Friday, July 15, 2011

From the Bully Pulpit: Words on Words

Some people say that ugly rumors spread like wildfire. I find the comparison scarily appropriate, yet even more frighteningly incomplete. Just like fire requires heat, fuel, and oxygen, all gossip needs is someone sharing a negative story about someone else and the willingness of an audience to hear, spread, and elaborate upon the story for it to start, spread, and do much damage.
Regarding the story, many people might make excuses, saying it’s not bullying or gossip if the story is true. I don’t buy it for a minute. If the point of telling or retelling a story that embarrasses another is mean-spirited fun, it’s sadistic. And if the point is to harm someone personally or professionally, it’s deliberately malicious. 
Regarding the willingness of the audience to hear and spread rumors, very few people are the worst of the worst, willing and deliberate accomplices in personal or professional destruction. Some may have no part in instigating a rumor, but may take delight in being some bearer of late-breaking gossip, no matter what or about whom it actually is. “You’ll never guess what I heard!” Or they feel in some twisted way honored that someone from high up in the social hierarchy imparted this story to them, with or without the added responsibility to pass it on, as if that gives them some greater prestige. “Whozits told me that we all should stay away from Whatshisface because he did such-and-such.” Others, though, are quite simply innocent dupes who believe a rumor and/or that they’re doing people good by passing on “warnings” about the rumor’s subject. They may be genuinely well-meaning people who simply trust the source too much. “Based on what’s being said about this person, it might be in your best interest to keep your distance.”
And here’s where the wildfire analogy breaks down.  Wildfires are dangerous and difficult to contain and suppress. But no fire lines, back burns, or flame retardant can contain an ugly rumor once it’s sparked. No turnouts and emergency shelters can protect someone overrun by gossip. Wildfires even when left alone tend to burn out. Gossip continues when ignored, can dog a person for years, and there are no safe zones. And dealing with gossip can be infinitely more complicated.  While wildfires can be caused by human carelessness, gossip is, contrary to popular misconception, always deliberate.
Asking someone to stop spreading rumors, slander, or libel may sound simple enough, but simple doesn’t always mean easy. Some bullies may hide behind a pretext of good intentions, and a great many bullies of the gossip variety also have popularity and the appearance of a sterling reputation behind which they also hide. But behind the fa├žade of trustworthiness and good intentions often lurk evil things from vendettas and rivalries to a simple but no less destructive desire to maintain social status.  
Some may put up a big show of being offended, no matter how polite and diplomatic you may be in addressing the matter.  If there is a vendetta or rivalry at work, they may employ “if you’re not with me, you’re against me. (And if you’re against me, you’re against all the people who matter.)” This can galvanize their sycophants and make a target out of you if you aren’t the target already.
But the old advice to ignore it also doesn’t work, because silence means the gossip goes unquestioned, and unlike wildfires, it can continue for years without burning out.
What’s a kid to do? Heck, what’s an adult to do, particularly when the gossip gets bad enough to threaten not just reputations and friendships, but careers, marriages, what have you? Are there any good solutions that don’t require an attorney?
Yes, there are, but because there's no one-size-fits-all solution and some sites post conflicting advice, I will post in greater detail later about bullying and the different problems victims may encounter along the way. As for gossip, some good general suggestions include the following:
1. Keep the moral high ground and try to keep cool. While some people don't want to be bothered with the facts, reasonable people will see by your actions that the rumors aren't true.
2. Find the source of the rumor and inquire. Sometimes a rumor is triggered by an honest misunderstanding, not that it excuses spreading around the resulting misconceptions. Still, you don't want to proceed to option three with someone who did not start the rumor or insult you deliberately or with malice. You may want to deal with this and option three if it comes to it in private, but if you have any reason to fear for your safety, you may want a witness or two along.
3. If you've found a real, unapologetic rumor-monger, don't just tell them to stop. Tell them specifically what to stop. Document what's said. If the gossip is taking place on line, save the offending posts or messages to...
4. Take the matter to an authority figure. This may be different from one case to another: a teacher, a supervisor, law enforecment if there are anti-bullying laws on the books, or a lawyer.
If you are the recipient of malicious gossip, don't believe it, don't pass it on, and refuse to be roped into it. And if there is any truth to the rumor (because a rumor doesn't have to be false for it to be malicious gossip), that still does not excuse spreading gossip. You may point that out if need be, but be careful. Bullies will go after anyone they consider a threat, after all.

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