Beware the gossip

My friendship with someone who loved to gossip did not work for me at all. That behavior made me very uncomfortable, so I had to stop the relationship to distance myself from something I disapproved of so strongly.

giraffe yelling at another giraffe

I had a friend with whom I used to spend a lot of time. We had many things in common and had some very engaged discussions on a number of topics. She was intellectually curious and read on a wide variety of subjects. I often thought that I learned something from our conversations because of her diverse interests. Equally often, she contributed eagerly to very spirited group discussions. She laughed easily and was fun to be around. But she had one bad trait – she was a compulsive gossip, obsessed about others – friends, colleagues and strangers.

Rude and unacceptable behavior

In front of a group she would lean over to me (or someone else), put her hand up to her mouth and whisper a comment about someone who was literally right there. The first time that this happened to me, I couldn’t believe it. I felt uncomfortable, because she was talking about another with that person a couple of arm lengths away. When we were alone, I told her that she should never do this to me again, that this was both rude and unacceptable behavior in a group situation. Sometimes I could see her restrain herself with me. At other times, she just couldn’t help herself and she would do as I had asked her not to.

On other occasions, we would no sooner leave a group when she would comment, very often critically, about some aspect of one or more of the people. She invariably would have something to say about the appearance of our friends – someone looked like she had gained weight, someone else looked like she needed a haircut and so on. Other comments were simply observations about the conversation and not mean-spirited, but it was the constancy of the commentary about others, the judgment of others, that got to me.

Ending the friendship

All of these comments fit squarely into the gossip category, and her behavior really bothered me. So much so that one day I said that we could no longer be friends because of her behavior. I could tell that my words actually didn’t register, because she carried on as if I had said nothing. I interrupted and told her that I was serious – we were through as friends. And with that, I walked away from a friendship that on many levels had worked.

How my decision affected my former friend is something I don’t know. I have never seen her or spoken about her with any other friends since our last conversation. My hope would be that she would have taken my comments to heart, examined her own behavior and made changes for the better. I am under no illusion though that this happened.

Sticking to my principles

With the benefit of hindsight, formally terminating our friendship was the right decision for me. I got away from a negative person who couldn’t stop talking about other people and their business. I stopped feeling like I was somehow condoning her behavior or participating because she whispered to me in front of others. I got back to the principle that I will not engage in gossip.

Beyond this specific benefit, I made a mental commitment to not just stay in relationships that I was already in. There had to be something positive in continuing the friendship. I couldn’t just be neutral about someone – I had to actively like a person to call her a friend and continue to invest time and energy in perpetuating the relationship. Don’t mistake this for my being a good-time friend, someone who is around when things are going well for my friends. That isn’t the case at all for me. I am totally committed to friends who are good people no matter what is happening to them. I am not there for people whose behavior does not measure up to a standard of behavior that I expect of myself.

Life is short, and choices are made every day in all aspects of what we do and with whom we associate. Being friends with a gossip is not something that adds value to my life and makes me feel good. Cut. Cancelled. Moved on.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.