Innocent Gossip?

My friends surrounded me at a cozy table. We hadn't been together in years. Immediately we reverted to the chatty group of teenagers we had once been.

One friend told about a classmate's divorce. "It was nasty. His wife took everything," she said. We listened, drawn in by someone else's misery. My friend acted as if she knew the whole story, both sides.

But did she? Who cared? This was good stuff.

Where's the harm?

An occasional hour of gossip with the girls isn't so bad — or is it? I'd never given much thought to gossip's harm as I participated, both listening and spreading. When I passed on information I'd heard about someone, I didn't care if the tidbit was true or hurtful. And I didn't think about how untrustworthy I appeared to other people who heard me gossip.

In recent years, an unusual circumstance brought the subject of gossip into a different light. An acquaintance began spewing unsolicited information about a dear friend to me. As she divulged secrets, I was put in a position to make a decision: Should I ask her to stop talking, or should I listen to the criticism and exaggerations? Would she be offended if I asked her to stop?

"The person you're talking about is my friend," I blurted. "I can't listen to this."

Stunned, the gossip looked at her watch. We said goodbye with a great deal of discomfort. We haven't said much to each other since. This incident brought to me another question: Should I listen only to gossip about and criticism of people I don't know or don't like? Or do I have to stop participating completely?

Do not conform any longer.

At a conference several years ago, I listened to a speaker talk about the hate she saw among Christians as they tore one another down instead of building one another up. James 3:9 came to mind as I listened to her: "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness."

Gossip and destructive criticism are common in our society. They're on television and in the newspapers. But we don't have to turn on the TV or pick up a paper to get a dose. It's in our homes, churches and businesses, too. Christine works for a large corporation. Her challenge each day is to keep out of the gossip circle at work. I'll admit that I'm occasionally yanked back into it," she said. "I know as soon as I start to listen or open my mouth that I've become part of the problem. Many times, when I feel I've walked away from it, I'll return to my desk and find on my computer an e-mail that's full of gossip. It's every where, and it makes building friendships at work difficult because you don't know whom you can trust.

Cutting the gossip habit may be like weaning a baby from its pacifier: You'll feel a little unsure about what to do with your mouth in certain situations. In her book, Lord, Change Me! Evelyn Christenson writes, "I find it is impossible to pray for and gossip about a person at the same time."

I can't thank God for all the good things about a person and be filled with accusations at the same time."

Kathy, a teacher's assistant, says she purposely starts her day with a commitment to God that she will avoid gossip.

"My goal each day is to refrain from talking bad about anybody or overly complain about bad situations," she says. "I also have to make sure my mind is free of criticism. If I really feel that I need to share some information with someone about another person, I think first about what my purpose and motive are for sharing it." In my journey to prevent myself from gossiping, I've learned some things about myself.

  • A gossip may be fun to listen to, but she can't be trusted enough to build intimate relationships with.

  • No matter how jolly a person seems, gossip and criticism reveal on the outside what's going on in the inside — negative thinking and hatred.

  • Gossip and criticism are used to make us feel better about our positions in life — we feel good when someone else is worse off.

  • Criticism of other people will eventually spill over into my own family. The more I see wrong in people with whom I work or mingle, the more critical my eyes become at home.

  • Gossip and criticism pull down your spirit. "Garbage in, garbage out," a friend's mother used to say. Listening to gossip can be as harmful as speaking it. It changes the way you look at and feel about people.

Damage control.

This anonymous quote is tacked to my bulletin board, and it reminds me to keep a rein on my tongue: "A gossip is a person who will never tell a lie if the truth will do as much damage." Here are a few pointers.

  • Make a commitment with your circle of friends to lift up people instead of tearing them down.

  • Firmly tell the messenger you do not want to hear gossip. Be prepared for the relationship to change.

  • Examine what you fill your mind with. Does your mental diet consist of tell-all books, despondent music or television programs that portray the most sinister side of human behavior?

  • Choose friends carefully. The special part of friendship is being able to confide in each other during rough times. This is unsafe if your friend is known to gossip. If you're a known gossip, people will not trust you.

  • Make it a daily goal to think before you say something about someone. Ask yourself: What is my motivation?

I still keep in touch with my friends from childhood, but we no longer keep the gossip flame burning. Our friendships have grown deeper since we've shelved negativity. We're now able to have conversations about things with substance — family and faith.

Article copyright © 2003, Taprina K. Milburn
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.