Two twentysomethings are sitting at a local cafe enjoying a casual lunch when the conversation begins to lull. One twentysomething remembers a tidbit he heard from a friend he plays racquetball with at the gym on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
“Did you hear that Josh* is currently out of work?”
“Yeah, I did. I wonder what happened at his medical office?”
“I don’t know exactly, but the way he has been acting lately, it must be bad. Someone told me that he isn’t allowed to see any patients for an undetermined amount of time.”
“Whoa! I didn’t know it was that bad.”
“Yeah, sounds kind of like malpractice, doesn’t it?”
“It sure does. I’ll definitely be praying for him, and I’ll let others know, too.”
“Thanks. In the meantime, you may not want to say anything to Josh about it. You know it’s got to be a hard thing for him to handle, and whenever I’ve asked him about it, he says he can’t talk about it.”
“Absolutely, I won’t say a word to him.”
The truth is that Josh’s annual licensing paperwork arrived at the medical state board a day late, and they asked him to refrain from working with clients while they sorted out the paperwork mishap. The whole process took longer than Josh expected, so he hired a lawyer—who advised him not to talk to anyone about the case—to help sort through the state board requirements. Eventually, the case was settled and Josh’s name was cleared by the board, but it would take much longer to clear his name in his own community—thanks to the gossip that was started by two friends.
The deep hurt can still be seen on Josh’s face when he recalls the situation. “The facts were so bad,” he said. “It just took a few people who were fed misinformation to spread rumors, and I was undermined professionally and relationally.”
Gossip touches everyone from politicians and business managers to young professionals and soccer moms. No one is immune. And if you’re famous, people actually get paid to gossip about you! Have you seen the photos of Brad and Angelina? What’s the real story behind the spat between Paris and Nicole? And how are Jessica and Nick really doing? I’m humbled to think how many times I’ve clicked a link online to find out the latest news on other’s lives.
Cynthia Humbert, author of Deceived by Shame, Desired by God (NavPress), notes that gossip is popular because it creates a momentary sense of false intimacy. When someone shares a secret, it can make you feel special. By sharing a morsel of private or personal information, two people can feel emotionally connected. Gossip often allows people to feel “five minutes of fame” as they recount the details, spur the imagination toward the worst and spread seeds of embellishment.
Yet gossip isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s even documented in the Bible. Proverbs 20:19 says that gossip betrays a confidence, so it’s a good idea to avoid anyone “who talks too much.” Even Jesus encountered gossip. The Pharisees were constantly using slander and gossip to negatively influence others perceptions of Christ and try to damage His reputation. Remember the meals with sinners? The healings on the Sabbath?
There’s no doubt that gossip, rumors, whisperings and slander create barriers between people. Listening to gossip can confuse and contaminate a relationship. It can easily separate intimate friends.
GOSSIP VS. GOOD CONVERSATION
How do you tell the difference between harmless conversation and gossip?
American Heritage Dictionary defines gossip as “trivial talk, often involving personal or sensational rumors.” Gossip often reveals personal and intimate information about another person and uses a variety of words, attitudes and suggestive mannerisms to injure or discredit another person’s reputation or character. Gossip can be used to negatively influence a person’s opinion or perspective.
Comments which recognize a person’s attributes—whether it’s someone’s generosity, kindness or willingness to serve—isn’t considered gossip. But as soon as the information turns into something negative or critical, the issue of gossip needs to be considered.
It often comes down to motives.
Here are a few questions to consider when discerning whether something is gossip:
-Are the words uplifting and encouraging? Do they support reconciliation or cause division?
-Have you spoken to the person directly about the information you’re sharing?
-Do you feel you would have the person’s permission to share the information?
-Would you feel comfortable sharing the information if the person were in the room?
-Do you feel encouraged and challenged after the conversation or ashamed, bitter and angry?
It’s also important to let others know when you are uncomfortable with a conversation. This can be done in a gracious way that doesn’t appear condescending or superior.
Michael Sedler, author of Stop the Runaway Conversation, suggests several strategies. Consider saying, We are talking about (fill in name,) and (he/she) isn’t here right now. I am a little uncomfortable with doing that. Can we change the topic? Thanks.
By using the inclusive word “we,” it doesn’t point a finger at the other person. Another strategy is to say something positive about the person whose character is being assaulted. Something like, That’s interesting that you are so frustrated with the pastor. I know I have found him to be very supportive and encouraging. Maybe you caught him at a bad time.
It is also helpful to evaluate the relationships among your urban tribe. It may be necessary to sit down with friends and address your conversations. Tell them that you’ve been considering the issue of gossip in your life and realize that you get caught up in it too much. Ask your friends to hold you accountable. In addition, you may have to reduce your contacts with certain people or places. Common areas like staff lounges and the water cooler at work can be hot spots for gossip.
Also look for words that clue you into the fact that you may be tempted to listen to a piece of gossip. If someone says, I’m not sure if I should share this or not, then try to graciously cut them off before they can go any further. You may want to say, Well, then probably I don’t need to know, and change the subject. If someone asks, Have you heard about so-and-so or such-and-such? then gently reply, No, I haven’t, but I don’t really need to either. I have enough to worry about in my own life.
These seem like pretty simple principles, but they can go a long way to protect yourself and others.
Several years ago, I had a near run-in with a “Josh situation.” One of my mom’s coworkers saw my father with a young woman walking arm-in-arm at a local hotel. The coworker was disgusted and hurt by father’s behavior, but rather than mention it to anyone at the company or in the community, she chose not to say anything.
One day, the coworker confronted my mom. She retells the story: “I remember the day that I saw your husband walking with a young woman in a hotel. They were arm-in-arm, and both had this happy look about them. I was so angry. I felt so betrayed for you. I never said anything to you or anyone else—and I’m so glad that I didn’t. Now I recognize the young woman: she’s your daughter!”
On that fateful day, my dad and I had been looking at shops inside a local hotel. I was enjoying his company, grabbing his hand, proud to be with such an incredible dad. It’s scary to think what damage could have been done to my parent’s marriage and our family if this coworker had chosen to gossip about what she had seen. Fortunately, she chose to remain silent.
Truly, some things are better left unsaid.