Handling the office gossip traps

2009-03-12 00:00

I know that I have a poor memory and not just because I cannot remember when I last got paid my salary or when my next lobola instalment is due. It’s just that my memory and senses reject matters which are not my concern, especially office gossip. Those who participate in this pastime seem to know all about what is going on in and around the company.

My brother from another mother could remember how the managing director was dressed last Friday and even noticed that he had on yellow socks. When the office tea girl was pregnant he was at it again and even claimed that he knew the “suspect” responsible.

At times, office gossip may seem like harmless chatter, but if you happen to make an innocent comment, it is likely to be broadcast in a different version faster than the news channel can broadcast it. And in case you have a moment of weakness, do not repeat what you have heard unless you enjoy being stabbed with your own kitchen knife. My brother from another mother found this out when he made an innocent comment about one of his workmates.

That’s why I reminded him of rule number one: do not participate in office gossip or hang around the perpetrators. To do so is to perpetuate it and you belittle yourself. Always ask yourself about your motivation when discussing others in a personal way.

Sometimes you will end up overhearing or being involved in a conversation. This will occur from time to time, unless you become completely antisocial at work. The only thing you can do is to say nothing. Do not agree or disagree because that will make you an accomplice to the gossip and office gossipers are no martyrs — they always take others down with them.

“What if I happen to be the subject of the gossip? Should I just ignore it?” asked my brother from another mother. The best thing is to arm yourself with the facts. Is there truth to the tall tales? Sometimes there’s a sense of truth and this should be uncovered before confronting the gossipers with facts rather than emotions. Look for factual answers from those who are in a position to give definitive and accurate answers. If the gossip is touching on your private life, the tactic is to inform the gossiper that you are prepared to follow up the gossip with the targeted person. This will let the gossiper know that the information is going back to the targeted person and the gossiper will likely retract what he or she has said or apologise for it.

One has to keep in mind not to chastise gossipers as they thrive off a reaction and if you attempt to put a stop to it through a confrontation, chances are that things will not work out in your favour. Not only will the gossiper begin to bad-mouth you and perhaps even make things up about you, but there’s a good chance that others will believe him or her.

At times we have our own bad days, no doubt, either with our workmates or our superiors, but the worst thing to do is to run off at the mouth to the first person you run into. In anger we tend to say things we don’t mean, but what we sometimes don’t realise is that once things are said, we can’t take them back.

If anyone ever asks you what you think of someone, stop the gossip trap by telling the gossiper this: “I feel uncomfortable talking about X while she’s not in the office. Let’s wait until she can be with us to continue this discussion.”

Normal office discussion should keep references to other people friendly and supportive, and should not pick holes in another person’s character or invade his or her private life. Such gossip may create a hostile work environment and turn the office floor into an obstacle course of mistrust. In fact, once you are labelled a gossiper, you may never be trusted again.

Office gossip is one soap opera that does not have a good ending.

• Tiema Haji Muindi is a Kenyan journalist based in Durban.

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