One of the phrases I hear a lot (more than I should — heard it today) in both private and public conversations is “I really shouldn’t say this, but…” When appropriate, I usually cut the speaker off and respond, “Then don’t.“Looked at even somewhat objectively, it’s a pretty amazing telling measure of our societal pressures and the pull that gossip and the taboo has on our lives. The speaker who begins with such a statement clearly has some sort of check in their own minds about the validity or appropriateness of the topic or comment at hand, and yet still overcomes this conscience with a blurted statement.The same measure applies to:
- Jokes: “I hope you won’t be offended by this…“
- Rumors: “I don’t know if this is true or not…“
- Confidential information: “Joe would kill me if he heard me say this…” or “I was asked not to repeat this, …“
- Anything else: “I may regret this later, but…
I’ll lay off the moral standard for why such things are bad form and stick to the communications standard. If there is a chance we can lose our audience with one statement, then that statement is best left unsaid. The trust and pain these statements cause down the road is another reason to keep our mouths shut. Can we really afford to lose friends, clients, associates, supporters, or even strangers over careless comments?While it’s rather easy to train folks to say the proper things, it’s much more difficult to train folks (and practice myself) to NOT say things.
When in doubt, don’t.
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I shouldn’t say this, but… I also believe gossip plays an important role in social behaviour and – indeed – helps to shape the ‘moral standard’ that influences that behaviour and enables us to label certain acts ‘bad form’.Yes, individuals may intend to use it to harm others. Yes, it’s unpleasant or damaging if you are the subject of gossip, particularly if it is malicious or erroneous. However, I believe gossiping is one way humans check on and refine social norms, and establish status and influence. It helps us to make some sense of personal events, and to determine social relationships, by comparing our responses.Importantly, the ‘gossiper’ is as much the subject of our evaluation (as your reactions, and the caveats of the speakers you quote, demonstrate) as are people who are the object of gossip. Gossiping is a double-edged sword. Which is perhaps why it is ubiquitous in human society.My views are influenced by Robin Dunbar’s ideas about the evolution of gossip, and language (for more on his theories see http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1175/is_3_34/ai_73537491).
Andrew:Interesting stuff, and we’re (I think) making the same/similar point from two different approaches. I agree that we judge the gossiper likely as much as the gossip. And it’s because of this that I issue the caution from this issue. We WILL be judged, and have little control over what that might do to the reception of our message. Therefore, if our message matters even just a little and there is any doubt about the reception it will receive, then we cannot risk allowing such comments to get in the way of what we’re trying to say.If trying to make a sale, then having the potential buyer say (or think), “Since you shared that information that seemed like it was confidential, I cannot trust you, and I’ll choose to buy from someone else.” Independent of whether it was gossip, inappropriate, or even true, the PERCEPTION of the comment makes the difference. Thus,”When in doubt, don’t” is a good mantra to follow on questionable comments.Thanks for commenting.Alan