During my first week of teaching, I looked forward to heading down to the teachers’ lounge for my 25-minute lunch period each day. At 22 years old, I was in the midst of navigating my first full-time job and my high schoolers were no easy bunch. My lunch break was one part of the day I could be around my colleagues and have a second to unwind.
Hungry and ready for a break, I sat down at a table of fellow sophomore teachers. As I began eating my lunch, I quickly realized that what I hoped would be a place for light-hearted conversation turned into a space of groans and complaints about students, fellow teachers, or our administration. Being a new teacher at the school, I remained quiet, but couldn’t believe some of the stories and rumors that my coworkers shared.
Teaching certainly isn’t the easiest job in the world, and I was no stranger to needing a frequent vent session with my friends over the phone after work. Yet, I found myself feeling more drained when the teachers’ lounge became a place of spreading gossip and rumors instead of a place to relax, refuel, and learn from each other. While we sometimes need to vent a little to express our feelings, we also need to know when to step away from counter-productive conversations. So, I began eating lunch in my classroom instead and I realized that I preferred this to feeling bogged down by the gossip.
This experience taught me how to differentiate between gossiping and venting. Although I didn’t put these tactics into action that first week in the teachers’ lounge, I now know what I can do when I find myself in a similar situation.
1. Ask questions
It is difficult to determine if a conversation might turn from mild complaining to ill-will towards a person or situation. A discussion about a frustrating coworker might start out with a broad complaint like “some people just aren’t pulling their weight,” so I try to ask questions instead of commenting. I might ask, “Are some people not turning in their work, or are they showing up late?” My goal is not to be nosy, but rather to find the root of the problem. When others do this to me, I usually realize that the situation is not as bad as it seems.
I might hear a colleague say, “Johnny is just going to fail my class, he doesn’t do anything.” Instead of commenting on my experience with Johnny such as, “Oh my gosh I know, he never turns in anything!” I might ask, “Have you tried reaching out to Sue in the Learning Center to help him?” When I ask questions rather than respond, I can better invite productive conversation.
2. Redirect the conversation
My gossip radar comes on when I think to myself: What if the person we are talking about walked into this room right now? When a conversation becomes impossible to imagine happening in front of its subject, I try to redirect it.
For instance, a teacher might vent by saying, “I just wish Tom would communicate better with me and let me know if he needs help.” I would feel comfortable saying this, and I might even encourage that teacher to express this to Tom in person. Or, we could brainstorm different organizational methods to try with Tom to promote his learning.
However, when the same sentiment is rephrased as, “Gosh, he is just so lazy and can’t even ask for help! Do you see that with him too?” I can’t imagine saying this in front of Tom. To steer the conversation away from gossip, I might reply, “Yes I had him, but he had good questions once I sat down and talked with him.” When the conversation turns from frustration about a person’s actions to harmful stereotyping of a person’s character, I know the conversation has turned to gossip.
When a conversation gets to a point when neither asking questions nor redirecting can turn the conversation away from gossip, I’ve found that it’s best for me to disengage completely. If, over time, it seems like each time I encounter someone, he or she launches into gossip, I know it’s time to walk away. Now, I have no guilt quickly heating up my lunch and leaving the lounge when I hear negative comments about a student or coworker, nor do I feel guilty keeping quiet if I am encouraged to add fuel to the fire.
Knowing how to react to harmful gossip and when to welcome a vent session, however, has not isolated me from others. Rather, I feel that it has strengthened my relationships. In my personal life, I can recognize when I, too, start to engage in gossip, and try my best to change my viewpoint. At work, I’ve found that my days were more positive once I surrounded myself with conversations that lean away from gossip.