Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gossip and Quakers

Martin Kelly raises an important issue on Quaker Ranter and I'm willing to help it go viral (even though he's not asking :)). Here it is:

"Ethnographic Study Looks at Gossip in the Workplace" in the NYTimes:

The earlier studies found that once someone made a negative comment about a person who wasn’t there, the conversation would get meaner unless someone immediately defended the target. Otherwise, among both adults and teenagers, the insults would keep coming because there was so much social pressure to agree with the others.

Some interesting here. They say gossip usually spirals down until someone intervenes to defend or deflect. In one school, gossip set up rival camps; teachers eventually left and student test scores fell.

Friends (and Christians more generally) are officially against gossip, though of course we're not immune and I've seen it act as almost a kind of currency in some settings. But what are the classic Quaker tools for deflecting this natural human tendency and keeping our communities from the downward spirals of camp building? "


Factionalism, favoritism, in-groups and gossip do immense, and I would say, often unacknowledged, damage to Quaker institutions and meetings, as well as in the wider world. I've seen the "mischief making" and I've seen people more often than I'd like to have leave meetings because of it. Mostly, they don't care about the quarrel, whatever it may be, but they do care about the way people act and they are appalled at what they see. As Quakers, as upholders of the community and equality testimonies, we should be fighting gossip and factions (which are patterns for destroying community and equality) at every turn. They are against our core beliefs of how we live out God's word in the world. What do you think causes the problem, and as Martin says, how can we deflect it? What do you think of people stepping forward to protest as soon as it starts? What if you come into a situation where this behavior --and the "in-groups"--are already entrenched?

10 comments:

Kari said...

Hello. I think gossip is hard to overcome because it bonds the gossipers, at least at that moment. It allows people to feel right/righteous, and that's a powerful intoxicant. Plus, negativity breeds more negativity, so once gossip gets started, we tap right into it and find it difficult to pull away.

I've found, though, that when I'm being pulled into gossip, if I say something mild or reasonable, that tends to deflate the gossip. People's volatility cools off. Plus, I'm considered boring, and I'm left out of the next gossip round. :)

Diane said...

Hi Kari,

Thanks for the comment. I think you're right about the negativity.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Diane: thanks for continuing the conversation. Last night my wife and I were talking with a visiting Friend and discussion turned to the things that have driven people we know from Quaker settings. And gossip and not knowing how to deal with anger were at the root of a lot of the stories.

I agree with Kari that gossip is intoxicating but then most poison fruits of the Tempter are. The traditional Quaker caution to stay sober and meek is an important antidote. I could name many people who have left Friends over these issues--people we can't afford to be without. Our work in the world has suffered and our future has been compromised.

A few months ago I was talking with an insider Friend and he decided that I needed to be enlightened about the current internal politics of Pendle Hill, as I'm scheduled to co-lead a retreat there next May. My response is that I more-or-less don't care. Many Friends spend more time worried about these human dramas than about the work that Christ has laid at our feet. My professional career has been hurt by my decision not to participate in internal, in-group gossip. Our attention needs to be on the Spirit on with our neighbors who crave the good news we've been blessed with (and who can help us understand it more fully if they join with us).

Diane said...

Hi Martin,

Yes, you speak my mind on not wanting to know the gossip. Often, I just don't want to know. There have been times when someone tells me so and so has a drinking problem or whatever, and I'm dismaying, thinking, why did you tell me that? Often, it's well intentioned, but I assume if the person in question wanted me to know, he or she would tell me.

Gossip is a form of power: If I poison that person to you, I have power over you and over that person.

Often, gossip is flip, offhand and superficial: It damages by attacking the surface ("She's a bitch; he's socially awkward" And so what, who cares??) without understanding at all the heart of the person in question.

Whatever people may or may not have done in the past, I imagine they don't want that endlessly dredged up. We also have to remember--and Jane Austen is so good with this--that gossip is often wrong. That being said, there are times when it is helpful to know a particular person's bugaboo or wound so as not to inadvertently cause an episode, but the discernment of when to reveal that should be arrived at with prayer and humility, IMHO. It should be rare. I say all this as one who struggles not to gossip.

Diane said...

Hi Martin,

Yes, you speak my mind on not wanting to know the gossip. Often, I just don't want to know. There have been times when someone tells me so and so has a drinking problem or whatever, and I'm dismaying, thinking, why did you tell me that? Often, it's well intentioned, but I assume if the person in question wanted me to know, he or she would tell me.

Gossip is a form of power: If I poison that person to you, I have power over you and over that person.

Often, gossip is flip, offhand and superficial: It damages by attacking the surface ("She's a bitch; he's socially awkward" And so what, who cares??) without understanding at all the heart of the person in question.

Whatever people may or may not have done in the past, I imagine they don't want that endlessly dredged up. We also have to remember--and Jane Austen is so good with this--that gossip is often wrong. That being said, there are times when it is helpful to know a particular person's bugaboo or wound so as not to inadvertently cause an episode, but the discernment of when to reveal that should be arrived at with prayer and humility, IMHO. It should be rare. I say all this as one who struggles not to gossip.

Helen W. Mallon said...

Hi, I'm new to this site. I've been reading a history of "race" and racism --Race, by Marc Aronson--and at the same time helping my (perfectly well-adjusted, thank you very much) daughter deal with a faction of 'popular' girls at her Quaker school. This in-group calls themselves by an acronym made of their first initials, and they're the high profile 'successful with boys' group, etc.

It struck me that the dynamics at her school are essentially the same as what leads, in a much larger cultural context, to racist attitudes, literal exlusion, etc. It's ingrained in us--a point Aronson makes--and the first step is to recognize the 'ism' in oneself.

thanks for the thoughtful post!

Anonymous said...

Gossip is a human temptation, it seems to me, and thus we handle the temptation differently at various stages of our lives. I admit to engaging in workplace gossip in the offices of my youth. Now in my middle age, however, I recognize the tenets I was taught first by my Mother who descended from Dunkard Brethren. Basically it follows the concept that one must not do another harm. Hence, it is important to weigh issues carefully prior to acting. One really should not sue another, etc. Spreading malicious gossip is certainly doing another harm. Now as a Friend, I still find myself biting my tongue daily, and sometimes losing that battle. We all must exercise self-discipline herein. Great thread. Broken Gooding

Heather Madrone said...

Discussions like this trouble me somewhat, because they seem to focus on one form of gossip (the malicious kind) and ignore the many ways in which gossip is the social glue that holds our communities together.

Often, when Friends gather, we talk about what is going on with other Friends -- new grandchildren, illnesses, tough times at work, wonderful things that certain Friends are doing, Friends who seem dispirited or worn out by their work for the Meeting, Friends who seem to be getting frailer.

The purpose of these discussions seems to be to make sure that people don't fall through the cracks, that we help one another through hard times, that we're more understanding of one another when we're struggling.

There's another kind of discussion, where a person is in conflict with another person and needs to talk it out so that they can take constructive action.

I think the thing that separates helpful forms of gossip from harmful sorts is the presence or absence of compassion. When we hold the people we're talking about in compassion, talking can be helpful and constructive. If we just diss them, it clearly can't be.

Diane said...

Helen,

Yes, I think the "in group" dynamic is the same as that which leads to racism and other forms of exclusion. I'm sorry it's happening at a Quaker school and I hope the administration there will deal with it as a "teachable moment."

Heather,

Yes, you make a good counterpoint. I am speaking of damaging, malicious gossip, not the exchange of information. We do need to communicate about who is sick, in trouble, doing well, etc. As you point out, intention is the key. Even "compassion" can be a masquerade, as a friend found out when she sent her child to a Christian school and discovered an in-group of mothers exchanging sensitive gossip in a way that made her uncomfortable, under the auspices of "prayer concerns." But genuine compassion, yes, that's what we need when we talk about others, I agree.

Steve Olshewsky said...

I am reading that little book Titus & wondering why studies show those that gossip are suffering as much as their target as far s how they are thought of or how they think of themselves.