We live in a political moment where we don’t just disagree about matters of policy – we disagree about reality. To some degree, this has always been the case.
Writing in 1922, the American philosopher Walter Lippmann, described the modern human condition as one of living in “pseudo-environments” – mental worlds that define our values, beliefs, and opinions. As a result, he observed that citizens “live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones.”
Nearly 100 years later, we are experiencing this kind of polarization like never before. 24-hour cable news, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and the fracturing of media have made it so that we can each filter our news, entertainment, and social interactions to reinforce our existing beliefs and shield ourselves from oppositional views—not to mention the fake news out there deliberately trying to separate us.
This catchphrase has come to define the modern moment – “fake news.” Anything that doesn’t fit with our reality is now seen as unreal, make-believe, and at the same time, some of the news in our feeds is actually made up. These are crazy days.
There is a serious conversation to be had around how to restructure the media and political institutions to mitigate this problem.
In the meantime, we wanted to explore a different landscape of “fake news.” Sure, there are many people out there consciously spreading “fake news.” But it’s also interesting to look at how we might be doing it every day without really recognizing it.
That’s right, we’re talking about gossip – our ordinary habit of talking about others behind their back. Gossip is rarely based on fact, it’s more of an expression of the stories we make up in our heads about other people.
What is Gossip?
Gossip can be defined in any number of ways. Webster’s defines it as “rumor or report of an intimate nature.” In the book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, the authors define gossip as: “any statement about another that the speaker would be unwilling to share in exactly the same way if that person were in the same room.”
This definition points to the contextual nature of gossip. If I tell my co-worker Gena that “Dave’s feedback on my presentation today was incredibly disrespectful,” it may or may not be gossip. If I don’t share this feedback with Dave, then it’s a clear case of gossip. But if I do share it with Dave, with the same emotional tone, then it is not gossip.
Why bring greater awareness to gossip? After all, it’s often entertaining, even pleasurable, to talk about the faults of celebrities, political leaders, or that person in your social circle who drives you crazy.
The first reason is that gossip almost always arises from stories in our mind, which may or may not be true. So one reason to refrain from gossip is to do your part to curb the spread of “fake news.”
Another reason is that gossip often involves a subtle breach of integrity. In the language of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, when we gossip about someone, we’re treating them as a “mere means” to our own sense of pleasure or superiority. If I tell a humiliating story about someone, I’m using their misfortune as a way to generate laughter, titillate my audience, or make myself feel like I’m better than them.
And while it may be pleasurable in the moment, it almost always leaves a moral stain. For the speaker of gossip, there’s a subtle feeling of guilt that arises. For the people listening, there’s a sense of distrust that follows in the wake of gossip. “If he talks that way about others when they’re not in the room,” they are left thinking, “how does he talk about me when I’m not in the room?”
Need proof? Conduct a quick experiment. In your next interaction with a friend or colleague, dish out some juicy negative tidbit about a mutual colleague or acquaintance. Then check in to see how you feel. If they respond in kind, notice how you feel about their trustworthiness and the strength of your relationship.
Bringing Awareness to Gossip
So how can we become more aware of gossip? The key is mindfulness–training the skill of Notice-Shift-Rewire each time we’re tempted to gossip or each time others begin gossiping. This awareness takes two forms: awareness of speech and awareness of listening.
1) Awareness of Speech
The practice here is simple. Notice when you feel the urge to say something negative about another person – a friend, a co-worker, or even a political figure. And when you notice, pay attention to the physical sensations of gossip. We have found that the urge to gossip often corresponds to an energetic state–a subtle pattern of sensations in the body.
In fact, the urge to gossip is, in many ways, similar to the urge to read about gossip in the form of celebrity tabloids or political chatter. In both cases, we’re drawn to the momentary burst of pleasure that arises from speaking or hearing gossip. And yet it’s a behavior that is always unsatisfying, leaving us with the desire for more.
Noticing the urge to gossip opens the space to Shift your speech. This could be as simple as not saying anything at all or reframing your statement to something you would be willing to share with the other person, were they in the room.
The Shift might also be to follow through on the urge to gossip but to do it with awareness – to gossip consciously. This sounds strange but you may find that it’s impossible and, at times, undesirable to get rid of all gossip. In conversations with your spouse or partner, for instance, saying things about others that you wouldn’t share with them in the room might play an essential role in building trust and intimacy with your partner. Talking through a difficult situation with another family member or a problem at work, for example, may require talking candidly about others in ways that you would not were this other person in the room. In these cases, the goal might not be to end gossip but to simply be more aware and mindful of it.
The final move is to Rewire. Savor the experience of bringing greater awareness to this ordinary habit of gossip.
2) Awareness of Listening
Even if we refrain from gossip, we will undoubtedly encounter it in the speech of others. Whether it’s neighbors, co-workers, or family members, gossip is so common that it’s impossible to avoid. Awareness of listening is the practice of noticing gossip whenever it arises in conversations with others.
Of course, this leads to an important question: when we notice the person we’re talking to gossiping, what are we to do? How are we to respond?
The authors of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership liken this situation to a game of ping-pong: “the speaker and the listener each hold a paddle. If a listener says he doesn’t want to listen and symbolically puts down his paddle, the game is over.”
This is sound advice. And yet it requires discernment and skillful means to figure out how to put down your paddle without shaming the other person. It might involve injecting a positive comment into the conversation, changing the subject, or, at times, making the outright request to not gossip.
The 24-Hour Gossip Challenge
To experience this first hand, see what happens when you bring greater awareness to gossip over the next 24 hours. Pay special attention to your speech and the speech of those around you. See if you can go an entire day without gossiping.
You may find that it’s an almost impossible task to eliminate gossip entirely. But that’s not really the goal of this experiment. The goal is to bring awareness to gossip – to notice where you are contributing to the spread of “fake news.” This simple sense of awareness may not lead you to stop gossiping altogether. But it will help you bring greater compassion, care, and awareness into even the most ordinary conversations.
Share your experiences in the comments below.