Just about everyone gossips, and once you start sharing juicy tidbits, it’s hard to stop.
Psychologists have studied the societal uses of gossip – learning from others’ mistakes, knowing who to avoid and developing social rules – but there’s no denying that gossip can be just plain hurtful. “Spreading a malicious rumour doesn’t just hurt the subject of the gossip, but it makes the person gossiping look bad in a rude and immature way,” says Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette expert and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. Talk badly about people too often, and your reputation of being a rumourmonger will make others stop trusting you.
Resisting the temptation to bring up dubious rumours or badmouthing other people is one thing, but things get trickier when you’re talking to a group of gossips. “Sometimes people start saying something benign, and someone makes a comment that initiates a full-blown gossip session,” says Schweitzer. If your conscience tells you the subjects of the discussion wouldn’t like what they were hearing, it’s time to bring that conversation to a close.
When a friend is launching into an offensive story about someone you know, your best tactic is to ask why they’re telling you, says Schweitzer. That will be their first alert that you’re not happy with the discussion. They’ll probably say they just thought you’d be curious, but you can shut the conversation down by showing you don’t want to talk about it. “Say, ‘I don’t appreciate it – let’s change the subject’, or ‘that’s my friend, and I won’t listen to someone badmouthing them,’” she says.
Try changing the topic to a safer choice, like travel plans or current events. If the person goes back to dishing dirt, your body language can make it clear you don’t want to hear the gossip. Cross your arms, and give a firm – not ugly – look that says you’re not interested, says Schweitzer. “If you are letting them know ‘wow, I don’t want to hear this’ and looking around like you want to get out fast, they’re going to get the message,” she says. “You’re not smiling and nodding.”