Rumors, Gossip, and Urban Legends
Every profession in the world deals with rumors and gossip, and police psychology is no different. Much like how animals tend to migrate toward large water sources, where they can find safety in like animal-friends, people tend to drift toward the water cooler to hang out with individuals of the same corporate “species.” Yet, just as with animals, the water source can also be a dangerous place where predators lie in wait of innocent prey to wander by. The water cooler at any organization usually has its share of predators.
Predators at the Water Cooler causing Stress
Who—or what—are the predators you may encounter? Rumors, gossip, and urban legends: the downfall of many individuals and organizations. These things can ruin a person just as easily as a human can crush an ant—and usually with less remorse. It is very common, in fact it is practically human instinct, to gather at the water cooler and gossip. “Did you hear…” or “Can you believe what X did,” takes the place of a cry of pain, a stalking of a poor helpless animal, or a roar of conquest. Yet these very instinctive sayings emerge from very different motivations, and each results in different repercussions.
Rumors satisfy a basic human drive: the need for security. Rumors are often ambiguous, yet informative and newsworthy. They are unverified, and thus there is no guarantee they are true. Rumors are also used in order to make sense out of things and tame a fear. Rumors tend to be more global, and thus result in more generalized consequences. Saying a plant will be closing down, or a police department is going to start making officers accountable to civilian review are examples of rumors that could have great impact on organizations. Rumors often result in the destruction of an organization’s reputation or status quo.
Everyone loves to gossip: from celebrity gossip to who ate whose sandwich at work, people always find something to talk about. Gossip is for people who feel that they do not belong and thus try to fit in. Gossip is generally motivated by a sense (or a fear) of social isolation. A person is trying to fit into the group, or trying to manage the social network of the organization, will often try to break up other bonds so he or she can form his own bonds. So they start to gossip. This could also be an attempt to elevate his/her status within the group. While rumors tend to be more large-scale, gossip tends to be private behavior. “I saw Joe kissing the bosses wife.” It gets personal. It is gossip that tends to destroy an individual person’s reputation.
Understanding Urban Legends
When most people think of urban legends, they picture sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories. While this is certainly one way people understand urban legends, they are actually far more than folklore, myths, and ghost stories. Urban legends help people make meaning out of something; they endorse values and mores. A popular urban legend that gained notoriety when cars were first being marketed for the public domain involved a boyfriend driving with his girlfriend through a forest, breaking down, and eventually being killed by a psychopathic killer on the loose. This urban legend was started by worried parents and religious persons who were afraid cars would provide their children with new opportunities to have sex without being under watchful eyes. That was even before Elvis. Urban legends, when used in the corporate world, can destroy a value system of a company. Urban legends can be as innocent as the recounted story, or as harmful as the one that maintained General Motors was owned by Arabs and thus discouraged people from doing business with them.
Each of these water cooler fantasies is socially different, but each can be destructive in their own way. I will be writing much more on this in future blogs and many can see me talk about this topic when I travel to police departments and corporations. For now, one bit of advice:
The #1 tip for dealing with rumors, gossip, and urban legends
Rumors, gossip, and urban legends are like counter-intelligence during war: they need to be corrected before they send a battalion on a wild goose chase. It is so easy to use the things you hear to evaluate another person’s performance, when in fact, this should have no bearing on it at all. Don’t use another person’s evaluation to determine the worth of something. The first rule for overcoming these water cooler predators may seem so simple, but it is often ignored. They will not disappear if you don’t say anything—and if you don’t say the same thing consistently. The actual idea that the best thing to do is ignore it is an urban legend all to itself. The next time you gather with your friends, co-workers, or family and someone says, “Hey, did you hear…” don’t just shrug your shoulders and listen. Instead, say something. And no, don’t respond by saying an even juicier piece of gossip—tell them that what they are doing is wrong and harmful, dispute it with evidence, tell them they will have to prove that one to you. Confront them. Make sure you do this every time someone opens his or her mouth to say something gossipy or rumor like. It may not make a difference the first time, or even the tenth time you say something, but slowly but surely we can create a new culture – a culture in which rumors, gossip, and urban legends have no place. This will help bring simplicity back into your life.
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Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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