Gossip Girls R Us

I am extremely tired of gossip at work and in this profession in general. Ever since I was a CNA, gossip has been a topic at staff meetings as a serious issue. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a staff meeting at which “professional expectations” hasn’t been an agenda item, the contents of which ran along the lines of “if you have an issue with someone, you should talk to that person and not to other people.” Why? Because so few nurses do this and because the consequences of not doing so include poor morale or out-and-out warfare among coworkers.

The questions of why nurses eat their young and why nurses engage in so much lateral violence have been beaten to death, but gossip alone is a huge part of the problem and is rarely addressed head-on. Gossip is powerful and difficult to combat, and it is pervasive in nursing. It can also be insidious and passive-aggressive, making it even trickier to stamp out, and few people ever speak out against it. My theory about this is that people fail to stop gossip because if they’re hearing the gossip they feel part-of and don’t want to create a backlash against themselves.

Of course, the logical trouble with participating in gossip is that if someone gossips to you, she will also gossip about you. Any person who gossips cannot be trusted. Why, then, does it continue so pervasively? Gossip is truly a power play. If I gossip about someone, I’m really saying that I know something special about them or that they are somehow less than I am. I am a better person, and I want you to know about it. I am a smarter and more knowledgeable person, and I want you to know about it. And if I am gossiping and stop when you walk up, you are left feeling shunned and wondering what is wrong with you. Gossip creates circles and shuts others out of them. It makes those inside the circle feel good about themselves and those outside feel bad. It takes, therefore, courage and conviction to say, “I’m not going to participate in this, and I wish you all would stop.” Saying something like that will put you outside the circle for sure.

Not gossiping personally is a necessary but insufficient solution. Nurses also need to call each other out on this devastating behavior. I heard an excellent way of doing this recently. One of our eager young new nurses is catty and relentlessly complains about other nurses. I had been listening quietly to it with growing irritation but said nothing to her because I am not sure how to handle these situations without causing trouble for myself—the very reason this behavior continues in general. One of my colleagues said to the gossiping nurse, “You know what I wonder when I hear you say things like that? I wonder what you say about me when I’m not around. And that makes me feel like I can’t trust you. We need to be a team, so I need to be able to trust that you have my 6 [have my back]. Also, it’s just unattractive.” My jaw dropped. It was perfect! Only as soon as that nurse walked away, the gossiping nurse complained about her to me, so the message didn’t get through. Still, I think it’s a good template. I hope I have the gumption to use it myself.

About Megen Duffy

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Megen Duffy, RN, BA, BSN, CEN, is a practicing nurse, blogger, and contributing editor for the American Journal of Nursing. Megen has practiced in a variety of settings from emergency rooms to prisons.