“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the consequences of my own actions.” It’s a pretty standard joke on Twitter and TikTok these days, and its popularity stems from the universality of that feeling. Haven’t we all been caught up in a friend war or some other drama and experienced a moment of clarity, suddenly realize we’re the ones responsible for it? And that sooner or later, everyone else is going to figure that out too?
Everybody gossips. Everybody stirs the pot from time to time. It’s human nature, but it can also be destructive, especially when it’s done maliciously. You can hurt others and yourself. Here’s how to stop gossiping—or at least get a handle on your meddlesome ways.
First, forgive yourself
What we’re not gonna do is beat ourselves up, OK? Maybe you repeated a secret or shared an all-out falsehood and landed yourself and others in hot water, but you’re not a totally evil person. You’re just a person, and people sometimes act like that.
“I think to live in the South is to be well-versed in gossip,” muses the Rev. Rob W. Lee, a public theologian and activist in North Carolina. “We all know what is considered conversation for which type of situation. Personally, I think it’s ingrained in us. In some ways, at least down here, it can be harmless. To understand the essence of the South is to know we’re going to be peering through our blinds to tell our bridge club what was going on down the street the next day. I don’t mean to idealize it, but for me, I’ve always known it as part of the conversation.”
Even if you’re not Southern, gossiping is likely part of your life, if not your culture. Spanish-speaking people even have a word for gossipers: “Chismosos.” It’s baked into so many cultures because it’s part of the human experience. You’re not alone, nor are you morally bankrupt, if you’ve felt compelled to detail an acquaintance’s personal business to someone else.
“I did gossip and I still do,” declares one Michigan woman who asked to be identified as Pearl. “I think gossiping is natural and part of human life. I would say that gossiping isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just what you gossip about.”
Let’s talk about that.
Know the difference between harmless and harmful gossip
So Rev. Lee thinks a lot of gossip is “harmless,” and Pearl agrees. She points out, however, that there are exceptions to that, so giving yourself some grace only extends so far once you recognize you’re about to cross a line. Pearl says she likes to share news about her own life with people and is frustrated when she realizes they already know the news she’s about to tell them. She points to a an ex-boyfriend’s recent tirade on social media (Lifehacker reviewed some screenshots). He went after her and her new boyfriend pretty seriously in a way that crossed the line from gossip into a direct attack. What was gossip was how quickly screenshots of and links to the rant spread among Pearl’s acquaintances. By the time she reached out to people to gently ask them to ignore or block her ex, they already knew all the ins and outs of the public, one-sided battle, which was plenty embarrassing.
Of course, when her ex posted about her publicly, he made their past relationship issues everybody’s business. It’s not against the rules to discuss publicly-available information, but here’s where you need to ask yourself if signal-boosting something like this is harmless or harmful. It’s a judgement call, and it can be a tough one to make. Every situation is different, so consider that it might be best to err on the side of not discussing people’s personal lives at all.
“There are limits, and there are some things that you shouldn’t share depending on what it is and what is sensitive to people,” Pearl says, stressing that it’s totally up to you to make those calls and you need to spend some serious time thinking about the potential ramifications before you blow up your group chat with someone else’s private matters or embarrassing stories.
In other situations, it’s pretty clear when you need to keep your mouth shut and there’s no murky judgement call to make. As an example, Pearl says, “If someone comes out to you, that’s not your thing to share. That’s theirs.”
Rev. Lee acknowledges he’s also been the topic of gossip, and found it “grueling,” not because the gossip was true—it wasn’t, he says—but because it was coming from an uninformed source.“The more sinister implications of gossiping usually signal there can be harm done to people who are the subject of gossip,” he says. “In my own faith, everywhere from the book of Exodus to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, there is real warning against spreading gossip as it can do harm.”
Remember that you probably don’t have all the facts. The people who shared the screenshots of Pearl’s ex’s rant didn’t have her side of the story, but by the time she was able to give it to them—after dealing privately with the immediate fallout with her ex—they had already come to conclusions based on only half of the information. There will be times when you hear something and never get the full story. Remind yourself not to perpetuate half-truths and falsehoods.
Gossiping isn’t just sharing information, either. It’s prying information out of others or asking questions you have no business asking. Don’t get angry if someone else is withholding a third party’s private information from you. Don’t put them in a position to gossip or break someone else’s trust. Instead, find some solace in the fact that the secret withholder is a vault and won’t go gossiping about you.
How to stop the cycle of gossip
You don’t have to stop talking about other people entirely. That’s not realistic, and it’s not even fun. Still, practice showing restraint: When you hear a piece of gossip about someone, go into journalism mode. Reach out to them for their version of events. If you’re too scared to do that, or if it seems too forward, that’s a good sign that you shouldn’t be repeating whatever you heard. If you can’t talk about it with the person at the center of the story, you shouldn’t talk about them to anyone else.
“I think the key is honesty, transparency, and owning up to a fault if you are called out. That’s what leads to concrete change in conversation,” says Rev. Lee.
Not to swerve into the good reverend’s lane here, but let’s get biblical. We started this piece with a TikTok quote, but we’ll close out with one from Jesus Himself: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”
You don’t want your business spread around, especially by people who don’t know the full story, so don’t do that to anyone else. Deal in facts only. And here’s a fact for you: Peddling partially true or wholly false information can hurt other people and tarnish your reputation. So don’t do it. May the next thing someone says behind your back be that you’re a trustworthy friend and a great secret-keeper.