how can I stop gossiping at work?

A reader writes:

I need advice about a difficulty with my job: gossip. This is my own fault. I would like to say that I have been unwillingly sucked into gossiping/complaining with my coworkers about other coworkers. However, I am ashamed to admit that the truth is I have been a willing participant. But now I want out! Because my department is very small, I really risk my complaints getting back to one of my other co-workers, deeply hurting them, and damaging my reputation. I’m beginning to think that this is a silly question because the answer seems obvious – just stop participating, right? I have started to not say anything when my co-workers complain to me and just nod along. But, I would like to get to the point where no one includes me in their complaining/gossiping at all. What can I say or do to get myself out of this situation?

You can read my answer to this question — and four others! — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. Bend & Snap*

    My last workplace was super gossipy and malicious, and my current workplace is not at all. It’s so easy to get sucked into the toxic gossip culture and in my experience, it makes it really hard to be happy at work and easy to be stressed.

    I love working somewhere where I can take things at face value, not worry about whether I’m liked or not, and get my work done effectively without reacting to real or perceived tone or intent by my colleagues.

    1. Bend & Snap*

      Meant to say–I’m happier knowing I never have to worry about something I said getting back to someone. I try to only practice “good gossip.”

      So if someone says “Oh do you know Jane?” with kind of a sneer, I’ll go “Yes, she’s been amazingly helpful with X!” or “Not personally, but I’ve heard she’s really good at Y!” all peppy and oblivious. That tends to cut negative talk off at the pass.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        That’s awesome. I want to be like you when I grow up. :)

        I’m serious, though, I’m trying to be more like that, but I can still be kind of snarky. But at least when I discuss clients or coworkers with my closest coworkers, I usually say things that wouldn’t be too horrible if overheard, like “Can you believe that Sansa changed her mind AGAIN on the teapot handles? Now she wants it back the way we originally suggested it! Oh well, at least they keep us busy, I guess!”

        1. yebraqep*

          A few years ago, I realized my circle of friends were all pretty snarky. They felt better about themselves by gossiping about others. Since that realization, I’ve been “between friends”. :D

      2. GreenTeaPot*

        Yes! This is the way to do it. It gets the message across without making the others feel bad for gossiping. You have to work with them, so it’s best not to come off as Goody Two Shoes.

      3. Mando Diao*

        I do the same thing. Whenever someone tries to draw me into gossip, I say, “Aw, I like Jane!”

    2. Biff*

      I agree with you that it’s painfully easy to get sucked in. I have this problem myself — I want to be a good person, I want to help and emotionally, I feel like commiserating/listening are the ‘right’ think to do. The problem is that misery is looking for company, not solutions. I ultimately had to ask to be moved away from the person who was consistently instigating uncomfortable chit-chat at my current job.

      However, at my previous job, the gossiping was really the result of a bad situation that no one could change. The COO at a small company was a giant ass. He constantly threatened to fire people, he made an effort to make people feel bad about getting raises, he played favorites, he told cringe-worthy stories about how he treated his wife. It created a terrible work environment, but as the economy was utter crap, people couldn’t leave and they turned to gossip instead, to relieve the pressure. At another job, I noticed that about 6 months after a bad boss left, the level of chit-chat and gossip dramatically dropped. So, in my mind, there is some correlation there. If a place is backstabby, gossipy or whiny, it seems to me that there is typically a nasty ‘pain point’ that everyone eventually runs into. So to me, gossip might very well be a red flag.

      1. Biff*

        I guess what I’m saying is…. figure out what triggers you to want to gossip — it will make it easier to not do so.

        1. Teapot*

          Yes. Usually the other person keeps their job and you are out on the limb. Tell them you are too busy to talk. Be very careful who you trust. Your coworkers will rat you out as soon as look at you, then won’t even reply to your emails if you are cut and they still are employed. Or they will reply and complain about their work, when you have no job. Going forward, I’m not associating with anyone like this.

  2. Artemesia*

    I like Alison’s advice on the gossip but I would also go out of my way to be prepared to small talk about other things. Have something to say about a movie, a book, a local event (not politics) etc so you can make clear you aren’t comfortable with gossip anymore but be able to pivot into pleasant small talk. I find it helpful to have a few things to talk about whenever going into a social situation where conversation might be difficult.

  3. yebraqep*

    Agreed, bravo for trying to stop. Years ago, I worked for a company that underwent massive layoffs (50%) and our VP chose to get rid of almost all the difficult people, regardless of seniority or productivity. He never said this, it was just sort of obvious after the fact. Anyway, once those folks were gone, the productivity and morale of the entire team went way, way, way up after just a few months. There were two folks left who liked to complain (whoa is me, my job is so much harder now). I quickly realized that, I was pretty content day to day, but then after spending any time around these two, I was kinda angry about the workload. So, yea, this was a huge turning point for me. I avoid negative people at all costs. This is a great gift you’re giving yourself.

    1. Teapot*

      Gossiping, which is interpreted as being negative, is a good way to be shown the door or at least be on the HR radar screen. Or, at the minimum, get stuck with a bad label that you can’t remove. You don’t want that.

      I’m glad that you are addressing this early. Save your career rather than trashing your rep and wondering how you will pay your bills.

  4. TheBeetsMotel*

    This is my resolution this year. I ignore/ redirect as much gossip as I can, and refuse to participate myself. I may not be able to change other people’s behavior, but I can certainly change my own.

  5. OriginalEmma*

    A good reminder for me.

    I wonder if there’s been any neurological studies on how gossip affects the brain. It must activate some dopamine receptors or something, because sometime it does honestly feel *good.* Still, refraining from gossip is a good reminder to not mistake pleasure for happiness. Gossiping may feel good but it won’t bring long-term happiness.

    1. Clever Name*

      I remember getting that same “rush” from gossiping/complaining at a prior job. It was a small office and the boss was generally awful to work for. Several coworkers and I spent several weeks on a job site, and we basically bitched about the boss the whole time. At first it felt great (especially knowing I wasn’t crazy or the only one who felt that way). Eventually though the gossip and negativity really started to annoy me and make me unhappy. So yes, I think often it can feel great and like you’re bonding with your team, but eventually it becomes unhealthy and bad for you in the long run.

    2. RKB*

      There’s several ways it can be explained psychologically:

      – the reciprocal determinism theory: some people like hearing gossip, some like speaking gossip, and both feed into each other to create an endless cycle

      – the low self-esteem theory: somebody who is less secure about themselves gossips, receives validation which triggers neurotransmitters that feel good, which enables further gossip

      – the linguistic emergence theory: all social interactions are dictated by language, and language dictates social interactions, thus gossip isn’t just dictated by the person, but the person is dictated by the gossip (this one is far more difficult to wrap ones head around)

      – the parenting theory: growing up in a household where gossip was the norm makes the gossiper unaware that is impolite or unwarranted

      – the clueless theory: they don’t realize it’s gossip, they just relay it as fact

      – the cognitive process theory: the “trigger” is a name, and the brain associates the name with information, which is relayed and interpreted by the addressee as gossip

      (This is what my 6 years of psychological education got me)

      1. Three Thousand*

        I think it has a lot to do with group solidarity and developing loyalties to people in your own in-group by differentiating them from outsiders. Those differentiations can be totally spurious, but that doesn’t matter because you’re making friends and defining yourself socially.

        1. RKB*

          Oh yeah. Sociologically gossip has every reason to exist. Especially with women, who are conditioned to not express anger, and it ends up coming out as relational aggression vs confronting and addressing the problem.

          Submitting to the groupthink (now known as the “circlejerk”) is definitely the largest motivator for gossip!

  6. Rebecca*

    As an aside, I’m now getting a prompt to sign up for Inc on both this site and Evil HR Lady, so I can’t read the article. Has anyone else signed up? Are there any issues to know about ahead of time, or to avoid?

    1. BRR*

      If you have adblock you’ll have to sign up, open it in another browser (which will also limit the number of free reads), or go incognito so that Inc will make ad revenue from their articles.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Inc. pays me by the number of U.S. hits, so I’d prefer people who want to read don’t get around their requirements by reading incognito (which will mean you don’t count toward those stats)!

        Basically, Inc. is saying “to read this, we need you to pay for the content via seeing an ad or registering.” I think that’s fair and hope people will do it if they want to read the content.

        1. Reader from Australia*

          So you don’t get credit when I read it ? I don’t use ad blockers so I thought you would. It seems a little unfair that it’s not global views

          1. AcademiaNut*

            As far as I can tell, some sites get their ads from services that handle international viewership – I will get ads based on the location of my IP address (and they change when I’m travelling). Other sites’ ad providers do U.S. only ads, so readers from outside the U.S. don’t count for revenue. The AAM site provides international ads.

            Some web sites have moved to charging readers from outside the U.S. for access – Slate is one, the Onion is another. U.S. readers get free access, the rest of us have to pay a monthly fee for access.

            Inc didn’t give me any issues until I installed an ad blocker, but the only reason I installed the ad blocker was because of the incessant auto-play audio ads on this site. So I’d rather skip the Inc articles in exchange for a pleasant reading experience here.

  7. KR*

    I really like Alison’s advice for number one. We have a lot of part time employees and ten or so shift supervisors and we all have a tendency to talk a lot about our employees so I try really hard to not be a part of it. I find it clouds my impressions of the employee when I’m managing them. A few months ago I started telling people that it didn’t feel right to talk about so and so when they weren’t here to defend themselves and now people barely even talk about others with me unless it’s need-to-know information and I’m so happy.

  8. S*

    My method has been to talk about how much I like the person they are talking about. Or to defend them in some way. It doesn’t always make me the most well liked person myself, but everyone respects me for respecting everyone else.

  9. Former Retail Manager*

    Avid gossip consumer here and I have to say that over the years, in a variety of work environments, both white collar professional and retail, which tends to be less professional, better than 90% of the gossip that has been told me to me has been accurate, and in some situations turned out to be very helpful in dealing the people who had been gossiped about. I don’t say anything about people that I wouldn’t say to their face, and if it’s true but perhaps not nice, I will say it anyway. If you are known to cut corners with regard to the quality of your work in the name of quantity/improving your stats, I have no problem talking about that, with you or whoever. (Oh, and it’s not as if the manager doesn’t know.) And most of the time, unless you’re living under a rock, I’ve found that the gossip floating around the office tends to be well known, or at least assumed, by the majority anyway. Rather than nodding, she poster could easily follow Alison’s advice or just way “wow / no way / really” or just act totally uninterested. However, if they’ve been an avid participant in the gossip for a long period of time, they should realize that their cohorts may no longer trust them and may drastically limit their interaction. Turncoats aren’t popular. But if OP seeks to merely come in, work, and go home, then no problem.

    For the record, I much prefer small talk about positive/fun topics rather than the negative stuff about co-workers. It does tend to become a vicious cycle and never resolves anything. And who doesn’t love talking about their favorite TV shows/books/pets/awesome new high heels/etc.?

    1. Bend & Snap*

      In my mind I’m separating malicious/spiteful gossip from actual workplace rumblings. There are lots of instances in my current role where I’m given an off-the-record heads up about staff changes, product issues, etc. and that information is always helpful.

      Not helpful is the type of gossip that’s just bashing people, untrue, or designed to undercut someone. Someone on my team got really ill at a trade show a couple of years ago and ended up in the hospital. (It was a stomach bug). A bunch of people started spreading the rumor that he had a mental breakdown. That kind of garbage should never, ever happen.

  10. Stranger than fiction*

    Funny this should come up. I have a coworker who is also a friend now. She is awesome outside of work but at work has some bad habits including constant gossip and negativity. In the past I probably commiserated a bit too much because she does have some valid points but about six months ago I decided I was tired of it. Rather than the bandaid method, I just gradually started a combination of deflecting and changing the subject. For example, she used to constantly complain about a couple of teammates, so I started saying “well, if your boss doesn’t care she doesn’t care just keep doing your job”, then change subject. She’s now decreased the amount of complaining. Also, we get together for drinks now and then and do some venting there instead.

  11. Laura*

    This is the easiest time of year to make this kind of change because you can say “I made a New Year’s resolution to talk about other people less!”

  12. techfool*

    Re gossiping, I stay out of it without actually saying that’s what I’m doing. I smile and nod until they run out of steam. I think gossip does depend on two or more people fanning the flames.
    By taking a stance on it you run the risk of being ostracised especially if it’s a very cliquey environment. Also, sometimes gossipers do have usual information if you can parse it from the misinformation.

    1. it will happen*

      But I think the article talked about smiling and nodding being part of the problem. That is where I am – I have tried to just be nice and pleasant and not say anything, but that still feels like participating and the gossiper is still gossiping. I am trying to STOP gossip in my workplace because it is very damaging. We have a gossip queen here and she is doing some serious damage.

      1. techfool*

        Change the subject, walk away or say you don’t want to gossip, as per the advice.
        My problem is that I’m new to the firm so don’t want to butt heads yet with those who’ve been there a while. We’ve about a dozen gossipers, and I share an office with one of them. They’ve decided that the reason I don’t complain is because I have an easier job than they do and they have more experience than me. There’s no pleasing these ppl so I don’t try. I don’t manage them though. If I did I’d have to tackle it.

      2. Cnon*

        I believe what AAM, is saying here, is that even nodding and smiling at it, is silent condolence?

        Is this correct, AAM?

  13. Elsajeni*

    To #3, the teacher considering the Catholic school: I also say go for it! There are definitely religious schools out there that only want to hire religious teachers, but in general, they will not hide that fact or wait for it to coincidentally come up in an interview — you’ll find a page in the application that asks you for a statement of belief, or asks about your church affiliation, or something like that. (Also, this is much more common at schools associated with Protestant denominations than at Catholic schools.) My bigger concern would be that they might have a code of conduct or morality clause that you would find limiting — but that’s another thing you can find out more about in an interview.

    1. Mean Something*

      I agree! I would just add that you might find you have more of a challenge with the parent body than with the staff and administration. But many non-Catholics also send their children to Catholic schools because they are often more affordable than secular private schools. You will learn more about the culture and expectations if you enter the hiring process. Since the school sounds like a good fit now, I agree that you should proceed. Good luck!

      1. Mean Something*

        P.S. I didn’t mean that Catholic parents are problematic in themselves, by the way–nothing of the kind! Only that some of them may be more committed to the Catholicism of the school than some of the staff.

  14. OlympiasEpiriot*

    I think it is important to be able to differentiate between malicious rumor and information. I mean, I have known people refer to lettng me know about a death in a family or a coworker (who I liked enormously) getting a diagnosis of cancer as “gossiping”. But, in both cases I really would have wanted to know because I cared about them. I could also offer my support without having to make a big deal about it nor without them having to make a point of telling me when they’re already going through a lot. Ditto to a horrible breakup a colleague went through where someone involved became highly disruptive and intimidating…all in the same industry. Knowing about this enabled several of the members of the company to run interference when at conferences and generally not let anyone involved into our offices.

    If the information-sharing is malicious and — very important — false or irrelevant, then that *is* a problem.

  15. Snowy Day*

    Great topic, I am currently working in an environment with alot (alot!) of bitter gossips. Some of them, when I look at their faces I see years of anger and bitterness carved into unhappy lines and I can’t bear to look at them for long. It is a very toxic place (healthcare). Sadly, this is an organization that has been hit with alot of lawsuits recently due to poor care practices and so – there it is, it is a sad and dysfunctional company.

    But – I just detach, smile (or not) and don’t say much of anything. If drawn into conversation I am very neutral or will speak well of someone, or compassionately. A good method to weed out the evil gossips from perhaps a more well meaning gossip (is there such a thing?) is to speak compassionately about the victim and see how others respond. Most, since they are trying to destroy or put someone down, don’t like that nice stuff and will eventually stop trying to drag me into their cesspool. I am sure they are talking about me of course, but I am not aware of what they are saying – thankfully !

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