Sharing the latest gossip–especially on social media–seems like an innocent activity, right? But what if it isn’t so innocent after all? It turns out that “idle gossip” can actually be quite harmful to ourselves, as well as others.
How It Harms Others
Have you ever played the “telephone game?” One person whispers something into the ear of another person who then whispers what they thought they heard into the ear of another person and so on around the circle. By the time it gets back to the original person, the information has usually morphed into something completely different.
Gossip, in real life, is like that game of telephone. A benign comment can morph into something rather malicious. At its worst, someone’s reputation can be destroyed. And, in this age of social media, the destruction can basically be instantaneous. For some, it may seem like a joke, but there is a real person on the receiving end of the “speculative” comments.
This 1953 educational video warns us about the effects of idle gossip and rumors on a person’s reputation:
How It Harms The Gossiper
I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust people who engage in idle gossip all of the time. I am reluctant to share anything about my life with them because I know it will be shared with others. Their constant gossiping has ruined any ounce of credibility with me.
I may rankle some readers by pointing out that the prayer chain at church is sometimes used as a socially acceptable way of gossiping. In the name of being concerned, details are shared so that the others in the prayer chain “will know how to pray.” Again, I am reluctant to share anything with the women who are always volunteering to add my name to the prayer list (not that I don’t appreciate others’ prayers but because it can lead to awkward conversations later).
My outside-the-home job involves a lot of confidential conversations. Faculty and graduate students know that they can come to me to help them successfully navigate professional situations. We often joke that what happens in my office, stays in my office. That trust in me would be broken if I were to start sharing the gist of a consultation over the water cooler.
It’s not necessarily about “keeping secrets.” It’s about being someone others can trust.
How It Changes What We Look At
I’m going to get all psychology geeky on you for a moment… Our brains are constantly processing the stimuli around us to determine what we should notice and what can be ignored. Almost all of it gets filtered out because there is simply too much information for us to handle. This is why people trying to get our attention make things louder, flashier, or brighter. It is also why introverts, like me, easily suffer from stimulation overload (introverts are physiologically more sensitive to stimulation than extroverts).
So, research has shown that negative gossip has an effect on our visual experience. In a study examining the visual impact of gossip, the researchers noted,
Our results… [shows that] information acquired through gossip influences vision, so that what we know about someone influences not only how we feel and think about them, but also whether or not we see them in the first place.
In a nutshell, the researchers noted that the more often we engage in negative gossip, the more we will see the person and seek out information that reinforces the negative gossip. Even when positive information emerges to correct the negative gossip, we will be less likely to believe it…if we even see it in the first place.
Loose Lips Sink Ships
During World War II, propaganda posters reminded everyone that idle gossip overheard by the enemy could lead to the deaths of our service members. Perhaps it is time to reinstate a movement against “unguarded talk.” After all, “idle” gossip can have tragic consequences in today’s world, too.
What are some other ways that idle gossip can be harmful?