harbor less resentment overall and will be less likely to engage in harmful chitchat.

Good leaders know that good behavior starts at the top.

“The best way to keep employees from participating in gossip that hurts individual and overall morale and productivity is to lead by example,” the Entrepreneur.com article says. “Employers need to model the behavior they want to see in their employees.”

Personally, when the subject of gossip arises, I’m often reminded of Eleanor Roosevelt, who suffered greatly at the sharp, ever-turning blades of the gossip mill. According to a commentary by Cynthia Koch on the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation website, Eleanor Roosevelt’s biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook said, “There are those who focus on her teeth and voice and other cartoon characteristics, long before they reveal how much they despise her politics, most notably her interest in civil rights and racial justice or in civil liberties and world peace.” It seems Eleanor Roosevelt gets the last words however, as she is often credited with the following cutting response to the subject of gossip, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”


Submit business etiquette questions to Melanie@MyNewOrleans.com.


 

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