Monday, October 8, 2012

The Gossip Effect

Two posts ago, we talked about the issues associated with negativity at work and ways to move beyond it. But there was a glaring elephant in the post I neglected to mention – Gossip! Ok, the truth is that I wanted to give gossip its own post. I think it warrants that. 

There is little question the modern workplace is a bastion of gossip. The water cooler is more than just a metaphor for hanging out and not actually getting work done. Gossip has hit the places I work in ways that have truly opened my eyes to how we choose to communicate with each other and about each other.

While teaching English in France, I heard the teachers gossiping about the students and their families. Long before yoga became a daily practice for me (though I had already started practicing), those days in the teachers’ lounge were painful. While working at another job, I was struck by the amount of gossip that permeated the office. It was painful to hear and even more painful that I found myself getting caught up in it.

I have found it very, very difficult to escape the gossip mill anywhere in life. It is an easy way to connect with people – to talk about mutual people we know or to whine about someone who has harmed us. But gossip is harmful to us. It brings negative emotions to the front of our consciousness, and for me, it always leaves a nasty feeling in the air.

And yet we continue to gossip despite the plethora of teachings “against” it. As kids we are told, “if you cannot say something nice, do not say anything at all.” The Golden Rule teaches us to “treat other people as you would like to be treated.” These are great ways to think about gossip, but perhaps we need something more specific.

Sri Sathya Sai Baba tells us to ask three questions before we speak, “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” This is a general teaching about speaking, but it is especially important when talking about other people. First, so much of what we repeat is what we hear from others, and we cannot verify whether it is true. Lawyers, especially, must think about hearsay and whether a statement is reliable. We should, at the very least, consider that when speaking about other people.

The second question is, “is it necessary?” Something we say about someone may be true, but it may not be necessary to share with others. I do not need to tell everyone everything that happens between another person and myself. It probably will not solve anything, and it could just make me more upset. And finally, we should ask ourselves, “is it kind?” This gets back to the two teachings above, if we have nothing nice to say, or if we are treating someone less kindly than we would want them to treat us, we probably should say nothing.

This is not easy to do. In fact, we live in a world where gossip penetrates every aspect of our lives. We live in a world where every mis-statement made by a politician is reported for days, and often the statements are taken out of context and made to sound worse than they really were. We live in a world where People magazine and the National Enquirer are million (billion, perhaps?) dollar industries existing solely on gossip about people most of us have never met.

Gossip can only occur because we think the person about whom we are speaking is somehow different than us, and we can say something about them without affecting ourselves. Gossip happens in the moment and is rarely factually complete. By the time the story reaches a point where the facts are known, it has left our attention. It is a reaction to a moment in time that disappears when something more interesting comes along. But its effects on our consciousness remain, and like everything else in life, they get stuck in us until we let them go.

Yoga is about reflecting before reacting. We learn to ask ourselves if something hurts before we do it, and if it does, we find a better way. In that sense, yoga is the perfect opportunity to break free of gossip. Instead of reacting to the partial facts, we can stop and reflect and ask ourselves the pertinent questions – is it true, is it necessary, is it kind? We can have a yogic response to the gossip we hear as well as the gossip we may wish to speak.

If the answer to those questions is no, and we still speak it, how are we harming ourselves. How does gossip affect our beings? How does it affect the person about whom we are speaking? What if we only listen but do not partake? In all of those scenarios, negativity breeds negativity. In other words gossip only harms everyone involved.

I wish I could tell the world I have broken free of the gossip hold. I have not. But more and more I am conscious of the effect my words have on others and myself. It is a first step – a small one, but a first one. Do you notice yourself getting caught up in gossip? What do you do when you notice that happening? Are you willing to walk away? Are you willing to change the conversation? How has gossip affected you?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

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