Holidays can be wonderful, but they can also be difficult if family or work relationships are strained. During the holidays, I see many people respond to difficult relationships by isolating themselves (or wishing they could), and I’d like to suggest a different tactic: gossip.
Hold on! I’m not talking about any old gossip. I suggest ethical empathic gossip.
There’s a little back story here. Many years ago, I used to speak out against gossip, because I saw it as a very unhelpful thing. I thought it created bad relationships, because that’s what I saw all around me. However, when I returned to school and studied the social sciences, I learned that gossip is an extremely important social skill — especially in areas where direct communication is hindered in some way.
Gossip helps us figure out the social world: the rules, the relationships, and the secrets. Gossip is an irreplaceable form of informal information gathering.
Gossip is very important, especially in relationships that are troubled. However, gossip can be toxic if all we do is whisper about other people as we try to build allies for “our side” of the conflict. Luckily, if you know how to gossip ethically, you can attain new information about a person you’re in conflict with, and you may be able to get new ideas about how to deal with that person. Skillful gossip can exponentially increase your social awareness, and ethical gossip can help you repair troubled relationships (or at least get a fresh outlook on them).
ETHICAL EMPATHIC GOSSIP
Gossip is an irreplaceable part of social life, communication, and emotional health. Numerous studies suggest that gossip is universal, and is undertaken by people of all ages and both genders. Gossip is the tool we use to convey and understand the unwritten social and emotional rules of each social situation we encounter, and gossip is a way to attain closeness in relationships. Gossip also relieves inner tension — because it allows us to share the emotive and empathic impressions we have about others but are not allowed to mention in public.
Gossip is a powerful, powerful thing, which is why it’s so important for awake people to use it ethically and empathically.
Gossip helps us connect to others, understand human behavior, identify or change our social position, and support (or undermine) rules and set them for others. Gossip is a very powerful thing! For sensitive and empathic people, because so much of what we see is not addressable or mentionable in public, gossip can be a wonderful stress-relieving tool.
However, one big problem with gossip is that it can subtly train us to talk about people, rather than talking to them. We can lose hold of our direct relationship skills, and our relationships can suffer if all we do is talk about people. Gossip can also lead us to invade the privacy of our gossip targets as we telegraph their behaviors all over the place. If we go back to the relationship we gossiped about without addressing the conflict more directly, there will always be this thing hanging out there — this gossipy information that we hope never gets repeated.
Although gossip is necessary, it can be a very messy business if we aren’t ethical and conscientious about using it.
Gossip can also be very messy if we engage in it as a tool of social control. Unethical, unempathic gossip, of the kind you see on entertainment shows, or in cases where someone tries to destroy another person’s reputation, can be extremely endangering. Bullies often use gossip to break down their targets, and propaganda is a form of gossip that governments use to control their people, or to break down the regimes of other countries.
Gossip is a powerful, powerful thing, which is why it’s so important for awake people to use it ethically and empathically (and to avoid spreading or buying into gossip that seeks to control or damage others).
Gossip is as natural to us as breathing. Anthropologists see gossip in humans as a primal tool of socialization and connection — almost like the preening and grooming primates use to form social bonds. So gossip is older than humankind, and it’s necessary. But that’s no reason to let it be unconscious, derisive, or dangerous to others. If you can understand the connection and socialization gossip provides, you can turn gossip into a tool that will support your ethics and your relationships. You can turn gossip into an ethical empathic practice.
As you prepare for more holiday gatherings, and you’re cringing at the thought of being around certain people, find yourself a supportive partner (or a whole bunch of partners!) and use the power of gossip to make real changes in your life. Gossip is powerful, and it can be magical if you know how to use it!
Here are the guidelines for ethical empathic gossip with a supportive friend:
- Identify a person you gossip about consistently, and with whom your relationship has stalled.
- Open the gossip session by acknowledging your trouble in the relationship.
- Ask your friend for help in dealing with your gossip target. Ask for opinions, ideas, techniques, and skills that will help you re-enter the relationship in a different way.
- Go for it — just gossip.
- When your friend gives you feedback, pay attention.
- Close the gossip session with thanks, and then go back to the relationship with your new skills and insights — or let the relationship go if it’s too damaged to survive. Don’t go back in the same old way — because that’s what led to the need for gossip in the first place.
When your gossip is conscious and ethical, you’ll increase your social skills and your empathy, and you’ll become more able to create honest and healthy relationships. Learning to gossip ethically will also remind you that you can ask for – and receive – help in dealing with difficult emotions and difficult people.
Creating a practice for gossip is necessary because gossip needs to have boundaries set around it. It’s a powerful thing, gossip, and you want to wield it conscientiously. It’s also nice to introduce it to your friends so that you can gently ask (as they start to gossip) if they want input, or if they just want to gossip. Naming the gossip brings consciousness to it, and this skill can help you and your friends develop better relationship skills. Having said that, though, it’s still fun to get into a catty gossip fest every now and then!
The cool thing about ethical gossip is that it helps you build stronger relationships with your supportive friends while you deal with the fact that you’ve got a weakened relationship with your gossip target. This holiday season, give yourself the gift of gossip; just make sure it’s Ethical Empathic Gossip!