Recently the accidental death of a childhood friend of my brother's resulted in an outpouring of emotion in the small community where we were raised. With the advent of social media, public opinion of private citizens has been given a platform that used to be contained to idle chit-chat and whispers in the grocery store. While reading everything available about this friend and his tragic, untimely death, it was incredibly striking that no one sharing their thoughts online gave anything but the most glowing praise of how he had lived his life. If you read message boards and comment sections of newspapers, you know that it's rare even when someone has died to not find at least a few unpleasant comments. The reason for such a positive response was made obvious by a number of comments that I read which all contained the same basic message, "He never had a bad word to say about anyone."
In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie gave the advice "Never criticize, condemn or complain." This is the pre-emptive advice I give to people looking for tips on handling rumors about themselves. Yet anyone putting this advice into action will quickly learn there is a great deal of pressure from others to participate in gossip. It's a favorite past time of many, and it's no surprise that some people just expect everyone to find talking about others to be a delightful source of entertainment.
There are many ways to shut down gossip when someone tries to draw you in and get you involved in talking about others. Ideally, you can do so subtly and without making anyone feel you are criticizing their choice to spread rumors. Sometimes that isn't an option. Here are a few ways to wriggle out of a sticky situation when someone tries to use you as a sounding board for gossip:
Change the subject - It's as simple as saying "Huh." then launching into another topic
- Ask them a question about themselves or a recent event
- Tell them something interesting happening in your own life
- Not so subtle: Talk obviously about the weather "I hear it's hot in Texas in the Summer" or say "How about that local sports team"
Excuse yourself - This works on the phone or in person
- Suddenly "remember" that you have an important phone call to make
- Step away to the bathroom and arm yourself with a new topic for when you return
- Say "Huh. We'll, I've got to run. It was good talking to you."
Say Nothing - It's amazing how effective this can be in shutting down gossip
- Look into their eyes, smile gently and say nothing at all.
- Seal your lips and mimic turning a key to lock them
Be Direct - When all else fails just tell the truth
- "It makes me uncomfortable to talk about others like this. It isn't my business and I wouldn't want to be the subject of it myself."
- "I don't really know anything about that situation, and I feel better keeping it that way"
- "Sometimes when I hear these things I wonder what people are saying about me."
- "It's easy for these these to get twisted around. Who can say what really happened? It feels wrong to speculate."
After time, it will become clear to others that you do not participate in gossip. It won't stop others from gossiping, but turning it away repeatedly will eventually keep others from trying to bring gossip to you.
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