Most every town in America, no matter the population, has a rumor mill. However, the rumor mill is one business no community needs according to David Burton, civic communication specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

“The rumor mill is run by volunteers normally that specialize in gossip, but the rumor mill doesn’t turn a profit or generate any tax revenue,” said Burton. “In fact, the only product made at the rumor mill results in hurt lives. Our goal should be to put the rumor mill out of business.”

Taking personal responsibility

Modern research shows that spreading rumors or gossiping is one of the primary ways people jockey for social status or get revenge.

Putting the rumor mill out of business requires individual actions according to Burton. He offers three primary ways to stop gossip in its track and help close the rumor mill.

First, when someone starts to share gossip with you, just change the subject.

“If a conversation isn’t heading in a helpful direction, choose to be the one who changes its course by changing the subject,” said Burton. “Nothing puts a stop to gossip like earning a personal reputation for not spreading gossip.”

Second, say something positive about the person targeted by gossip.

“Remind people who are gossiping that the person they’re talking about has said or done something good by mentioning something specific that’s positive,” said Burton.

Third, confront gossip politely yet firmly. It can sometimes be a good idea to point out missing information too.

“Stand up to people who are being gossiped about by saying that you don’t want to know about the story they’re trying to tell you,” said Burton.

Negative impacts of gossip

According to Burton, there are several negative impacts of gossip on an individual that can damage leaders or emerging leaders in a community.

For starters, gossip will come back to hurt you personally.

“If you are spreading gossip about someone there is a pretty good chance that they are sharing gossip about you,” said Burton. “The basic approach should be that you treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Earning a reputation as a gossip will isolate you because no one will trust you.

“Gossiping reflects badly on you,” said Burton. “In the long run, if you gossip, people will stop trusting you with information.”

Gossip does hurt other people. It can cause people to feel embarrassed and ashamed. An active community rumor mill can claim many victims over time.

Being a gossip tarnishes a person’s honesty and causes them to break promises.

“Often we end up spreading gossip about someone just because it makes a perfect story and then we remember we were asked not to repeat the story,” said Burton. “Breaking a promise impacts your reputation and causes people not to trust you.”

Most importantly, gossip spreads lies, and that makes the rumor mill a toxic business.

“If you’ve ever been lied about and then watched the ensuing gossip spread like wildfire, you know how terrible it feels. Just like the game of telephone, as a story gets repeated things get added and even more falsehoods enter in,” said Burton.

No gossip policies

More businesses are now taking steps to stop a pervasive culture of gossip because it is detrimental to everyone in the business. The same is true for a community.

“In a workplace and a community, gossip destroys morale, creates negative energy and stops people from becoming a united team,” said Burton.

Most research is finding a link between the prevalence of gossip and periods of uncertainty. Others say that in the absence of information, people will fill the void with stories and gossip.

Many companies now define gossip as “anything negative which is said out of earshot of the subject.” Instead, companies encourage employees who have an issue to go straight to the person, rather than sitting around complaining about them.

“What if we did the same thing in our community,” said Burton. “What if, when you hear gossip, you report it and then every gossip has to follow up with the person he was gossiping about.”

A different approach to curtailing the gossip of a rumor mill is to create a community culture where it is safe for people to voice concerns and ask questions.

“What if we communicate that expectation in a community and then actually practice what we preach and hold others accountable,” said Burton.

Psychologists say that when someone is trying to involve you in gossip, the best thing to ask is: “Why are you telling me this?”

According to psychologists, this is effective for a couple of reasons. First, the question immediately disrupts any self-serving motive. Second, it shows the gossip that the person they are talking to is probably none-too-happy about being involved.

“It is an individual responsibility, but just like a stone thrown in a pond causes a ripple that has a wide reaching impact, individual decisions to stop gossip can help shut down the rumor mill in a community,” said Burton.

Community development specialists with MU Extension help people create communities of the future by tapping into local strengths and university resources. The Community Development Program works collaboratively with communities to foster economic development, leadership development, community decision making, community emergency preparedness and inclusive communities.

For more information, contact any of these MU Extension community development specialists working in southwest Missouri:  Amy Patillo in Christian County, (417) 581-3558; Kathy Macomber in Barton County, (417) 682-3579; Michele Kroll in Camden County, (5730 346-2644 or David Burton in Greene County, (417) 881-8909.

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