Gossip at the firehouse: How to enable ‘good gossip’ and shut down negativity

Three questions to ask before talking about your brother and sister firefighters

People like to talk about other people. It’s human nature. And most firefighters really like to talk about other people.

It goes with the territory. You’re in close quarters with a small group of coworkers. Sometimes these are people you have come to know all too well. There is always some downtime in the station. These circumstances lend themselves to gossip.

Gossip has a negative connotation, but its actual definition is “talking about someone who is not present.” Talking about people isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It indicates interest in others. It can even be a way of creating community.

Gossip is inherently interesting, and information is power. And let’s face it, we’re all helpless to it. A study published in 2019 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that people spend an average of 52 minutes per day engaged in gossip.

But the potentially negative aspects of gossip are significant and must be controlled, especially in a closed community like the fire department. Speculative, juicy information about someone else is almost always more interesting than commonly held knowledge or positive news. Repeating more negative or sensational information about someone always commands more attention.

Social media has added a dangerous layer to gossip, too. Social media has diminished accountability. Before social media, if you shared a rumor with someone, that person knew where that rumor had immediately come from – you. There was the ability to directly question or disagree with the source of the information. Now people can anonymously share comments on social media with little or no personal accountability. This lack of accountability can lead to more extreme views and having groups gang up on individuals in ways that would not happen in person.

So, how can individuals promote good gossip and discourage the more negative aspects of this social tradition? Everyone can and should take a leadership role.

3 questions to ask yourself

The first step is to require accountability for the stories that you hear. Before repeating or encouraging any third-party information about others, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it fair?
  3. Is it kind?

True: The truth aspect requires sources. Whether the talk is about a coworker, a city official or even a national figure, there are ways to verify hearsay stories. The verification should be done through neutral and reliable sources, not just those that are likely to agree with the original assertion. Asking, “What is your source for that?” can have a real braking effect on otherwise unfounded speculation.

Fair: Considering the fairness of gossip is something anyone can do but is especially important for those in leadership positions. For example, consider the discussion of an absent coworker’s recent embarrassing mistake on an emergency call. As the conversation ramps up, those participating might have the tendency to become more extreme and explicit in their opinions about what happened. This is a time when the company officer can step up and point out that the individual being maligned is hardly the first on the department to ever make a mistake. This might turn the conversation toward a discussion of other famous screw-ups in department history, a conversation that is likely to be much more inclusive and possibly even instructive if managed well.

In some cases, it might be necessary to take more direct action. Change the subject. Assign a group activity or project that requires physical effort. Simply say, “All right. That’s enough of that. Let’s move on.”

Kind: Finally, it is worth asking: Is it kind? Firefighters may shrug off kindness as a consideration, seeing it as a sign of weakness or political correctness. Being the occasional object of criticism or derision is just part of being a firefighter.

But firefighters are kind when it really matters. Consider how we rally around a coworker with a sick child or one who lost a home in a recent flood.

It never works to scold people to change their behavior. But reminding people of the difficulties that everyone is facing, especially during these challenging times, can go a long way toward changing the tone of a conversation from one that is nasty or critical to one that is more empathetic. Providing this kind of context for any type of gossip can be very effective.

Do your part 

In the meantime, everyone can do their part to promote positive or supportive stories about others. Someone finished their degree. Someone else just returned from the fire academy – what did they think of it? Who is likely to apply for the open fire inspector position? Someone may be going through a difficult divorce – does that person need support from coworkers?

It is impossible and unnecessary to try to eliminate gossip from the fire department environment. However, it can be controlled and managed in such a way that it does no harm and may even do some good. Demanding accountability for negative gossip and promoting the sharing of positive and supportive information also goes a long way toward increasing trust among any crew, and credibility for the leader of that crew.

Editor’s Note: How have you controlled gossip at your station? Share your tips in the comments below.

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