Gossip As A Form Of Bullying

by Dr Barbara Louw

Time and again some clients tell me about the devastating effect of gossip on their lives. Gossip is a form of unwellness that is worth unpacking. In this blog, I am answering three questions about this form of trauma: “Why do people gossip”? “What is the impact of gossip”? And “How to deal with gossiping”?

Why do people gossip?

Gossiping is not just innocent, idle talk between friends and colleagues, although it often serves as a means of social bonding. Humans are inherently social creatures, and gossip can create a sense of connection by sharing information about others. This can be a way to enhance the “us against them” mindset. There is no doubt that gossip can be entertaining. People might engage in it to pass the time or as a form of amusement, as long as they are not the subject of the chattering.

Paul Myers, says, “Gossip is like a fired bullet. Once you hear the sound, you can't take it back.”

The darker side of humans is their urge to gain power and control. Some people gossip to assert power or control over others. Sharing sensitive or confidential information can give them a sense of superiority or dominance. This form of gossip is a tool used in bullying and especially cyber-bullying with heartbreaking consequences. The craving to have power and control included the escalation of dominance by adding melodramatic untruths, half-truths and outright lies to the conversation.

Insecure individuals may resort to gossiping about others as a way to deflect attention from their shortcomings or to undermine those they perceive as threats. Unfortunately, people who gossip, because they lack self-confidence, have to keep up their façade of being above the stories they spread. They become more unwell to the extent that they have to keep on gossiping to keep their web of lies intact. “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts (Proverbs 18:8).

Gossiping can be an instrument for individuals to seek validation or attention from their peers or seniors. By sharing information, they may feel affirmed and important within their social circles. They use gossiping to uphold their sense of superiority over others in an “I know something you don’t” kind of game. Gossip also distracts us from the heart of matters. There could be issues worth solving, or conversations worth having

What is the impact of gossiping?

Gossiping causes damage to a person’s reputation. Gossip often involves spreading rumours or negative information about others, which can tarnish their reputation and affect how people are perceived by others. This form of bullying and lies is never innocent, idle talk. Fake news is a form of malicious gossip. In the media, there is a surge of fake news that destroys people’s careers. In essence, gossip distracts people from the heart of matters. There could be issues worth solving, or conversations worth having.

Being the subject of gossip can lead to significant emotional distress, including feelings of humiliation, betrayal, and isolation. This is a form of victimization that leaves deep emotional and spiritual wounds, especially when the gossiper is a friend, a confidant, a spiritual leader or a spouse.

Gossiping breaks down trust and faith. Gossip erodes trust within relationships and communities, including the workplace, schools and churches. When individuals feel they can't confide in others without fear of being talked about behind their backs, it can lead to a collapse in confidence.

The hardest aspect of gossip strains or even destroys relationships. People who are subjected to gossip may find themselves isolated. Although people gulp up juicy stories, others may distance themselves from the victim to avoid being the next target of the gossipers.

Those subjected to gossip have no defence against the rumours that are being spread because they are usually the last to hear the stories that are going around. Most people internalize the relentless rumours and develop negative perceptions of themselves, leading to low self-esteem and self-doubt. People who suffer most from this bullying behaviour are the young and those who are vulnerable due to fragile relationships, health concerns and workplace drama.

Coping with Gossip

Allow me to start with a short folk tale:

There was a man whom the entire village knew to be a gossip. He could not wait to share the juiciest piece of gossip with whoever would listen. It did not matter to him if the stories he spread were true, or not—he never stopped to ask. So, one day, after hearing the rabbi speak about the harm gossip causes, this man went to the rabbi and said, "Rabbi, I am truly sorry for all the pain I have caused with my loose lips. I repent and will gossip no more. Can I be forgiven?"

"Yes," replied the rabbi, "but here is what you must do. Go home. Find a feather pillow. Open the pillow and release the feathers on the wind. Then, come back to me."

The man did as he was told. When he came back, the rabbi said, "Now, go gather all the feathers released from the pillow." The man exclaimed "But that is impossible! They have flown all over the place. I do not even know where most of them have travelled!"

The essence of the story about words is you do not know where your gossip and rumours have travelled. Once words have been uttered, they cannot be taken back."

The first fact about gossip is, it affects you, but it is not about you! Recognize that gossip says more about the gossiper than the person being talked about. Maintaining healthy self-awareness helps you to separate your self-worth from others' opinions.

This is the time to set strong boundaries. Establish clear boundaries with individuals who engage in gossip. Let them know that you're not comfortable participating in or hearing gossip. People who gossip in your ears will gossip about you too. You also need to set boundaries with the people who gossip about you.

Seek support and surround yourself with loyal friends and family members who uplift and validate you. Having a strong support system can help buffer the effects of gossip.

Although anyone can be susceptible to gossip, including those who engage in it, be consistent in dealing with the problem. In other words, don’t start gossiping about the people who gossip about you.

Break the cycle, especially when you are aware of a child being bullied in this way. If a child is subjected to harmful rumours, believe the child in the first place and seek help.

Lastly, be kind to yourself and engage in activities that bring you joy and fulfilment. Cultivate a positive mindset by practising gratitude and self-care. Remember the power of words.

The power of words

Our words are powerful! Our words can be used to build up or to tear down. We can have a positive impact on other people's lives when we use our words for good. Consider how much we appreciate it when someone takes time to express words of gratitude, honour, or praise; or how enriched we are when someone takes a genuine interest in our lives. Conversation that focuses on what is good and honourable can edify other people's lives and help strengthen the community.

There is hope for you. Jesus said, A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory”. Matthew 12:20 NIV.

If you are struggling because of gossip and bullying, you can call Dr Barbara Louw for confidential counselling.