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How do I get my gossipy sister to put a sock in it?

The question

My sister is a huge gossip. She learned that a friend of mine was fired unexpectedly, and was determined to tell an acquaintance of hers. I felt she was about to cross the line, and spoke up; she fired back at me and we got into a pretty big argument. Normally her gossip is fairly tame, and I leave her to suffer any backlash, but I feel that if she meddles with other people's financial and career business it's not only bad etiquette, but others suffer as well. How can I get her to understand that she needs to back off when it's a matter of money or employment?

The answer

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I like how you distinguish between "tame," i.e. innocuous, and harmful gossip.

It's an important distinction. There was an interesting documentary on the CBC recently suggesting that overall gossip is not only good – strengthens communities, helps us compare and compete, deters bad behaviour – but is no less than (in the words of social anthropologist Kate Fox) "the foundation of civilization."

Why? "Primates are intensely social. That's their whole evolutionary strategy, and the reason they've been so successful," according to evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Gossip, a natural extension of primate "grooming," is how we keep up-to-date on the happenings in our little tribe.

Can there be any doubt we've loved to dish since the earliest days of our evolution? One caveman to another, pulling a louse from his back hairs, squishing it between filthy fingernails, and popping it in his mouth: "Have you noticed Tor's cave smells even worse than usual lately?"

"I know! I can't even walk past it, any more! It reeks like a rotting mastodon! Speaking of which, I heard Ola's sick of him trying to pass off prairie voles as 'spoils of the hunt.' Anything less than a wild boar next time and she's tossing him out on his troglodytic unibrow."

"At least his cave will smell better."

Don't even get me started on the 21st century. All we seem to do these days is gossip! Thanks to our insatiable thirst for dirt neither the children, nor the children's children of Kim Kardashian will ever have to worry about money.

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According to the documentary, about two-thirds of conversation is gossip. But only about 10 per cent of gossip is actually "negative." The rest is "positive or neutral."

Not sure I buy that, but shall we say there are many people for whom the percentage is significantly higher. People who are just relentlessly negative, a.k.a. "haters."

If your sister falls into this category – well, first step, I would say, is compassion. Her compulsion to "rip a new one" to everyone around her probably results from some frustration with herself or the world. Happy, got-it-together people don't do it.

But yes, sit her down and have a serious conversation – for her own good.

You seem to draw the line at gossip that could do someone harm in the money/employment realm. But I'd go further and say advise her to steer clear of anything that can do harm to anyone in any realm: marriage, reputation, social life.

In my 20s and 30s I was known as Blurt Boy because of my inability to keep information to myself, but I'm proud to say I was able to be discreet if the tidbit in question could actually cause someone harm.

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Explain to your sister the person who will suffer most in the long run from her malicious gossip is her. And that if she keeps it up, a consensus will inevitably form around her. The very tool she uses to assassinate the character of others – gossip – will eventually be turned against her:

"Man, have you noticed [name of your sister here] is always ripping everyone a new one? She's turned into a real backstabber. I wouldn't be surprised if she's even got a couple of choice things to say about me."

(Other person goes all silent, lowers eyes sheepishly.) "What? What does she say about me? You know, she's said plenty of nasty things about you, too."

And it'll all come flying out, precipitating a potential cascade of negative consequences: People could stop taking her seriously – they will roll their eyes when she opens her mouth. And she could even lose some friends outright.

Like kicking any addiction, it'll be hard, take time and there will be backsliding. But bottom line: If she doesn't do it, her beloved information flow could dry up and she could wind up with no juicy gossip to impart, which, if I know my gossipy people, will be pure hell for her.

What am I supposed to do now?

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