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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 26, 2006

Jab of gab

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

Psst! Universal pastime can ruin relationships, even your reputation.

Gannett News Service Illustration

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  • Get plugged in to the grapevine.

  • Listen more than you speak.

  • Don't use e-mail to spread gossip. It's a permanent record. Watercooler conversation evaporates into thin air.

  • Don't blow off steam about a co-worker, boss or office situation by e-mail.

  • Keep confidences, unless they are violations of your organization's ethics policy.

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    In honor of George Washington's birthday last Wednesday, some words of wisdom from our first president:

    "Speak not injurious words, neither in jest nor earnest. Scoff at no one, although they give occasion."

    "Speak not evil of those who are absent, for it is unjust."

    Source: George Washington's handwritten copy of "The Rules of Civility," now in the Library of Congress

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    Terry Yoshinaga, an attorney in private practice, admits to sneaking a peek at the gossip rags when she's in the line at the supermarket, checking out the Angelina-Jennifer cat fight or whether Britney is pregnant again.

    Not that she's a gossip nut or anything. She can sit through lunch at The Plaza Club downtown and not dish, even though the exclusive business club is the place to get the latest.

    Rumors can be irresistible. But and don't tell anyone we said so gossip, the vice of millions, is getting a makeover as it winds its way through the grapevine. Research shows that while in business it helps to be plugged in, you don't want to be perceived as a gossip in polite society.


    For purposes of this story, we're talking about gossip, not "bearing false witness," or spreading lies and slander. Those, ethicists will say, are never to be tolerated. So when it comes to gossiping, who are the worst offenders? Yoshinaga knows.


    "Men don't call it gossip; they call it 'discussion' or 'networking' or 'helping a buddy to let them know what they need to know to succeed' or 'telling them to watch out because that person may be a problem,' " Yoshinaga said.

    Some will admit it readily.

    "I think it is like air and water, we curl up and die without it," writes attorney Jim Wright in an e-mail. "More nutritious than taro and much more abundant not subject to noxious pests or genetic engineering."

    Last August, The New York Times reported an observation that we devote a fifth to two-thirds or more of our daily conversation to gossip "and men appear to be just as eager for the skinny as women."

    Besides men, who else does gossip?

    Just about everyone.

    "Long-term studies of Pacific islanders, American middle-school children and residents of rural Newfoundland and Mexico, among others, have confirmed that the content and frequency of gossip are universal," The Times reported.


    There's a catch, of course isn't there always? While just about everyone does it, that doesn't mean you should. Because gossip can take a toll on those you're talking about, and it can also speak ill of you.

    Michelle Mazur is an assistant professor in the speech department at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa who studied gossip. The research, reported in 2003, looked at gossip as social cohesion a method for building bonds, especially at work and as reputation buster.

    Researchers designed an experiment testing likability, trustworthiness and credibility. They had college-age "confederates" experiment with gossip: They chatted up people they either knew or didn't know.

    Then researchers tested whether the confederate was using positive gossip ("You know that girl? She's so smart! I heard she got into Harvard Law!") vs. negative gossip ("That girl is so stupid. I heard she applied to Harvard, as if she'll ever get in!").

    The results surprised even Mazur.

    "Overall, it didn't matter if (the gossip was) positive or negative, it decreased their likability," she found. Gossipers scored lower in the other two variables, as well.

    Mazur said she expected to find that people who gossiped with positive news would be seen more positively, but that wasn't the case. Good or bad, gossiping takes a toll on relationships.

    "We don't want our friends to gossip," she said. "They violate our expectations when they do."

    Gossiping to build social bonds "might not be the best way to go," said Mazur, adding: "Gossip's bad. The interesting thing about gossip: It's something we all participate in, but at the same time it can have these very negative effects on relationships. When we're gossiping with a friend, they may see us as less trustworthy."


    Can gossip ever be good?

    Workplace studies are documenting evidence that office gossip isn't all bad, because being "in the know" can help with performance and even serve as survival strategy.

    Two weeks ago, a Wilmington, Del., News Journal article reprinted in this newspaper's business section reported on the way "schmoozing aids in decision-making, polices bad behaviors and stores knowledge crucial to understanding certain situations."

    In other words, gossip can be a form of social bonding that reinforces ethical standards and is used to pass on information to others in the group.

    Watercoolers may be the place where workers find out information that the PR department hasn't "spun."

    "In the corporate world, you have to go through certain channels," said Lehua Lilinoe Coloma, a reservations agent for Hawaiian Airlines.

    The coconut wireless can be a lot faster, such as when people coming to pick up passengers call to ask why a plane has been delayed. That call comes into the office before the notice of a late arrival, and can be passed on to other workers, so they're ready to adjust.

    Beyond the steel-and-glass towers, Sister Joan Chatfield, the head of the Institute for Religion and Social Change, knows gossip even takes place in churches, and the chancery office here in Honolulu.

    While it's part of the human condition, however, certain institutional characteristics can contribute to the phenomenon.

    "Gossip happens wherever there's not shared leadership," said Chatfield, a Maryknoll nun.

    When leadership is expanded, when leaders understand "they're simply the agents for the group to go forward," that their higher salary means they have more responsibilities but share what they can, then gossip won't be as prevalent, she said.

    Conversely, when leaders feel they own the organization and don't give their subordinates the information they need, gossip blossoms.

    "(When leaders) don't share, people create the stories in a vacuum," Chatfield said.


    Gossip can deteriorate group cohesion, points out Mazur; but what about celebrity gossip? Why does this multibilliondollar enterprise captivate so many of us?

    Mazur points to the voyeuristic factor.

    "We see celebrities, they're beautiful, rich, famous, and we want to know what their life looks like," said Mazur, who uses TomKat and Jen & Ben examples in class when discussing relationships. "It's something all of us can relate to."

    Mazur cited the German concept of schadenfreude taking pleasure in other people's suffering: "Who better (to scoff at) than celebrities, who have it all?"

    We don't buy the same number of magazines with cover stories about star couples who are doing well, she said: "Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, do we even care? If they were more dysfunctional, they'd get more press."


    While Chatfield, the Maryknoll nun, finds harmless gossip "like a little salt on the pablum," there's always an element of danger.

    "It's when you start eating the salt when you get into trouble," she said.

    Chatfield recalled the story of a teacher who was nearly fired because of inflated gossip: A student heard something about another faculty member, and by the time the story got to the principal, the soft butter of innuendo had turned into a hard can of reputation tarnish.

    "We found the student who started it," Chatfield said. "He didn't have a clue about the impact. ... People's images are changed."

    Chatfield was reminded of the story of the feather pillow: Someone releases the feathers to the wind. Can you bring back one feather? Perhaps. But you can't gather up all of them.

    Lori Palatnik and Bob Burg's book, "Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate It from your Life and Transform Your Soul," tells the full story of that 19th-century folk tale. They end their book with suggestions to only pass along positive talk, and never to entertain gossip.


    Hawai'i has its own version of keeping gossip to a minimum, the pidgin adage, "No talk stink."

    Coloma, the reservations agent, used to live in Hilo, and she knows how quickly gossip can ricochet through a small town.

    "People do, but not intentionally," she said. "Of course, there are some people who do it to be mean, but I'm assuming (in Hilo) it's not a big percentage. But it's a small community, and everyone's in everyone else's business anyway."

    She found the double standard here on O'ahu as well: People don't like being the subject of others' gossip, but want to hear it themselves.

    Asked about "talking stink," Yoshinaga, the attorney, thought for a minute. Then she put it this way, "We don't talk stink. We just tell the truth," she said with a laugh.