What Works: Yes, But Is This Gossip?

Phil Fox Rose responds to readers’ questions and comments sparked by his column about gossip


My last column, about gossip, seems to have struck a nerve and inspired a lot of discussion. Since I assume that for every reader who leaves a comment or writes an email, another bunch have that same issue but don’t say anything, I decided to devote another column to the subject, highlighting questions and comments some of you raised.

Several readers asked variations on a very important question: Yes, but is this gossip…? followed by some scenario. Let me start by reiterating something: there are situations in which it’s appropriate to talk with someone about a third person. Deciding which situations those are is where we must use discernment.

Here’s what reader Frances said by email about a real conflict with someone in her social sphere:

Occasionally I need to talk about it (with my brother or someone) in order to process it… I don’t know if that’s gossip.

As I see it, this doesn’t sound like gossip. Yes, it’s similar to complaining about people, but the difference here is that it involves talking to someone trusted, not to hurt this person or even just to vent, but rather to process things and maybe get some guidance.

So let me add a big fat exception for talking to spouses, therapists, spiritual advisors — and/or friends that fill one or more of those roles. I didn’t mean to say that you can’t talk stuff out as a way of healing or understanding. If, on the other hand, you’re using your partner or therapist for regular tirades about all the people you have grudges and resentments against, while that may or may not be gossip, it’s certainly not healthy.

Sticks and stones

Several readers shared their thoughts about the harm that can be done by gossip. Catie wrote in the comments:

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.

And Annie picked up that comment and said:

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.

Whoever coined the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me,” was probably a bully chastising some harmed person to stop being a cry-baby. Either that or it was a harmed person putting up a good front — a false show of strength. One thing’s for sure: it’s absurd. Words can do terrible damage.

How do I step away?

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? — magnoliachica

I addressed the wonderful question from commenter “magnoliachica” in the comments, but I’ll expand on it here. First, their question:

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?

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. We are in essence social creatures. We were designed that way, and it is a good thing, but the fear of being shunned and the desire to be embraced by a group can push us into a disordered response, where we abandon our principles to align with the group’s values. So I do challenge all of us, myself included, to resist those temptations. I am not saying we can be perfect, but let’s at least start by recognizing that it is not OK.

But commenter “magnoliachica” is exactly right that this is probably not a teaching moment. If you challenge them about their gossiping, you just come off as holier-than-thou, rather than enlightening them or making them think, and the moment is lost. Each situation is different — both in the social dynamics of the group and in the egregiousness of the gossip. Perhaps you need to walk away; perhaps you can remain and not participate. My comment that “someone may even notice your lack of participation and be inspired to reflect on what they’re doing” led another reader, JK, to write:

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.

As I said before, just be aware of your heart, your guidance from the Holy Spirit, and keep asking yourself questions.

Good and bad reasons

Over on Facebook, several readers zeroed in on another aspect of the in/out idea, suggesting that it is the gossiper’s own insecurity about their in-ness that leads them to push someone else out.

Diane said,

i was thinking that gossip is probably more about self loathing in that “i’m a creep, i’m a weirdo” sort of way. i think it affirms that someone else is a bigger creep or just as much of weirdo as you.

Another reader, Greg, said:

gossip is a way to not focus on some personal lacking or emptiness of your own. When your life is truly cooking, you just don’t have time for it. But when you’re unfulfilled, unrequited, not where you want to be, then you find the time.

Gee, I have smart readers!

People gossip here [in Maine] a lot, but it’s not mean-spirited. It’s out of concern and interest in others. — Julie

Not everyone agreed 100% with me that gossip is always bad. Julie in Maine writes,

People gossip here a lot, but it’s not mean-spirited. It’s out of concern and interest in others, mostly speculating on why people hadn’t seen so-and-so for a while, or that they were involved with someone who wasn’t good for them, or drinking too much, stuff like that.”

When Julie got back from being away for a while, she says,

I ran into someone and she said many people asked her, ‘What happened to Julie?’ and people didn’t actually know, so they speculated. That’s gossip, but it made me feel good.

I can’t say I’m comfortable with that level of being in other people’s business — but I have to agree that it’s not mean-spirited. And lets apply the tests from my last column:

  1. Is it true? — That depends. In the case of the friend in trouble, yes. In the idle speculation about where Julie had gone, maybe not.
  2. Will it benefit anybody knowing this? — It could, if talking with concern about the friend’s poor life choice might lead to action. It also depends.
  3. Would you be willing to be known to all as its source? — Probably.
  4. Would you be willing to say it to the person’s face in public? — Sure.
  5. Is your motivation to help the person, or is it self-seeking? — To help the person.

As you can see, the question of whether each of Julie’s examples falls into the category of “iron sharpening iron” or gossip is a judgment call.

Let’s keep this conversation going. If you have more to say about any of the issues anode, or if you have a new question or comment, leave it below in comments, or email me at phil [AT] bustedhalo DOT com.