Are you a gossip?

"Have you heard? The school principal apparently can't keep his hands off the staff. Lindy's cousin's the secretary there and she told me. And what's more, Christie's daughter's pregnant – and she's only 16."

Pretty shortly, the story will be doing the rounds that Christie's daughter's pregnant – with twins – and that the school principal is the father.

But are we born gossipers?

Yes, we are, says psychologist Frank McAndrew, a professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., McAndrew has done a lot of research on gossip. One thing he's quite sure about is that it is here to stay.

"We can be moralistic about it and say only small people gossip, or people with nothing better to do. But I just think it's wired into us."

"In prehistoric times", McAndrew explains, "people lived in small groups. How well you did socially, by that I mean how successful you were at attracting mates and reproducing, depended, to a great extent, on your social skills and knowing what other people were up to," McAndrew says.

So, if gossip keeps us up to date with what's happening, where's the problem then?

"When people hear a rumour and they add things to it and repeat the story as fact, a lot of people can get hurt in the process," says Cape Town psychologist, Ilse Pauw. "Knowledge gives people a sense of power, and being able to relate a juicy bit of gossip about a third person gives them a temporary sense of superiority. So the temptation is very big to embroider the story and enhance this sense of power."

"This can be very hurtful to people, whether the rumours are unfounded or not. Very often, even if the rumours are untrue, the stories will persist for years, causing real problems for the people concerned. And yes,k some people gossip all the time about others, because their own lives are so dull."

So what can you do to minimise the damage of gossip?

Gossip as little as you can. This is difficult, as often you will be surrounded by people who are gossiping. Take care not to be the instigator of a session of gossiping – if you gossip often about other people, believe you me, they will return the compliment. What goes round, does indeed come round. And what better gossip is there than about someone who always has much to say about the way others conduct their lives?

Don't repeat unfounded rumours. If you are unsure about the truth of a story, don't repeat it. Rumours have a tebdency to pick up weight as they go along – don't make yourself guilty of this.

Gossiping at work is downright dangerous. Gossiping at work is a bit like lighting a box of matches in a petrol station. Work is a closed environment and gossip will almost always get back to the person concerned. Gossiping at work is simply unprofessional – don't make yourself guilty of it. It could cost you your job.

Confront the person who has been saying things about you. If someone has been spreading rumours about you, confront them – even if you are unable to stop the rumour, it will, at least, send out the message that you will not take this lying down. This person will think twice before spreading any new rumours about you.

Keep a secret to yourself. If you don't want anyone to know something, keep it to yourself. Tell it to even one other person and you've let the cat out of the bag. Then the secret no longer belongs to you.

Make sure who is trustworthy. We all need an outlet at times. If you tell a friend something small, and it hasn't done the rounds within a few days, you can probably trust this person. But be careful, sometimes even trustworthy people can be tempted to gossip.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated 2012)

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