Why People Gossip and How to Avoid it

"Allegretto" by Mimi Stuart ©

Why people gossip and how to avoid it

Gossip is unconstrained and often derogatory conversation about other people, and can involve betraying a confidence and spreading sensitive information or hurtful judgments.

Research shows that people who gossip the most have very high levels of anxiety. They are generally not particularly popular because they cannot be trusted. Spreading private information or negative judgments is painful to others and reflects poorly on the gossiper.

Why do people gossip?

•  To feel superior

People who don’t feel good about themselves temporarily feel better when they judge others negatively.

•  Out of boredom

When people can’t generate interesting discussions based on knowledge or ideas, gossip can rouse people’s interest.

•  Out of envy

People gossip in order to hurt those whose popularity, talents, or lifestyle they envy.

•  To feel like part of the group

People gossip to feel as though they belong to the group. Yet, when acceptance is based on being “in on a secret,” it is not based on a person’s identity, but on exclusion or maliciousness.

•  For attention

A person gets to be the center of attention temporarily while divulging a piece of gossip. Yet, spreading gossip or rumors is like buying attention; it’s temporary and has little foundation.

• Out of anger or unhappiness

A person can derive a sense of retribution with disparaging remarks.

Is it always wrong to talk about others?

Most people have a natural curiosity about what’s going on among people in the community. Some of the best books are biographies that tell the life stories of other people. However, the best biographies give the reader an understanding of the nuance and complexity of the person’s character through facts. They are not based on one-sided, offensive judgments of the person.

The key is to look at one’s intent in discussing other people and relationships.

Is the intent to understand human nature and improve one’s quality of life and relationships?

Or: Is the intent to temporarily feel superior or get attention by disparaging others?

Responses to unwelcome gossip:

Let’s suppose that somebody is gossiping mercilessly about Jane. It’s important not to feed the gossiper with curiosity, agreement and further questions. It’s best to simply change the subject. Here are some other possible responses:

“I notice that you talk about Jane a lot. I’m curious why she interests you so much?”

“Let’s take a look at it from Jane’s side.”

“I am more interested in what you are up to.”

“Let’s talk about something more positive or decide what we’re going to do this afternoon.”

“I feel uncomfortable listening to negative judgments about people unless we figure out how to help them.”

Conclusion

Gossiping shows others the gossiper’s insecurity and meanspiritedness. It also leaves everyone involved feeling as though they’ve just eaten a bad apple. Ultimately, insight into the intricacies of human relations and behavior is more interesting, uplifting, and enlightening than one-dimensional judgments and rumors.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Dreading intrusive questions at family gatherings: ‘It’s none of your business!’”

Read “Venting and Triangulation.”

Recommended Reading:

On gossip Dr. Rosnow: http://pbskids.org/itsmylife/friends/rumors/article4.html

45 Responses to Why People Gossip and How to Avoid it

  1. Janet says:

    I come from a big family and have lived with gossiping and secrets all my life, now as Im older and married, since my husband started coming with me visiting my mother and where sisters and brothers would all meet, at first he was liked but now even though nothing is said directly to us he is not liked. My mother has since died and we don’t go to the family home as often, the sisters do all the judging questioning why im not working in a certain career why im not having children would I want children and then saying to others that he doesn’t want kids hes got some already. I am my own person and don’t need these petty small minded people in my life, I found out this from another sister and know she gossips too but I am very intuitive and have been all my life and know when someone is off with me, sometimes it gets too much and I don’t visit for weeks and when I do I only see my brother. I find that women are the worst, I include myself in this but I try not to get involved. I am getting to a place of peace and try to ignore these gossips family or not and I know what they are at is not out of concern, Ive known them too long

  2. Jennifer says:

    sorry but MOST people that I encounter the gossipers ARE POPULAR. Always needing to be the center attention and outcast quiet, giving people whom DON’T gossip. just my opinion. (on the job, at church and when happy) …. people want to steal happiness.

    • Jennifer says:

      AND might add MOST have some sort of alcohol or drug problem or some sort of other co-dependency. then you have the Ms. perfect who think the whole world owes them a favor because they have female entitlement issues. I graduated high school a long while ago and shouldn’t experience this ever again. time to grow up! If you ever have to say anything to me then woman or man up and say it to my face. weird , odd people and you wonder why you have to hide behind your adult friends and keep in a clique.

    • Alison says:

      Maybe some are popular among certain groups. It may be because many people who gossip do so in order to get attention. Of course some people who crave attention will have honed their ability to do so in many ways, having developed a sense of what will make them popular. It may not be that gossiping makes them popular, but that people who crave attention also tend to gossip, not always though. Popularity and attention don’t lead to happiness and fulfilling relationships though.

      • Jennifer says:

        I just feel that I have to wear a lapel with an monopoly card stating “you won 10 dollars on a popularity contest”. live in a horrible neighborhood and feel am judged constantly by these people whom do so much harm to society. I feel blamed and just so very tired of misery caused by others and also the tarnish of how some people still rub money in my face when they don’t even know me. I’ve lost a lot of jobs because of favoritism and nepotism and feel don’t have a chance to make a better work environment. I hope our world gets better.

        thank you for your reply as need to start understanding why some people don’t make an effort to be better. it just troubles me.

        • Alison says:

          Hi Jennifer,

          I feel very sad when I read your comment about the way you feel in your current neighborhood. I wish there were some way for you to feel better about the situation or to screen out the negative. When you feel too inundated by the negative around you, you almost call more negativity to yourself. But when you are feeling so bad, it is hard to change things around you and even your attitude.

          Is there any time in your life or were there any activities in your life that brought you some joy? I hope you can find a way to focus on something that can buoy your spirits. Unfortunately, when you feel down and out, it tends to bring more hardship into your life. On the other hand, if you have a friend, institution, church, physical place, or activity that can bring you hope or support, then you might find a way out of your situation and avoid despair.

          I wish you the best Jennifer.

          • Jennifer says:

            Allison. Thank you …. I don’t know why the neighborhood is like this anymore…. didn’t mean to make you sad. It is sad though and just don’t understand nor do i want to try. i will still pray for kindness but these are some bad ppl and i used to speak up for myself but don’t because i really do fear these ppl. scarey.

          • Jennifer says:

            i do have somewhat of friends but not many as am the “single” girl so not many ppl want to get to know me. To be honest at this point I really don’t care as it seems abusive to me and done with trying to make friends to queen bees. They just see me as a poor person. Someone to make themselves look good. Well anyways i go on nature walks and trying to start a new job so hope my next year will get better. I’m not a pity person by any means and never really get into the “craze” of things so thank you for listening to me and pray for Dallas tx and the way of the world because i don’t think my comments or positivity will change a person if they don’t want to be changed but the way some people treat me is like being in a firing squad in Mexico. the truth. it’s sad be well and thanks for listening to me.

          • Alison says:

            It is true that some locations are just not right for certain people. I’m glad you have a new job and I hope it will be a supportive place for you. In the long-term though, you might have the goal of moving to a different city or at least a more supportive or neutral neighborhood. you may not be able to do it right now, but you can take the steps you need to take to be able to so eventually. Someone just sent me these quotes from something like the daily love blog, which could maybe be inspiring to you. Take care.

            Today’s Rad Quotes

            “Negative thoughts stick around because we believe them, not because we want them or choose them.”

            – Andrew Bernstein

            “Believing in negative thoughts is the single greatest obstruction to success.”

            “Holding on to negative feelings and past circumstances is like placing a lock on your soul.”

            – Charles F. Glassman

            Affirmations for today

            I allow myself to think negative thoughts.

            Negative thoughts are sent as my teachers.

            I am free from negative thoughts once I express them.

  3. CarterDr says:

    There’s a married couple on our street who spread vicious rumors about my neighbor supposedly stealing money from road fund to pay for their cars and garage. When my neighbor got wind of the malicious rumors, she quit the road trustee position. No one wanted the trustee position having seen what happened to my neighbor. So the woman who started the gossip volunteered for the trustee position! A year later, this same gossiping trustee slanders my neighbors in the road newsletter, after Mrs. Gossip’s husband was caught illegally digging in my neighbor’s yard without permission. Mrs. Gossip also revealed to everyone at a road meeting that so and so cheated on his wife with a stripper, so she didn’t want him doing the snow removal anymore! My neighbor attended the meeting and tried to stop the gossip, but Mrs. Gossip insisted “Well, we don’t like it”. I have to admire my neighbor for trying to stop the garbage, even though he’s had his own problems with the cheater. What is really frustrating is that the rest of the people at the meeting were a bunch of cowards and said nothing. Just like they did when Mrs. and Mr. Gossip ran the neighborhood spreading malicious rumors about my neighbors supposedly stealing from the road fund! I know two of the families have the “we stay out of it” attitude, which on one hand I can understand, but then on the other, when an obvious wrong is being done to people’s reputation, they won’t stand up for what’s right. Now, several years later, I am the object of Mrs. and Mr. Gossip’s maliciousness. I have seen the slanderers huddled up talking with both of the “we stay out of it” families, gazing towards my house. The gossip revolves a disagreement I had with Mrs. Gossip who is a chronic liar and beyond reasoning with. So I bounce back and forth between being angry with the cowardly “we stay out of it” neighbors and
    hoping they remember that the Gossips are well known for slandering their neighbors and stirring up strife in the neighborhood. If I were to talk with the “we stay out of it” families, that’s the line I’d get from them, even though they stood there and listening to the Gossips. So needless to say I’m feeling pretty negative about a lot of people on my street, which I’m sure is what the malicious slanderers, the Gossips want. I’m waiting for the Gossips to make a few more slanderous steps and considering suing them, which I think is the only thing that will shut them down.

    • Alison says:

      What a terrible situation for the whole neighborhood. One of the most insidious actions to take can be to say and do nothing. I’m not saying that is the case here. But sometimes saying nothing is a way to sanctify what others are doing and saying. Other times saying nothing and not being reactive at all is a way of taking away power from someone who is grasping for power. I can’t tell what you should do in this case, but the important thing is that you are grappling with what to do. It could be that Mr. and Mrs. Gossip are seeking any kind of attention they can get, in which case it may be best to ignore them but to stand up for yourself and others when appropriate in a clear but unemotional way.

      What I would recommend is holding your head high, being friendly with all the other neighbors, and ignoring the gossip and slander, speaking up in a dignified way against it when appropriate. Live your life so that others will know the gossip isn’t true. Try not to gossip yourself. Over time, more and more people will know that Mr. and Mrs. Gossip are bad news.

      If you’re gossiped against again, go to Mr. and Mrs. Gossip and ask why they spread the rumor. Don’t go out of the way to defend yourself, or you may look guilty, but when asked state that it isn’t true. Don’t act defensive or angry.

      Document everything, just in case. Stay unemotional, or you give the gossipers power over you, which they enjoy. Network with other neighbors, in other words, stay friendly with others on a one to one basis.

  4. RDK says:

    I have been beating myself up over this kind of stuff for a while now. I feel like I’m constantly trying to get out of negative conversations where others talk bad about others. It feels like its a full time job. I’m to the point where I just want to say, “ya you’re right, he/she’s a real bitch” and then just walk off. And then the worst part is that I start feeling annoyed with the people who are gossiping and so guess what I want to do… I want to GOSSIP! Anyone who says they never gossip is a lier. Gossip is ugly and we have all done it at some point…

  5. Huntjint says:

    People do something stupid that becomes an entertainment for others. For me, they’re subjected to observation, which is sad. What can I do? They are adults. I have NO right to prohibit them from doing something for themselves unless they want to murder someone then I know I’m obligated to protect my friends from electric chairs, and especially their victims. I’m not going to be a mother of these reckless adults. Anyway, I’m grouped with several women and some of them have been a sorta women. Yes, I know most of their stories except their husbands’. The other one said that she cheats because her husband have been dissatisfying her sexually. I accepted this alibi and I credited her for deceiving her spouse. I minded my own business, right? I’m a good citizen or a good friend. Eventually, I found myself projecting people that they would cover their friends’… I clearly stated to my husband that I wouldn’t trust his friends. I was surprised when I caught myself accusing my husband’s friends may be a part of deceiving me. That’s the consequences of being considerate to my friends.

    It took me awhile to understand my own psychology. I wondered what kind of a friend I was. I also questioned myself whether I was a decent person, a devil, a psycho, etc. Take note, I was in my mid twenties. My head was in my anus cavity.

    My main point, gossiping about people is like having chicken wings at the snack bars. Nothing more to it really. For me, it’s stupid stupid topic. I would rather talk about ideas, imaginations, and other things that aren’t about our dramas or play chess/scrabble.

    If my friends gossip about me, I don’t give a rut. I have nothing to worry. If they envy me, then I have no idea why they would. I didn’t say something that can make them feel inferior.

    Frankly, I have decided that I will separate from gossipers. I really don’t like to sit with them discussing shit without a solution for almost a decade now. My patience for them is gone. My belief that they would change, but…

  6. agathe says:

    I just start a job in a prestigious company. I have so much interest in what I do. Unfortunately, this fashion company just contain of colleagues who like to gossip. I always have to avoid them in the lunch time. I don’t want to be asocial but this negative atmosphere is really sucking my energy. What is the best tips to handle such situation?

    • Alison says:

      That’s a difficult situation. You don’t want to seem arrogant and judgmental. Yet being around people who gossip is negative and draining. I wonder if you can be friendly but distance yourself when they start to gossip. Often people who gossip a lot do so in order to get attention and to feel better about themselves by diminishing others. So in essence, they feel a bit inferior or inadequate themselves. Sometimes you can reach people like that by asking about them, that is, by redirecting the conversation to their opinions and thoughts, likes and interests.

      If the whole company atmosphere is negative, then eventually you may want to look for another job, and simply develop character in the meantime. Different companies have completely different characters depending on their values.

      Good luck and let me know if you find a way to honor your own values of not diminishing others and yet not being asocial.

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  8. curiousms says:

    In my personal experience – why I googled ‘why people gossip too much’ – it’s a bunch of guys who just gossip indiscreetly about me. Of course, in their view, it’s not gossip just male bonding. I just find it so incredibly childish and stupid that a conversation I’ll have with one guy then becomes a drama when he passes it on to one of my male relatives and the HE passes it on … incredibly that people have nothing better to do with their time and have limited questioning or critical thinking abilities ….

    • Alison says:

      With such people, it can be helpful not to say anything that you wouldn’t want repeated. Until you become very close, it’s usually best to be discreet or at least diplomatic. Good luck.

  9. Paul says:

    I find most of the time its ladies who ask you lots of personal question and then they do gossip about it. I find it unpleasant. I have found in team if you have ladies co-worker then they do lot of gossip about any person. they even gossip about their own good lady colleague in her absence. I used to find it funny but now I am fed-up of their continuous negative thoughts. And hate answering them when they ask about judgement. Sometime later I found them they are totally separated; nobody wants them , nobody talks to them , nobody likes to work with them. I am sure they must be busy with gossiping :P

    • Melissa Griffin says:

      I can’t stand gossip. However, I love conversation which most women these days don’t seem to know how to do. I believe that is why most are long time singles. I have always worked with men and have always been happy at work until the economy changed and I had to take a job in an office that was 90% female. I was miserable because all they did all day was gossip. They never shut up! They felt any question they wantes to ask you was okay so I just wouldn’t respond and just leave them standing there talking to themselves. Honestly, I have no tolerance for women today. They’re needy and need an assigned therapist with them at all time cause they’re blind.

      • amanda lynn says:

        The last comment was a little bit harsh but I totally agree with both. Some stuff should just stay at home or be completely eliminated. I think women really want friends but like Melissa said, they think we want gossip. It must have been nice working alone or with some low key men. Women really could learn from other women that sometimes quiet time is okay, and positive talk. Its a hard habit to break but you can if you are conscious about it.

      • Amber says:

        Spot on. I feel exactly the same about woman who have nothing better to do. I was always the unlinked
        One because other woman hated that I got along with the men better in the work place.
        Men just don’t bitch like woman do.
        Is rather work with men any given say of the week. They know how to keep it real and will help without some snide remark. It’s in their make up and most don’t realise everyone already thinks they’re a bitch, we just don’t say it to your face.

      • Huntjint says:

        There is a gossip that needs to be resolved. If talking about it without an attempt of resolution, I find the gossip to be useless except creating problems.

        I personally grew up a lot. I find my friends too unproductive. Perhaps, they should go on holidays other than their work.

      • RDK says:

        I’m sure you are aware that the attitude towards woman in most of the comments I have read are demeaning. Women have problems gossiping. We have all gossiped at one point or another. Who am I to think I’m better than someone just because they have a weakness that might be more obvious than my own. I admire people who can make friends with both sexes. I am a woman and I’m proud of it. I have many woman friends who are kind, trustworthy, thoughtful, and brilliant. You will find what you look for.

        • Alexand says:

          RDK, glad you chimed in. I appreciate the fact that you took time to reflect about the possible causes and effects of both gossiping and making implicitly demeaning remarks about women. As a feminist therapist who’s worked closely with many women, I want to note that, in our mainstream US culture and in many other cultures and sub-cultures, women are discouraged in many ways from directly feeling or expressing certain emotions and thoughts connected with assertiveness and conflict. It’s my belief that gossip and similar behaviors serve as indirect outlets for these thwarted energies and rights. In the distressing types of gossiping behaviors detailed both in Alison’s thoughtful article and these comments, I see something poignant and striking. In so much gossiping, I see the complex minds and desires of people (women, primarily, though by no means entirely) who are *still* being told, after all these years of sexism and feminism–in both subtle and blatant ways–that they don’t have the same right or freedom that men enjoy to be direct about what they think, want, and feel. In so much gossiping, I see the beautiful minds of complex, vital people enchained and enmired in dead-end activities that function as a substitute for deeper vitality and a more “alive” engagement with the world. It’s like applying lipstick instead of eating a cherry. I believe we have all–male and female–gossiped and felt the “bad apple” taste in our mouths (great metaphor), and sensed afterward, even dimly, that we’re not doing justice to ourselves or the possibility of connection with, and empathy toward, other people. I’m very glad this article is here, and I’m glad to see that so many people are giving their energy to the vital question of what we and others are really doing when we gossip. Thanks to all.

          • Alison says:

            Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting comment. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I think you are absolutely right that gossip is a way to assert one’s pent up desires and opinions, after the fact rather than directly with the person who is annoying one. By learning to assert oneself directly in a compassionate though straightforward way, instead of having to “be nice,” one can actually be truer to oneself, more authentic with others, and thus have more vitality, and less pent up resentment that may come out as gossip. Thank you for your comment.

    • Carole Heath says:

      I quite agree Paul with your comment. Asking personal questions is unpleasant. I don’t like it myself. I try and avoid women who do this type of things like are you married have you got any children. If you say no I am not married the answer is would you have liked to have got married don’t you feel lonely without children no I don’t. People’s personal life is their own business and I for one don’t like some nosey women or men ( which is very rare) poking their nose into my business.

  10. procrasinatingpolly says:

    Thanks for clarification. Sometimes i am not gossiping, I am just curious about other people’s lives, people condemn as a gossip. A friend of mine, I want to cut off seems to think I am gossiper, when I am just worried. Yes, I will be frank and say yes that sometimes I am just too nosy or that I am gossiping. Not all talking about people behind their back is wrong. Pointing out other people’s flaws is not always wonder, either. I am pretty angry at the moment. I feel unreal to pretend everyone is just so nice and wonderful all the time. It is better to honest and realistic, then sit around and pretend everyone is such an angel when they are not.

    • Alison says:

      Thank you for your comment. I wouldn’t advocate pretending that everyone is nice and wonderful. But I find it more interesting to focus on why someone would be driven to behave in a certain way, and also to focus on situations and people who have accomplished something worthwhile. What you focus on for most of the day affects who you are and how you feel. So focusing on other people’s weaknesses without attempting to understand the intricacies that drive them can bring you down. On the other hand, focusing on more positive people, accomplishments and abilities can inspire you to improve your own life.

    • Melissa Griffin says:

      You don’t think it is odd to be curious about someone else’s life. Get a life of your own and be curious about that. It’ll only get better. I have a female who has been leaving me messages for months not to say “Hey girl was out living my life and thought about you and decided to give you a call
      and say hello”. She keeps saying she is concerned and I’m trying to figure out when I told her “A grown woman” when she needed to be concerned about me “A grown woman”. I already have a modher and she has never had to worry about me. I don’t need my friends too. I don’t need those

      forms of friendshipseeworrief

  11. whatever says:

    Hi. I have to disagree with research starting any yes or no arguments. I DO NOT GOSSIP / AND JUST BECAUSE I HAVE NO FRIENDS IS NOT AN INDICATION THAT I DO. I DON’T HAVE ANY FRIENDS BECAUSE IT IS ALWAYS A POPULAR PAST TIME AMONG FEMALES (AND MALES) IN AMERICA. CLOSE TO FOOTBALL BY REAL MEN.

    there I said it and also companies should stop hiring gossips and people who just want to do the job and GO HOME!

  12. mira pacheco says:

    I just don’t how someone can be so nice and sweet then next thing you know spreading rumors about my oldest son, my daughter and me.. she is new in the church her boyfriend brought her or win her to church that we go.. and she even spread rumors about her boyfriend who brought her to church.. My son loves them and trusted them like his own brother and sister like a best friend but he learned that they are not what he thinks they are.. my son is hurt so bad but he wouldn’t do a thing about it.. Thank God!! and I don’t know how someone can be so sweet and seems like she can’t harm a fly.. but her mouth is like burning sulfurous… don’t even think what she says and not scared or don’t even have fear in God.. you know what I feel right now about her.. I know that Im suppose to get mad at her but what I feel right now is mercy toward her.. like what you said in your message, a gossiper never happy with themselves and they are full of jealousy.. I wonder and how can I help a person like her.. the thing is I don’t want to be around her anymore or my children.. I don’t trust her anymore.. All I can do is just pray for her.. ;)

  13. carman lopez says:

    im a victum of gossip by the mananger at my apt complex sadly none is true all but one thing im a owner of a condo…nothing big how ever it’s paid for in full…this person has went out of her way to target me and put all kinds of negative information about me through out the complex…im still asking my self why me…this person cAME ACROSS AS A NICE LADY EVERYTHING BUT NICE VERY MEAN NASTY NONE THE LESS A LIRE…SHE MADE SEVERAL COMMENTS ON MY BODY SHE SAIH ASK ME BEFORE I FOUND OUT HOW NASTY SHE IS…SORRY SHE ASK ME HOW I STAY SO FIT,, SHE ASK ME ABOUT MY JEWLARY …AND MY AGE I TOLD HER 52 THE NEXT I KNEW THIS WOMAN IS LIKE A LION THAT HAS NOT EATEN IN MONTHS…I NEVER SAID A THING TO THIS WOMAN IN A NEGATIVE WAY…SHE HAS FORBIDDEN ANY ON PROPERTY TO TALK TO ME AMONG OTHER THINGS…CAN YOU TELL ME WHY SO MUCH HATE… SORRY FOR ANY TYPOS TYPING WITH NO GLASSES…THANKS FOR ALL YOUR SUPPORT IN THIS MATTER…THOS IS JUST A SMALL IDEA OF WHAT I HAVE LIVED WITH WOMAN SOMETIMES I WANT TO SELL MY PLACE JUST TO MOVE AWAY FROM HER…

    • Patricia Morgan says:

      Sounds like jealousy to me.I live in a complex for older people,I`m the younger end being in my 60s.I dress in my own way,not too young but not Grannyish either.I still wear my jewellery and have a nice hair cut,and try and keep fit walking my little dog.
      I joke with the elderly men and they do so back and others join in.Any new man to joing our compex,I found out is warned off me because they say I`m looking for another man.This is very hurtful as I have lost the last three to cancersG and heart attack.I`m happy on my own now,but enjoy a little light banter which makes most residents laugh.I think because you have some property and wear your jewellery etc,we don`t fit into the dowdy life style.Just ignore this woman,or tell her she could be had up for slander..keep looking good for yourself.

      • Alison says:

        I think there’s nothing wrong with banter and light flirtation. Life is short, we can enjoy each other in the fleeting moments we have together as long as there is mutual respect. I hope you can ignore any negativity from the person who is saying hurtful things, and continue to interact with those who appreciate you.

    • justanopinion says:

      Don’t worry, she’s probably just insecure and jealous. Lots of women are like that. Reasons could be lack of self worth, unhappy with their own life, dissatisfied with their looks/appearance, they feel ‘unlucky’ or ‘put upon’, they feel shortchanged by God or by life, or…take this – they wish they could be YOU.

      Instead of getting pissed off about this person, take comfort in the fact that 1. You’re fortunate NOT to be born to be her 2. She’s a miserable, loser and she KNOWS it.

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