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.