Perhaps you’ve heard of the common ice-breaking activity known as “Telephone.”
The game is simple: Participants form a line or a circle, the first person whispers a sentence into the next person’s ear and the sentence is passed in whispers until everyone has heard it. The last person then repeats out loud whatever sentence he or she heard, after which the first person repeats the original sentence, which often has been mangled during the transmission.
The final version of the sentence is often fairly ridiculous and draws a lot of laughs, until people realize similar situations occur every day, often about things that are not laughing matters.
“That’s basically how I define gossip. The truth gets twisted and it gets so far from the truth that its not reliable to talk about,” said 16-year-old Terry Skerrett, a member of St. Mary of the Lake Parish in Ontario.
There’s a popular perception that gossip is normal and harmless, but that’s not always true, said Dr. Elizabeth Meeker, a psychologist at Coordinated Care Services Inc. in Rochester. Meeker provides support to the Monroe County Office of Mental Health and works with families and young people.
“I think (gossip) is harmful when someone’s being targeted, and in the process of the gossip their reputation is harmed or they’re being humiliated in some way,” Meeker said. “I think there’s a difference between friends talking amongst themselves and trying to get things figured out, and a malicious spreading of rumors about someone.”
In fact, gossiping actually is one of the most common forms of bullying, said Kathleen Steinbacher, caseworker and community-education staff person for Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes. Many people mistakenly think bullying is limited to such physical actions as beating someone. Another popular misconception is that bullying is an acceptable and unavoidable rite of passage, Steinbacher noted.
Like other forms of bullying, however, gossiping also can cause harm to its victims, Meeker and Steinbacher agreed.
“As a consequence of the rumor, depending on what it’s about, they can feel a sense of shame. They can feel very isolated. People might not want to talk to them anymore. That can lead to feelings of depression,” Meeker said.
The targets of gossip also may experience feelings of loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem and, in extreme cases, may even have thoughts of suicide, Steinbacher added. Many students even stay home from school because they’re so afraid of being bullied or picked on, and the harmful effects of being a target of malicious gossip can be long-lasting, she said.
Carol May, youth minister at St. Mary of the Lake, once heard a middle-school teacher explain to her students how difficult it is to undue the damage caused by hurtful words.
“She gave the students a paper plate with a grape on it and asked them to think about something they said and how easily it slipped out, and then asked them to squash the grape,” May said.
The teacher then asked her students if it was easy to squash the grape, and they said it was, May continued.
“Then she asked them to put the grape back together. That was about as easy as undoing one’s words,” she said.
Whenever someone intentionally starts a rumor about someone else or adds fuel to the fire of an existing rumor, they’re purposely hurting the rumor’s target, Meeker said. In many other cases, people perpetuate rumors and gossip without realizing how harmful it can be.
“I think part of it is we live in a society where gossip is everywhere around us. We live in a society where everyone knows what Britney Spears or Paris Hilton is doing. Maybe their intention isn’t to be hurtful, but they kind of participate in what was being spread around without stopping to think it would hurt someone,” Meeker said.
In today’s information age, a single nugget of gossip can be spread to dozens, or even hundreds, of people in the blink of an eye through instant messages, e-mails and text messages, making it even more likely for people and their reputations to be harmed, Steinbacher said. Most schools don’t allow students to use cell phones during the school day, but that doesn’t stop many students from sending covert text messages anyway, Terry said.
“One thing can happen in one part of the school, and 10 seconds later the whole school knows about it,” he said.
When Meeker talks to a teen who’s found himself or herself the unwilling target of malicious gossip spread via an electronic device, she always suggests the teen document the incident by keeping a copy of the message. She encourages the teen not to respond to the gossip, however, because the perpetrator might then spread the response around the same way the gossip was sent. She also encourages teens to tell an adult about the incident.
Terry once accidentally spread a rumor about a friend, he said. When the friend confronted him about it, Terry realized what he’d done and felt terrible about it, and he now makes a conscious effort not to spread gossip or rumors.
“I can’t help it if I hear bits and pieces of it, but I don’t repeat it,” Terry said. “I don’t believe in talking about people unless they’re there and can give me the truth about it. I won’t believe it until I hear it from the person’s mouth.”