Sage: How should retirees deal with gossip and rumors?

Dear Sage:


I need advice on how to deal with some well-oiled wheels of gossip in my large retirement community, which I moved to just eight months ago. I am a widower in my 60s, in good health aside from a bad case of tennis elbow. A month ago, I was in the community’s restaurant wearing a brace. My table mates wanted to know what was wrong, so I told them that I was being treated with physical therapy. When I mentioned the doctor’s name, they laughed, because two brothers with that last name in the area are both doctors (Dr. Knutt, and no, neither is a psychiatrist!).  One is an orthopedic surgeon and the other is a specialist in sexually transmitted diseases, which are not unheard of in retirement communities. Well, you can guess what happened. Word spread, details changed, and now some people are either 1. Joking about my STD or 2. Casting their eyes down when I pass, making me feel embarrassed. I don’t want this to spread more or be detrimental to my social life. How do I stop these little pockets of misinformation?


                                                                – On Edge in North Carolina


Dear On Edge:


   Well, the Sage is not usually known for impertinence, but his first reaction – without reasonable thought – was that you could be a wise guy and tell these people that they’re off their Knutt, but they don’t sound astute enough to get the joke, let alone mature enough to absorb the sentiment, spend time on self-reflection, or consider the importance of responsible and fair behavior.

   Since you are in a close community, you probably want to take something of a high road here and avoid overly nasty retorts (tempting as it may be), such as, I’m cured. But can anyone really do anything about YOUR condition? … or … How do you know I’m not contagious? Better keep your distance, just in case – a few light years would be about the right distance.

   We digress. This is an issue to take seriously. Gossip, rumors, name-calling, backstabbing and mean-spirited exclusion are problems at many housing communities for seniors, at community centers and in assisted-living and nursing-home facilities. These issues amount to bullying, and can lead to social isolation, depression, anxiety, self-esteem problems, insomnia and other disorders – not to mention the destruction of someone’s reputation.

  They have been so widespread that nonprofit agencies and many communities for older residents have developed anti-bullying programs, including seminars and ongoing training for staff and members. Residents may even agree to sign anti-bullying promises aimed at making everyone feel a sense of belonging, acceptance and respect.
   Bullying can be psychological/emotional, verbal, physical and cyber, and it’s often described as something designed to further a participant’s reputation at the expense of someone else. And it should be stopped in its tracks.
    Robin P. Bonifas, a social work professor at Arizona State University and author of the book “Bullying Among Older Adults: How to Recognize and Address an Unseen Epidemic,” told USA Today that roughly 1 in 5 seniors encounter bullying, some of it resulting from a loss of independence in later years.
   “For some, becoming a bully can feel like regaining some of that lost power,” she said.  “It makes them feel very out of control, and the way they sort of get on top of things and make their name in this new world is intimidating, picking on people, gossiping.”
    And because bullying includes gossip, we will focus on that from here. First, not all of it is bad. For one example, Psychology Today reported that researchers at the University of California Riverside analyzed conversations of 467 people for several days and coded the it into three categories:
   • Positive/flattering information.
   • Neutral – observations that aren’t necessarily positive or negative.
   • ‘Negative and malicious.’
   The researchers said that people gossiped an average of 52 minutes per day, but that the majority of it was ‘not-evaluative, or neutral in nature … They also note that it tended to be about acquaintances more than celebrities, and typically involved an exchange of social information rather than thoughts about one’s physical appearance or achievements.”
   Some studies show that it is a social skill that bonds people together by building trust through the sharing of secrets, and creates a sense of belonging and prevents social isolation. In the workplace, the exchange of harmless chatter can build esprit de corps and morale, so long as it’s not nasty or self-serving.
   Psychologist Mark Griffiths, Ph.D, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction in the Psychology Department at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom, also wrote a piece in Psychology Today in which he quoted an article where another expert adroitly referred to gossip as ‘an ugly addiction:’
   ‘It’s a defense mechanism,” said the expert. ‘It feels good to ‘prove’ another human is much inferior to us. That feeling creates a temporary and partial amnesia for our own shortcomings and insecurities. Instead of dealing with our own ugliness we create even uglier pictures of others around so we can feel better.”
   He added: ‘Gossip as an emotional vent: The persons we gossip about quickly become our vents. Whenever we are upset about anything, we find ourselves engaging vehement and slanderous gossip smearing somebody’s image.”
   Whoa! Nicely put. Not exactly Mary Poppins stuff!
   There are many ways to break the chain of mean-spirited and/or negative chitchat in the interest of showing respect for others’ privacy – depending on the severity and the circumstances.
   If it’s relatively insignificant, show that it doesn’t bother you and laugh it off.
   But for more harmful false stories or slander-type meanness, various experts suggest these tacks:
   • Do not engage in it. Remember than people who talk about others behind their backs may well do the same behind yours.
   • If you are the subject of negativity, tell your friends so that they can help you set others straight.
   • Confront the culprit or anyone who is passing along the information. Ask them to stop because it’s hurting and disappointing you. Try not to come across as angry or vindictive. You might retort, ‘If you have a problem with me, please tell me, not others.’
   • Same goes about witnessing third-party conversations. Don’t just stand by as others chisel away at someone’s reputation. Say something like, ‘I thought that we were all bigger than this. Shouldn’t you be, too?’
   • Stop it in its tracks and don’t pass it around. Steer the conversation in another direction and change the subject.
    • Avoid people who spread hurtful information and rumors.
    • Keep secrets with trusted friends; don’t betray them, and be cautious about what you say.
     • Encourage people not to judge anyone by unsubstantiated rumors
     Finally, as one wag – an anonymous author – has said, ‘If you didn’t hear it with your own ears, or see it with your own eyes, don’t invent it with your small mind and share it with your big mouth!’
   As for Mr. On Edge in South Carolina, The Sage would recommend that you go around with good friends, enjoy yourselves, ignore the nonsense, laugh it off, socialize as much as possible, and show others your autographed tennis racket – signed by Dr. Knutt, M.D., Orthopedic Surgeon.
   Just don’t let him get cute and write ‘Keep swinging,’ as some will take it as a double entendre and the questions – and stories – will start all over again!
   Good luck.
   Humbly Yours,
   The Sage