Benny A. Benjamin
Career Psychologist, academic editor, and blogger

I heard it through the grapevine: Gossip at work

Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” —attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt
“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: When a person has a swelling, a rash, or a bright patch on his skin, and it develops on his skin into what seems to be an impure blight, he shall be brought to the priests, to Aharon or one of his sons. The priest shall examine the disease on his skin. If hair in the diseased part has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin, then it is the disease of an impure blight. When the priest sees this, he shall declare the person impure Leviticus 13:1–3.
Watch what you say (and hear) near the water cooler!

This passage deals with a primarily dermatological condition called tzara’at (Hebrew). This affliction has often been translated as leprosy, though it likely does not reflect the modern understanding of leprosy. The condition described in these verses can be diagnosed only by a priest, and when confirmed, the afflicted person is isolated for seven days as part of an elaborate ritual to cleanse them from their malady. Much of rabbinic literature has viewed this phenomenon as divinely-inflicted and sought to discern what it signifies. Many have concluded that it is contracted as a consequence of misusing one’s power of speech in the form of slandering others or gossip-mongering. One of several biblical hints linking gossiping and leprosy was when Moses’s siblings––Miriam and Aaron––shared some comments about their brother Moses’s wife (Numbers 12:1), for which Miriam was inflicted with a bout of leprosy.

       Spreading gossip has traditionally been scorned, even likening it to the risk entailed in shooting an arrow: Once it’s in the air, the archer relinquishes control over where it will land or whom it will injure. A few chapters later, this injunction is made more explicit: “Do not go around as a gossipmonger [or tale-bearer] among your people…; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:16).
       Three key players––the tale-bearer, the listener(s), and the object of the gossip––may all be harmed by a seemingly innocuous conversation that may have been conducted to idle away the time and whose content may even prove accurate. Indeed, the Book of Proverbs appears to have recognized the stark implications of this life challenge by cautioning, “Death and life are within the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). All these injunctions appear to repudiate the 19th Century folk phrase: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” A more realistic slant to this childhood chant: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can also hurt me.”[1]
“…but words will never hurt?
       Is it gossip when Judy speculates with Mary on what looks like a baby bump on Jenny? Is it a rumor when John tells Freddy not to count on a summer bonus for their team? When idle conversation and “shooting the breeze” evolves into negative, inflammatory, and embarrassing tidbits regarding an absent third party, you’ve entered gossip terrain, an expression of workplace violence.[2] A rumor can be viewed as a story discussed before its confirmation. While both can be innocuous, they can damage reputations and careers and harm morale. Unchecked, it can create a toxic workplace culture where anyone can safely assume they may be the next victim in gossipdom.
       The Transactional Analysis (TA) model [3] can increase our sensitivity to many aspects of social interaction and enable us to take responsibility for our actions. When we approach someone at work, we exchange virtual ‘strokes’––units of attention––that feel good to the receiving parties. Sometimes we make do with inconsequential exchanges (“Hi, how are you?”), and other times, such as after not seeing someone following a lengthy absence, we invest more substance into the interaction (“Hey, how was your vacation?” or “Wow! How’s our new mother?”). However, in the absence of more constructive substance, many social encounters regress to sharing gossip and rumors, which are invariably immediate attention-grabbers (garnering ‘high ratings,’ in modern parlance). When we hear some juicy gossip, we may even feel compelled to “return the favor” by upping the ante, contributing some other juicy speculation now or in future encounters. TA might attribute gossiping against management over coffee as comprising a Child-Child transaction, akin to siblings scheming against Daddy (or Mommy) without taking responsibility for the content.
       Thus, we may suggest that indulging in gossip and rumor-sharing can function as a facile default to ease a lull in the conversation–many are uncomfortable with silence. Engaging in gossip and rumor can offer some tantalizing short-term benefits, such as attracting easy attention, scoring social points, enabling the participants to ventilate against a person or the organization, providing an antidote to boredom, feeling superior by putting someone else down, or helping to deflect responsibility for a work-related disappointment on an external figure. However, all should be alert to their long-term ramifications. Sadly, spurning gossip (whether disseminating it or serving as an audience) remains challenging for many of us.
Career Tips:
  • The unvarnished truth is that lending an ear to gossip can turn you into an accomplice, so walking away or changing the subject could deliver a clear message that you can’t be counted on to be party to that kind of talk. However, this tactic may come with a social cost that you may or may not be prepared to pay.
  • Gossip can often be traced to a key figure at work who always seems to “be in the know.” You may confront this person privately, candidly pointing out that referring disparagingly to others in their absence makes you feel uncomfortable. This tack may or may not effectively diminish this person’s predilection. In any event, you would be wise to prudently choose the coworkers with whom you spend your discretionary time.
  • Try this: Mind your social media posts and what you place “out there.” Messaging platforms and other social media offer boundless avenues for expression, allowing us to maintain relationships from afar but also carrying substantial risks. Cyberbullying and shaming has received much deserved derision, but other ‘innocuous’ communication can also be problematic. Messages we intend for one person in a particular situation may be forwarded by a quick click to a group (perhaps unintentionally) into domains far from your intentions. Being more deliberate and less impulsive in your online communication may sound “square” and not as much fun as being spontaneous, but it is a valuable preventive practice.
  • For more Torah-Career connections, visit The Bible at Work
[1] Redfort, R. (2008). Sticks and stones.
[2]. Schwantes, M. (2021). 9 ways to get rid of workplace gossip immediately. Inc.
[3] Rahiman, H. U., & Kodikal, R. (2020). Understanding transactional analysis of managers: An empirical study in India. Problems and Perspectives in Management, 18(1), 141–153.
About the Author
Dr. Benjamin was born in Israel, raised and educated in the US, and is a veteran resident of Jerusalem. His doctorate in counseling psychology is from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He has taught and trained psychologists and counselors at US and Israeli universities. His long-time position as the head psychologist of the Israel National Employment Service provided him with the foundation for understanding the workforce in all its diversity and appreciating the challenges individuals face at all career stages. His professional foci of the last decade has been career coaching and academic editing. Aside from his family, this blog reflects his two passions–Bible study and career development–and he is pleased to include you in this journey that links these passions.
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