I recently published an article about the downside of gossiping at work. But that might raise the question “What exactly is the difference between gossip and conversation?” And because there can be a lot of hard feelings as you venture into that downside territory, I think it’s a question well worth exploring.
Also, while we’re at it, it’s worth looking at the nature of gossip itself. Is all gossip necessarily bad? Can there be gossip that’s simply fun and harms no one? Or are you just kidding yourself if you think gossip can be harmless.
So what exactly is gossip?
Basically, gossip is talking about the details of other peoples’ lives behind their backs. And maybe adding a few things that aren’t for sure real, just to spice things up.
But not everyone agrees that all gossip is bad. Nor where the line is when it comes to the precise difference between gossip and conversation.
A few things we do know about gossip:
- Sometimes gossip is intentionally meant to harm someone for the gossiper’s own purpose.
- Or it’s discussing another person’s faults and missteps (often with some Schadenfreude), even if you’re not actually looking to hurt them.
- Either way, you’re still digging into the details of someone else’s life and making it your business.
- It also can be used to try to make the gossiper feel important or get an advantage of some kind.
- Even if no harm is meant, gossip can turn rumors into facts — and that can wind up hurting people.
- Gossipers don’t always realize that they are gossiping. “It’s just conversation.”
- But, let’s be honest, gossip can also be fun.
- Still, gossip can come back to bite you.
So what is the difference between gossip and conversation?
I’m not sure everyone’s line is the same. In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. But for me, it might come down to two parts:
- The question of purpose or intention. Some say it’s not gossip if there’s a useful purpose to talking about someone, even if it is “behind their back.”
- Are you really digging into the details, or just sharing something you heard — clearly said that way — to further the conversation.
Then again, isn’t it ok just to talk about people with no special purpose in mind? We certainly don’t want to be constantly looking over our shoulders for the gossip police.
Example of conversation about someone else – not gossip
Mary: It looks like Steve is getting the promotion I wanted. But I did more than he did on the last two projects. And everyone told me I saved the day when I found that mistake before we made the Watkins presentation. Why doesn’t our boss recognize my work?
Diane: Oh, I’m sorry, Mary. Is Steve’s promotion for sure?? If so, maybe it’s because Steve has been here longer. And I think he’s had more experience in the specific areas the new position requires.
Still, if I were you I’d talk to the boss and ask her. Maybe you still have a chance. At least this way you’ll know what she expects for the next time.
And now the same example as gossip
Mary: I just heard that Steve is getting MY promotion. I don’t get it. Everyone knows he’s lazy and cuts corners. And I think it was Steve who made the mistake on the Watkins presentation — the one I found and saved his butt.
Diane: Did he really? That’s so unfair. You deserve the job. And I’ve heard that Steve once asked the boss out. Who know what’s going on there!!
Mary: Wow. I never knew that. You know, I think I’ve seen him roll his eyes when she’s talking in meetings. There must be something there. Or maybe he has something on her.
Wish we knew the real story. I bet that’s why I didn’t get the promotion!
A few more thoughts
Look. When it comes to the difference between gossip and conversation, you’re the only judge of what feels right to you. And sometimes it just feels good to get some things said out loud.
In these two examples, one had a useful purpose: to set up the conversation and provide some information for the point being made. But the other was purely dishing the dirt — and sowing some unproven rumors.
And, although a little gossip can be fun in the moment, getting caught up in all that negative muck doesn’t make you feel better in the long run. It just sits inside, helping feed your less helpful emotions.
Just remember that things you say, even in innocence, can go on to have a life of their own. And, innocent or not, your words about someone else can one day come back to bite you in the end!
Please feel free to add your thoughts. Have you ever been hurt by gossip?
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