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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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May 10th, 2012

What Works: Gossip

Why we do it and the harm it does



Gossip seems like the main form of entertainment these days. We’re bombarded with the ups and downs, the personal embarrassments, of entertainers, politicians, and a whole swath of people on pseudo-reality shows whose only reason for fame seems to be self-promotion. People have always been attracted to lurid news. In the Middle Ages, instead of Perez Hilton, its purveyors were roving minstrels — the medieval French term for a minstrel, jongleur, actually means “gossip.” I think it’s worse now because of the information age — the obsessive focus on information to create an illusion of control. We substitute having an opinion about Kim Kardashian’s swimsuit for having an opinion about our purpose in life.

But I mention celebrity gossip only to point out how accepted gossip is in general. I want to focus on real life gossip — talking about people you know behind their backs — people at the office, people you call friends.

The dictionary defines gossip as: “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.” (Idle in this sense means “of no real value.”)

But the word’s odd derivation is even more telling. Gossip originally meant godparent (from God + sibb). Think about that. To gossip means to take an interest in the personal affairs of someone who isn’t a family member as if they were in fact a relative. A godparent takes on that role righteously. A gossip does so when they shouldn’t.

Malicious gossip

Many people know rumormongering is technically bad, but feel justified if it involves someone they don’t like. That doesn’t make it OK, any more than it would justify physically attacking them — spreading rumors or slander about a person is an act of verbal violence and it’s never justifiable.

It also seems to be a powerful way to bond with others. In a famous 2006 study, “Interpersonal Chemistry Through Negativity,” Jennifer Bosson, a social psychologist at the University of South Florida, and her colleagues assert that we feel a closer kinship over shared dislikes of people than shared likes.

My own weak spot is complaining about someone who frustrates or annoys me — looking to get a free pass for having those negative feelings by confirming that someone else is backing me up about them.

Negative gossip does more than identify a common belief, says Bosson. Its real power comes in creating a sense of community by setting up “in-groups” and “out-groups,” putting those gossiping on the inside by putting the subject on the outside.

So, if it helps build community, what’s wrong with it? Gossip is toxic because in order to do it, we must harden our heart towards the “out” person. We draw a line between ourselves and them; define them as being outside the rules of Christian charity. And while it may come with the territory for a celebrity, or while that person in the office may have done something worth criticizing, we don’t get off free for hurting them. We create a gap between ourselves and God’s Love. As we harden our heart towards one person then another, one group then another, our heart turns to stone; this negativity and feeling of separateness will grow and permeate our world, and we’ll find it more difficult to access God’s love in any aspect of our lives.

Idle talk

OK, you’re saying, sure rumormongering and slander are bad, but I don’t see the harm in a little talking about people’s business when they’re not around — not in a hateful way, just being a little nosy. It’s fun.

Idle talk about others may seem harmless on its surface, but the gossip grapevine seems to have a strong bias towards judgment. As the negativity study said, people tend to bond over negative views, so idle talk usually drifts into what we think is wrong about someone else, taking their inventory. Be honest, how often do you gossip about good things?

Busybodies often think they’re just trying to help, offering correction or advice, or talking about someone out of genuine concern — and we do have a responsibility to help each other follow the path, as “iron sharpens iron.” (Proverbs 27:17) But, odds are, this isn’t one of those cases.

J. John, Anglican speaker and author of Ten, a wonderful walk through applying the Ten Commandments to modern life, offers several useful tests for whether something is gossip or justified interest in another:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Will it benefit anybody knowing this?

And even if the answer to both of those questions is “yes,” answer these additional two:

  1. Would you be willing to put your name to it — to be known to all as its source?
  2. Would you be willing to say it to the person’s face in a public setting?

If not, then even if you might be justified in talking to the subject about it, you have no business talking to others. Ask yourself how you feel when someone does the same about you.

It really is as simple as this: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12)

And I would add one additional test to any impulse to gossip:

  1. What is your motivation? Is it to help the person, or is it for self-seeking motives – to bond with another person, to feel morally superior, to justify your own choices? If your motives are impure, then even a valid attempt to help will probably fall flat or cause harm.

I probably shouldn’t tell you this…

Consider also trying not to be complicit even in listening to gossip. J. John says, “When people say, ‘I probably shouldn’t tell you this…’ why don’t we say, ‘Well, you better not’?” Instead, he says, we likely respond, “Oh, go on. What is it?”

I do it. The temptation is tremendous. Sometimes I listen for pure entertainment value. Sometimes I wouldn’t mind hearing the subject taken down a peg. And sometimes I just don’t want to cause conflict with the gossiper. But consider telling the next person sharing a juicy bit of gossip that you’d prefer not to hear it, that you don’t care about the other person’s personal business, or suggest they could be wrong — challenge them to defend their story. (And, as they’re gossiping to you about someone else, remember the old saying: “Who gossips with you will gossip of you.”)

Gossip has a way of spreading and sticking around — “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.” (Proverbs 18:8) This is why gossip is so dangerous and must be guarded against. Once out of the bag, it’s impossible to unsay.

What do you think? Am I making too much of this? What’s the harm in a little talk around the water cooler? Or have you seen or felt the damage gossip can cause? Share your thoughts and experiences below in comments.

This column was originally published on August 9, 2010.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Not Brunette

    What a great article!
    I was once in the very embarrassing position where I had gotten drunk and confided something private to a client who I thought was a friend. I ultimately found that she had gossiped to her employees about me.
    I found myself getting anxious and having a terrible attitude about going back there, even before I found out that she’d betrayed my personal life to her employees (who had told other employees). Sometimes you just pick up a vibe, and when I heard her gossiping about other people I realized that she’d probably done the same to me.
    I would rather have uncomfortable truths out there, than very malicious false gossip based on tiny bits of truth. I confronted her employees tactfully and told them the bigger picture story, and then it wasn’t anything so scandalous to gossip about. It was still NOT comfortable working where people under me knew so much about my personal life.
    Needless to say, I was glad that I could make it a short term gig (eventhough it meant losing money). I lost all respect for this lady as a friend and have just distanced myself from her as much as possible.
    The good thing about people and gossipy environments like that is that people usually have a short term memory. More salacious material comes up, and there’s new drama.

    • Phil Fox Rose

      Thanks, Not Brunette! Your situation sounds all too familiar. It sounds like you took it head on and handled it well. Glad it worked out. We can forgive the gossipers because it is (fallen) human nature, but that doesn’t mean we have to be friends with them or open ourselves to more. BTW, I’m especially aware of the truth of my point which you picked up on — that if they are talking to YOU about other people, you can be sure they are talking to other people about you.

  • Christine

    You’re right on with this one, Phil. If our motive is to help and enlighten, we should be telling it to the person involved. If not, we shouldn’t be telling anyone.

  • D.D. Delaney

    This article is right-on. I could tell you why I think so, but then I’d be gossiping.

  • ctherese

    I’ve just become a victim to gossip and extremely betrayed. I confided in a close in-law about a private, very personal matter between my husband and me. I had shared intimate moments with her before and she had with me. She knew I had not spoken to anyone about this matter and I was reaching out and desperate. She immediately phoned her own sister about the “news” and in turn so worried about my husband, their brother, that they contacted him the following morning. We were both blind sided by this sudden news circulating within the family. I had to scramble to keep my own family in the loop all due to someone’s selfish intentions. She balks at the word gossip, however I was not included in any correspondance that word was spreading about such intimate private matters of mine. If I would have been told that she needed to talk to someone I could have intervened and took appropriate action. She took away my privacy and destroyed any trust or motivation for me to continue what seemed like a one sided relationship. With me giving and her taking. I am so remorseful I told her. She is not remorseful and said, well, I didn’t tell her NOT to tell. No, this isn’t even something she had a right to share and most people would have understood that. That was a priviledge taken from my husband and me. Now he is angry with me and I understand why. I am so angry and deeply hurt with her. She can’t understand she made a bad sitiuation much worse. I am in shock.

  • Christian

    A very old story, newly told:


  • Wayne Cox

    When I point my finger at someone, it’s impossible to point that finger at myself. So at that time I stop moving forward on the Spiritual Path.

  • Catholic

    And just one more comment…I appreciate the questions you offered to ask yourself when you feel compelled to talk about another person. I can have a hard time now and then trying to discern talking about people at all!

  • Catholic

    Phil Fox Rose, I LOVE this piece. This is a topic I really struggle with. I cannot stand gossip, even in it’s tiniest disguises, and oftentimes find myself the “silent one” when I’m surrounded by it. A tip that works for me is to start mentally praying right then and there and ask the Lord to purify all that’s going on in this moment, and to bless and protect the person being talked about.

  • JK

    Phil Fox Rose, you’re right. If you don’t participate, it gets noticed and makes others reflect. It worked for me. I used to engage in office gossip and enjoy the ‘inclusion’ it gave, but over time I noticed that one colleague, although never criticising the rest of us, never used to contribute. In fact, when I thought about it, I realised that I could not think of a single instance of her saying a bad word about anybody. It’s relatively “easy”, doesn’t lead to a “holier-than-thou” accusation, and does make others think… and change…

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Wonderful question, magnoliachica. Wanting “to be included in the group” when the group is behaving in a way that’s contrary to Christian morals is one of the great challenges for all of us. You are right, though, that this is probably not a teaching moment. If you challenge them about their gossiping, you just come off as holier-than-thou, rather then enlightening them or making them think, as you say, and the moment is lost. You’ll have to explore and find the balance. Perhaps you need to walk away; perhaps you can remain and not participate. Someone may even notice your lack of participation and be inspired to reflect on what they’re doing. Just be aware of your heart, your guidance from the Holy Spirit, and keep asking yourself questions.

  • Wayne

    Perhaps of all the “commandments” this would be one of the most challenging and difficult to keep. I find always have to be on guard to watch what I am saying.

  • magnoliachica

    This is something I’ve thought a lot about in working in an office with a bunch of other young women. It is so easy to get into petty discussions about clients and of those not around. I find that it is hard to resist participation for both the reason of sheer interest and entertainment, but also because to say I’m not interested seems to put ME on the outside. I want to be included in the group, and I don’t want to project a “holier-than-thou” image (goodness knows I ain’t perfect). My challenge: how do I step away from negative discussions without ostracizing friends?

  • Annie

    Yeah, I always thought the sticks and stones saying was a bunch of garbage. I don’t know about being stoned, but I think I’d rather someone come up to me and hit me with a stick and be done with it than be slandered.

  • Catie M

    I think you are completely on with this one. Gossip is contagious, like the flu. Once it starts, you have to let it run its course. Stopping it is near impossible. I’ve seen children in junior high and high school switch to other schools, because the gossip followed them down the halls, and it was the only way to escape. People that say that words can never hurt you have obviously never been the victim of gossip.

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