Administration and Leadership, Operations, Training

Gossip Is Just as Dangerous as a Safety Hazard

Issue 3 and Volume 37.

I’ve surrounded myself with EMS providers for two-thirds of my life. I love ’em, Life-Saver. Love how they think, love the things they do, and love what makes ’em laugh. But between emergencies, I think we’re some of the worst gossipers ever.

A New Orleans R&B singer named Joe Jones popularized a Top ’40s ode to a gossiper in the early 1960s. It was called “You Talk Too Much,” and its chorus went something like this:

You talk about people that you don’t know.
You talk about people wherever you go.
You just ta—a—alk. You talk too much.

Jones’ lyrics weren’t particularly eloquent. But they still strike a chord with me. Ask any EMT student rider doing a first ride. We sort a lot of each other’s private stuff in front of folks we don’t know.

I’m no genius, and I don’t know why we do some of the things we do. But when what we do is hard, it’s really hard. When it’s easy, it’s really easy. And just when it gets easy, our chins start moving. It’s like a reflex. I’ve seen it in emergency department (ED) medical staffs, especially on the night shift. I’ve seen it in fire departments of all sizes. And I’ve seen even the nicest medics succumb to it between calls, under all kinds of circumstances.

I’ve learned a lot about gossip, especially from my own mistakes. What’s gossip and what’s not? Gossip is discussing other people in their absence, usually in terms they would find embarrassing if they were present. Most of us do this important work of ours because we like working with people, and we find other people interesting. So, talking about people seems natural.

How you can tell whether or not you’re gossiping? That’s easy. Any time you find yourself wondering if what you’re saying or hearing is gossip, it’s probably gossip.

What’s so bad about gossip?

I remember a time when I was a 25-year-old EMT responding to a real estate agency in a little town called Lemon Grove, Calif., for a self-inflicted shooting. There was nothing we could do for the woman, who was the same age as I was. She had held her boss and three coworkers at gunpoint, then she made them witnesses to her death. The day before, she had walked into the office to find them all discussing the intimate details of a date she had the previous weekend with the boss, who was married. I remember the call because my partner and I talked it to pieces. As I recall, she left a two-year-old son. I personally engaged in speculation about the lady’s personal life. After all, she was already a single mom. (There were plenty of those in the ’70s, but they weren’t considered socially “acceptable.”)

Once we determined that we wouldn’t be needed to resuscitate or transport, the facts in this case were really none of our business. I should have realized that.

Perhaps we’ve all seen gossip produce awful consequences. In fact, I have come to view the practice of gossiping as a safety hazard in organizations. I think, like any toxic substance, it destroys people’s good names, their careers and their lives. Consequently, I’ve learned to rely on the presence or absence of gossip as a vital sign when I ponder the working environment at my own agency. I listen for it within the first five minutes of any visit to another agency, and my radar is always tuned for it. I’m no big shot, but I feel responsible to the families of my subordinates to make sure their loved ones are at least as safe from trash talk as they are from crappy equipment or risky procedures.

So, as a newcomer, how do you mitigate the existence of gossip in a culture? And thereafter, how do you minimize the intrusion of gossip into the daily communications of a healthy organization?

Fortunately, both of those questions can be addressed by a single strategy. It has everything to do with who we are and what makes us tick. Use Gandhi’s principle of nonviolent non-cooperation, and simply abstain. That’s it. Next time you find yourself in the middle of a discussion about somebody’s dirty laundry, (and the time after that), refrain from comment. EMS people may blow off your best lecture, but they’re excellent observers.

Make no mistake, there will be conversations you must interrupt. But generally, be patient. People will notice your silence. And this one small behavior will change your whole organization. JEMS