Written by: Charneise Alston, M.Ed
There are dangers of not having control over the things that you say and the impact of your words. Society’s obsession with gossip is why talk shows, tabloids, and scandals are so popular. We simply cannot stop meddling in other people’s business. I define gossip as an easygoing conversation about people generally associated with disputable details. Unfortunately, gossip is part of everyday entertainment and many workplace cultures.
Workplace gossip seems to be an inescapable culture in many professional environments. After being employed at a residential facility, courthouse, hospital, and school, I have learned a basic principle for gossip: People who gossip to you will also gossip about you. Beware! Gossip is planted in seed form and then grows. It begins with talking about someone’s clothes and then, when your comfort level increases, you move to talking about people’s actions and character.
In the earlier years of my career, I avoided getting close with colleagues at work. Not because I was unfriendly, but because I simply did not see the value in being close with coworkers. Since I already had authentic friendships, there was no vacancy in my life that I needed to fill. Don’t get me wrong, I would enjoy people with small-talk but I would never attend happy hours or after-work functions. I understood and accepted that my boundaries and behavior at work could possibly be perceived as anti-social from my peers. However, I simply did not care and continued to be an introvert with casual conversations.
In all settings, I am an observant person and I often watch how cliques form and treat each other in and out of each other’s presence. I have never needed a large group of friends and I have always found one or two, at most, people to enjoy at work, church, or even the gym. I tend to gravitate to people with a good sense of humor to help the work day pass with ease. At my current place of employment, I was initially introduced to a spiteful, catty office climate. Yes, I work at a school and gossip seems to be never-ending, but it’s mostly from staff and not students. Can you believe it? I’m still taken aback by the culture of schools.
From the start of my employment, I was the subject of gossip in my building. Five years ago, I was hired as a counselor because, in addition to my education, I possessed eight years of professional counseling experience in various settings dealing with at-risk youth. I had reputable relationships with community stakeholders and I am unique in my ability to build trust and rapport with families. However, there was another candidate who applied for the same counseling position, as a recent graduate, but did not have any counseling experience. As we all know, experienced candidates are usually favored over novice candidates, especially when serving a challenging population.
Once I happily accepted the job offer, I was quickly greeted with harsh stares and murmurs from a select group of women. Little did I know that those individuals were all friends with the candidate who was passed over for the counselor position. Initially, I paid the tension no mind. But over time, gossip and rumors began to surface. For the first time ever, I found myself taking notice of the relational impact colleagues have with one another. I was no longer an island to myself and started to feel the effects of being at the center of lies, gossip, and rumors.
This was a complete culture shock for me and I had no clue on how to navigate such treacherous waters. Gossip affects people’s perception. Consequently, labels are placed on the person of interest and his/her character becomes tarnished. My initial strategy was to ignore the crude behavior by staying to myself. While I did not think about my colleagues outside of work, I later discovered that I was the topic in group chats and lunchroom conversations.
So much so, it made other staff disappointed and ashamed of the mistreatment that I received from that select group of women. As time passed, I would receive emails from various teachers stating that they did not support the views of those women. By this time, there was a clear divide in the building amongst those who supported and appreciated my impact and those who chose to perceive me in a tainted way, simply because their friend did not receive my position. It felt like I was in the twilight zone.
Gossip becomes a habit that is thoughtlessly duplicated on a regular basis. In fact, we do not even see the destructive emotional and relational aftermath it leaves behind. Part of the damage left behind is a person’s reputation. I was fortunate enough to have a break from my chaotic workplace environment when I took a four-month maternity leave. As a first-time mother, I was able to bond with my beautiful baby girl and not have to think about anything unimportant.
When I returned back to work, I was different. Motherhood instantly changed me and I had a zero-tolerance for nonsense. I was no longer going to be passive and ignore inappropriate behaviors from adults. I became direct and made every attempt to reclaim my good name. By that time, those women slandered my name and even silently accused me of sleeping with a coworker. It was bad you all, and I wanted vindication.
As time passed, most of those women resigned and found employment elsewhere. I did not see that coming at all but thank God! I could never understand why I mattered to any of those women. I come to work to help students, which I do well, and stay to myself. Yet, I had to learn that haters do not need a valid reason to dislike you. Let people be exactly who they are so that you can move accordingly to protect and preserve your own peace. Since then, life at work has been stress-free and I am glad that I did not allow those women to jeopardize a job that I truly love.
It is important to guard your ears and heart by not participating in pointless chatter. Shut it down before it even begins by saying, “Is this something you should be sharing?” Whether or not you take an active role, when we listen to gossip we are part of the conversation. Gossipers need an audience. You always have a choice to stay, walk away, correct, or change the subject.
Gossip is easy to defend, especially if we have been hurt. In an attempt to feel better, we charade our gossip by saying that we are “discussing our feelings,” or “sharing our concerns.” Yet, if we are to be honest, we are gossiping. When someone has hurt us, we want to vent to release our frustration. Beware of venting conversations because they are unproductive. When you have been wronged, be cautious of who you talk to afterwards. Choose someone who will be objective in helping you to understand different perspectives, not someone who will only side with your outlook.
If at all possible, talk directly to the person who has offended you and try to resolve the matter. My school has now adopted Restorative Practices as a conflict-resolution method. We handle all conflicts, both staff and student related, with guided questions to provide clarity, perspective, empathy, and mutual respect. Restorative Practices has since been the cure to a petty and divisive culture in my school. Now, when conflict arises at my school, students actually request for a restorative meeting rather than resorting to violence.
In closing, be intentional and begin avoiding gossip at all costs so that your heart, reputation and relationships stay intact. The consequences of spreading gossip are cancerous. Unfortunately, gossip is leaked, heard, shared and, worst of all, instantly believed. Whenever a conversation starts off with “I heard that . . .” is a cue that gossip is about to be shared. Is what you are about to spread true? Do you have permission to share this information? If not, it is unnecessary. Just because it can be said does not warrant that it should be spoken. As we mature into becoming our best selves, let us choose to outgrow gossip because it no longer fits into the sacred spaces of our lives.
“It is just as cowardly to judge an absent person as it is to strike a defenseless one. Only the ignorant and narrow-minded gossip, for they speak of persons instead of things.” ~Lawrence G. Lovasik ~