Ever wondered, “Who told you THAT?”
First up, you should listen to this classic album while you’re reading this.
The heart of a rumour is that people don’t know whether information is true or not, but they’re talking about it anyway because they don’t care. Rumours might be born as a piece of truth, as a total fabrication or, most commonly, a combination of both.
What causes them to spread like glitter at Mardi Gras is that a) they’re about a high-stakes topic like sex, death or humiliation, and b) people are willing to repeat it without evidence.
It’s all about the belief
Rumours are a lot like superstitions. People don’t care whether they’re true or not because they’re so stirred up emotionally that they’re willing to go along with it. Just in case it might be true.
The point is that the popularity of a rumour has no connection whatsoever to its likelihood of being true. So try to take some comfort in the fact that people probably don’t actually believe you’re a neo-Nazi/stripper/illegitimate child of Donald Trump. It’s that they want to believe.
For example, in the 1720s English philanthropist Griselda Steevens was building hospitals for poor people, and at some point it became a common belief in Dublin that she had a pig’s face. This was possibly because she had an eye condition that made her sensitive to light, so she often appeared in public wearing a veil. Dismayed, Griselda took to sitting on an open balcony to allow the public to see her face. But even that did nothing to stop the rumour and, hurt and humiliated, she withdrew from public life until her death.
How to fight back
So how to deal if one of these spread-eagles itself across your life? If you can bear to, beat people to it by publicising the rumour yourself. People spread rumours to gain social status, because they appear to have “inside information”. If you broadcast their “inside information”, it reduces its power, and everyone will have heard it from your perspective first.
And be prepared to talk about it – if you’re silent or storm off, people will believe it’s true. Deny it as calmly as you can, and look people in the eye while you’re talking. Laugh about it if you can muster it up. Making the rumour look ridiculous will embarrass the people who took it as fact and make them more likely to drop it.
And remember, the best way to protect yourself from nasty rumours is by not taking part in creating a culture of gossip. So resist the urge to make up a rumour for revenge, or spreading the ones you hear about other people. The more rumours there are flying around, the more paranoid everyone will be and the more likely it is that you’ll cop one.
If you still can’t shake it, here are some resources
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