“I hear that their marriage isn’t going so well, lately,” commented Sherry
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” replied Grace, “look at their faces when they walk into church on Sunday morning, they’re not exactly beaming at each other.”
“It’s been going on for a while from what I hear,” added Sherry with a serious look on her face. “But I understand. I wouldn’t want to be married to him either. He’s got issues.”
What do you think of this conversation? Is it the discussion of two genuinely concerned friends, is it gossip, or is it a combination? I’ve often found it hard to distinguish between gossip and the legitimate discussion of another’s faults between people who care about them. Parents, for example, often evaluate their children in private conversation, strategizing on how to raise them or support them. When have we crossed the line?
“Gossip” is a slippery word to define. Here are some online definitions: “casual or unconstrained reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed to be true”, “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of another,” “conversations or reports about other peoples’ private lives which might be unkind, disapproving, or not true”. See what I mean about “slippery”? We can’t always avoid talking about the problems of others; that’s just part of life, yet, at some point, our discussion may morph into gossip, which the Bible condemns at least ten times, and that doesn’t include related terms like “slander”. To be called a “gossip” is never a compliment. Would you like that label attached to you? Let’s take a stab at defining “gossip” in practical terms to at least get us thinking about it. Keep in mind that all of these descriptions will not fit every situation.
What is gossip?
1. Gossip, involves passing along as fact, ideas about another which have not been established as true (especially negative facts)
“Well, I heard. . .”, says Joe. Yes, but does he really know, though that’s his unspoken implication? Has he verified it; double-checked it? Probably not. Gossips are usually more concerned with having something interesting to share than with its accuracy.
2. Gossip involves passing along negative facts when unnecessary
Joe had a spat with his boss. It’s not exactly a secret. Others heard it too. But why bring it up as an idle topic of conversation? Does that help Joe or his boss? Might this information affect how others see them in a negative way? Just because it’s true, do people need to know? Is that helpful? Often it isn’t. Which leads to the next point.
3. Gossip involves a lack of concern or love for the others of which we speak
Why are we sharing potentially mistaken or hurtful facts? Is it to help those involved or is it mostly for our own benefit or amusement? Do we care about them and how these words might affect them? Are we trying to help them or build them up or is that inconsequential? Do we have Christ’s love for them?
4. Gossip involves passing along confidentialities to those unqualified to hear them
You’ve been told something in confidence, perhaps that a person is considering divorce. It’s true, but it seems too juicy to keep to yourself. You know that others will be shocked, and probably entertained by your inside information, so you spill the beans, perhaps, even asking them “Don’t repeat this, but. . . “ to salve your conscience.
5. Gossip involves saying more than is necessary
Sometimes, a fact may need to be mentioned, but does it have to be discussed repeatedly or analyzed at length? It’s one thing to mention that Sam’s not doing so well financially and then move on. It’s another thing to keep working the subject because it’s interesting to dissect, instead of focusing on more constructive subjects and we often end up spilling more beans than we originally intended to reveal.
6. Gossip involves trying to manipulate others in a certain direction
Maybe, though not always, we secretly hope that the “facts” we’re mentioning will influence others in the way we want. We may desire them to dislike a person whom we dislike, or to take our position on an issue even though some of our “facts” may be untrue or incomplete.
How can I avoid gossiping?
1. I avoid gossiping by limiting my words in general
Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” The more we talk, the more likely it is that we’ll slip and say too much. Don’t be afraid to speak when needed, but try to say what you mean concisely and then stop talking. This not only protects you from careless words, ironically, it makes people pay more attention when you do speak.
2. I avoid gossip by learning to think before I speak
Just as the media often has a short time delay built into their system before we actually hear the announcer, to allow them to blip out mistakes, learn to have a slight hesitation before you blurt your words, so that you can weigh if they’re worth speaking. Sometimes, that extra second makes all the difference. You end up being glad that you held back.
3. I avoid gossip by checking my facts
If your “facts” are built on here-say, or on shaky grounds, don’t repeat them until you check them out. Our world is full of lies, distortions and half-truths. If you feel it necessary to repeat a possible fact (maybe you’re problem-solving with someone) label it with the appropriate degree of accuracy (“We will need to check this out, but I’ve heard. . .”)
4. I avoid gossip by maintaining confidentialities
There are, of course, exceptions to this, like learning of crime or child-abuse, but normally, when you say “I’ll keep this between you and me” make every effort to do that. And “hinting” without actually revealing the confidentiality gives “clues” which can easily become a form of breaking confidentiality.
5. I avoid gossip by asking if my words will be helpful
Just because it’s true, does it have to be spoken? Would sharing that fact be useful or is it best left unspoken and unknown? I, for one, am glad that everyone doesn’t know every fact about my life, true or not and that every fact that is known is not being passed along. There are plenty of things I’d rather forget. Our goal, after all, is wherever possible, to build others up (Eph. 4:32). The world is negative enough as it is. Which leads to the next point:
6. I avoid gossip by remembering that it undermines how much those listening will trust me
Those who gossip about others behind their backs will probably also gossip about you. Why wouldn’t they? So, even though they may enjoy your juicy tidbits, it often makes them less trustful of you and limits what they’re willing to reveal to you.
7. I avoid gossip by being guided by the motivation of love
Do I genuinely care about the people I’m speaking of? Do I want God’s best for them? Do I want to avoid hurting them unnecessarily? Do I want to build them up as much as possible? Let these motives guide your words.