Straight Talk About Gossip: What It Is and How to Avoid It
There is perhaps nothing that turns me off quicker than gossip. It is one of the first indicators of someone’s character.
Of all the topics on my heart (and there are many), after praying this is the one God landed on. And I believe that for many, the actual parameters or boundaries that define gossip are misunderstood, skewed or blurred. The Bible makes gossip absolutely clear to us. It defines it very, very clearly. Yet finding the scriptural definitions are a bit hidden for those who are not scripture-savvy. In this post, I’m going to dig them out for you blatantly. And by the end of this – you’ll know precisely what gossip is and how to avoid it. Because this sin of the tongue kills, whether its intent is malicious – or not.
The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly, (Proverbs 18:8, KJV).
Gossip kills and dose irreparable damage. Therefore, this will be our key verse. What’s interesting is this: We all know it when gossip happens, because our conscience alerts us through pangs that fly our red flags at top mast. So, first we’ll look at some basics for the groundwork of common conversation. Then we’ll dive deep into what defines gossip and the practicalities on how to avoid it.
The Categories of Conversation
A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh, (Luke 6:45, KJV).
People love conversation. But what we choose to talk about reveals how we think and what’s in our heart. There are two primary categories when it comes to conversation:
- People and things.
- Experiences, ideas, and concepts.
Let’s briefly elaborate on both to establish a foundation for how gossip can be conceived within any particular conversation.
PEOPLE & THINGS:
The Concrete & Tangible
There’s only so much you can say about the concrete and tangible. Given enough time, the conversation wanes. Eventually the conversation tapers off with lull, at which point it becomes necessary to generate another person or thing to talk about, lest it end altogether. This is that uncomfortable moment we can all relate to. Conversations that center upon people and things are not inherently intellectually stimulating. These conversations are otherwise known as “small talk”. They can actually be rather flat, and even boring if they don’t progress further toward the second category. This is where gossip has its greatest opportunity to strike.
Gossip adds the drama because it involves the private and secret matters of individual lives that others would not be privy to knowing. And because such matters are private, they are almost never fully disclosed, meaning we have lots of gaps to fill in with our own speculations and personal judgment. It doesn’t take long before we have our own version of the story to tell, and this individual has become a victim of a vicious web of judgment and lies against which they have no personal defense. In fact, they have no idea they even need to defend themselves at all. And the next time you see them there is a discomfort that robs the relationship of any peace or the security a friendship should bring. The media is a perfect example of gossip. They rake in billions of dollars every year through the eyes and ears of those who long to feast. The sad truth is this: People love gossip, and our culture is glutted with it.
People whose conversations fall into this first category are generally those who always have something to say about someone or something, and unless they have someone or something to talk about, they’re at a loss for words. These conversations are concrete. They are not inherently deep or intellectual. And for those of you who are intellectual, attempting to engage in an intellectually stimulating conversation with people who favor this category can be very difficult. In fact, it can be a nightmare because they simply do not possess the skills to handle conceptual conversations.
EXPERIENCES, IDEAS & CONCEPTS:
The Conceptual & Intangible
The very nature of experiences, ideas and concepts are that they spin off into new ideas and concepts. Regardless of the subject matter, these are the conversations that are intellectually deep and stimulating, because concepts and ideas have the ability to snowball and spark concepts and ideas in others. They are marked by subject matter such as theology, philosophy, aspirations, moral principles, theory, and history, to name a few. This is why the old adage: ‘never talk about sex, politics, or religion’ was a cardinal rule among intellectuals. These were intensely private subject matters avoided out of respect for what would inevitably instigate hot debate. Nevertheless, conceptual conversations can easily lend to friendly debate, which is one of the reasons why they are so stimulating. So a person who engages in them needs to be experienced at handling them with grace and finesse. That is not to say that conceptual conversations are always highly charged. They’re not. They can be filled with intrigue, fascination, and discovery. And although debate can be very fun and friendly, trying to engage in them with someone who does not know how to handle their own helm can be a nightmare marked by offense and needless argument. Those who are experienced in conceptual conversations engage in them for the very purpose of discovery – not for the sake of argument. Therefore, it is understood that offense is never the object of the conversation, but rather an open mind and the mutual respect for alternative opinions, views, beliefs, and of course the higher knowledge or experiences of others.
Conversations that twist and turn, graduating into deeper things are conceptual. They do not die easily. In fact, these kinds of conversations are filled with zest. They often go on, and on, and on… They are inherently satisfying, intriguing, enlightening, and they reveal a lot about those who engage in them. These are the conversations in which we learn valuable things. We expand and grow. They are perhaps the best conversations to have in getting to truly know someone. Jesus Christ falls into this category beautifully. He talked a lot. But His conversations did not revolve around people or things. Instead He talked about spiritual truths and the concepts behind them. And because of this, there was no question as to who He was, what He was about, or where He stood on any given subject or principle. Those who favor this type of conversation are not satisfied with small talk. They desire to go deeper. Yet finding individuals who know how to appropriately navigate the twists and turns of deep, conceptual, intellectually stimulating conversation are rare.
Social media and the lack of interpersonal communication in our culture is robbing society of this fine art. In truth, those who know how to properly engage in conceptual conversations are a dying breed. Hence, the offense, lack of respect, and gossip that flood its portals. Society no longer teaches us how to think (concepts) – they want to teach us what to think (concrete). And anyone who disagrees with us is blacklisted, slandered, and in some cases even threatened.
At some point we all fall into both categories depending on variables such as who we are talking to and the context of the conversation (i.e. where we are, and its purpose). There are levels and variations. But here is an important question to consider:
Which category do you fall into?
If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain, (James 1:26, KJV).
In light of all this, have you ever met someone who never knows what to talk about unless they’re talking about someone else? Whether they realize it or not, this is how the gestation of gossip begins.
The Poison of Asps
O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh, (Matthew 12:34, KJV).
So what is gossip?
Gossip refers to those things shared about another individual that should not be discussed, regardless of the intent. The term “gossip” can also refer to the individual themselves who commits the act consistently (i.e. Jane is a gossip).
The flagrant gossip is not hard to miss. They want to know everyone’s business. They ask inappropriate questions. They butt into conversations to which they are not invited, or they initiate conversations for the sheer purpose of gaining your private information – not because they are genuinely interested in you as a person, but because they are looking for info they can wield against you. Gossips are the conversational hackers and phishers of people’s private lives. They are often inherently jealous and socially competitive people. Their social circles are constantly shifting. They will hate you one day and like you the next. They are on-off, and hot-cold. They share inappropriate information and often make rash judgments. They say malicious things against others and spin a web of stories that gains them the attention they desperately seek. They delegate information to others based on their social circles. And they genuinely enjoy spreading the private affairs of others. For the gossip these practices are a warped convoluted form of social prowess and control that, in their mind, gives them a desirable edge. Because what they do with the private information of another individual gives them a very real power and control regarding their reputation and whether or not that person is liked or hated among others – namely those in their own circle. It is for this very reason that they are territorial with their friends. These are not genuine people. And if they do happen to like you, there’s always an angle they’re playing. For the gossip their social life is always a game. So, don’t play.
Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness…, (Romans 3:13, 14, KJV).
The most common sins of gossip are the following:
• Slander (verbal)
• Libel (written)
• Bearing false witness (lying)
• Dissension & strife
Stay away from the gossip. Far away.
And stay away from their associations as well – all of them.
The malice which gossip operates in is easily detected. However, gossip is not always malicious, and that is precisely the problem. Because regardless of the cause – its effects are the same.
The truth is, some people just have very poor conversational boundaries, and poor social skills. We need to establish boundaries in our conversations that fiercely guard the reputation and integrity of other people. We all know when we suddenly become privy to information that is none of our business. How that happens in an otherwise innocent setting is the key. This creates a conversation that is unsettling and uncomfortable for the hearer, because it requires a response toward what is shared to which we would rather make no comment and have no part. This is where relationships become strained. We often never even intend to divulge certain things about people and their private lives, yet because of the natural progression of conversation, we end up sharing more than intended – because what we share naturally requires a response. And there you have it: suddenly we find ourselves gossiping.
Always remember that what you share about someone
either solicits or requires a response from the hearer.
This is how conversations innocently graduate toward gossip.
The danger of gossip is that we can’t take back the information we’ve shared once it’s spoken into the ears of the individual receiving it. The damage is already done, and we cannot be responsible for how they choose to handle that information themselves. Have you ever shared something private with someone and then realized their character was never worthy of receiving it? That pang of fear is one that goes very deep. Why? Because if they mishandle it, it can do great damage that is far-reaching. We need to fear God in our conversations when we venture to share about others – and ourselves as well. Our tongue is literally the gatekeeper of that private information. What we disclose and to whom, and for what reason should be justified in the eyes of God. For this reason, we are told to guard our tongues. Sharing private information about yourself or someone else can lend to gossip among others with whom you have no relation – and against whom you have no defense or restorative power.
You are responsible for private information –
Your own and that which you are privy to knowing,
whether you wanted to know it or not.
A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter, (Proverbs 11:13, KJV).
We are accountable to God and each other for the information we share. We all have moments when we’ve said something about someone in casual passing, and it’s flown off our tongue before we even realize what we’ve said or weigh the potential damage it can do. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done this.
Gossip is not always malicious, and that is precisely the problem.
Because regardless of the cause, its effects are the same.
Draw appropriate conversational and social boundaries.
As an RN we handle what is called PHI (Private Health Information). The HIPPA law has extraordinarily strict consequences toward mishandled information, including up to a $250 K fine and 25 years imprisonment. Health care workers are held to strict standards of accountability for this information which governs how we handle each piece of paper, the pass codes on our computers, and yes – what we talk about and with whom. The fear is this: whether or not a breach of information was intentional is irrelevant – because the effects of that breach upon that patient are the same. I believe that if we had such consequences for gossip, perhaps we would not be so inclined to share the Private Information of others so readily.
I’d like to share an example that I think could easily apply to us in everyday life. No health care worker can share a patient’s information with anyone unless that individual has a code or word of permission given to them by the patient. If you don’t have the code or word of permission – we can’t talk to you. Period. And I believe this would be a good rule of thumb in our personal lives as well. Certain issues should never land on the table for discussion unless the one receiving information has the code of permission. That code of permission is established through a relationship built on mutual trust.
People who consistently mishandle the private information of others are not worthy of trust. Despite their other favorable character qualities, this one ranks incredibly high. Therefore, it does not behoove you to make close friends with those who demonstrate a lack of judgment and discretion in this area.
When talking about people, the safest rule is to stick to the individuals who are physically present in the conversation. That means you and your counterpart. If it’s a group conversation, that obviously includes other individuals as well. These are the people it’s safe to talk about. In fact, talk all you want. Whatever you put on the table is at your own discretion. Beyond that, unless it’s praiseworthy, others who are not present need to be guarded with your tongue in a manner of integrity and respect.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof, (Proverbs 18:21, KJV).
For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith we bless God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield slat water and fresh.
Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom, (James 3:2-13, KJV).
The Gestation of Gossip
When such boundaries are crossed, we find the gestation of gossip. Here are three common examples of how that can easily happen:
THE INNOCENT INQUIRY
“So, how is Susie doing?” You may know Susie. You may not. The individual who is asking may or may not know Susie either. Questions like this one are inherently courteous, respectful, and even filled with genuine concern or interest. This is not a malicious question, and by most standards it’s okay to ask. Yet regardless of who is asking or why, the key here is in how you answer. The goal is not to spill the private matters of Susie’s life or degrade her with personal judgments. That is not your job. This question should not spin off into a conversation that revolves around Susie. Susie is not present, and that was not the question. Simply answer the question with integrity. That is your responsibility. Whether you know Susie or not, you need to stick to generalities. Keep it short, simple and sweet. Your responsibility is to protect Susie in every regard: her reputation, her integrity, and her private matters (should you know them). If you saw her recently, then say so. But don’t share anything about Susie that you would not share if she were present in the conversation.
THE BENIGN SOLICITATION FOR PRAYER
“We need to pray for Jane.” And where is Jane? This is where boundaries are crossed indiscriminately and far too frequently – even with the best of intentions. Rule #1 – Unless Jane sent you on assignment to corral prayers for her, you need to hush it. Pray for Jane yourself. It’s really that simple. Rule #2 – Does Jane really need prayer? Or are you looking for an opportunity to slander her under the guise of godly concern? If so – you need to sort it out with Jane. Statements such as these tempt the ears and hearts of those who genuinely love Jane, and therefore lend toward gossip that goes very deep. Before making such statements always consider the circumstances surrounding the need and that individual. There are times when this is most necessary such as in emergencies, issues regarding a minor child or victim of abuse, and in cases when people cannot speak for themselves. Always use wisdom and discretion in what you share. Share only what is necessary for the sake of prayer. And there is never any harm in keeping details private. Prayer can indeed be effective without private knowledge. God is big enough to read between the lines and guide you in prayer for otherwise private matters – if your prayers are genuine. Otherwise, the one in need of prayer needs to be the one asking for it, determining who they ask, and what they disclose. Prayer is a very intimate spiritual affair. If you become the beneficiary of such prayer requests, you have a responsibility toward God and that individual to steward the request with integrity and honor.
“Tom said that Jane said you were___________.”
“Joe said that you said___________.”
He said; she said. These conversations may very well be benign. And depending on the context of the situation, who is involved, and what is being shared, they may even be necessary. Sometimes we have to speak through other people. We require trustworthy translators/mediators who can speak on our behalf to someone else about a given topic or subject. Therefore, if they are necessary, you’re going to know about them ahead of time. Yet I think we can all agree that they are very uncomfortable when they sneak up on us apart from our knowledge. Anytime we catch wind that someone has talked about us, and this information is being passed down the pike apart from our permission, we get a bit suspicious. The integrity here is lacking. There are now other people in this conversation who are not present, who are responsible for direct quotes, which the translator is mediating and taking responsibility toward. By the time you catch ear of it, it’s often misconstrued and skewed, which leaves you sorting out a mess. Everyone should now be under investigation, and with good reason. The person delivering the message should also be under scrutiny. Don’t ever assume the position of a translator / mediator unless you’ve been assigned. The responsibility is not yours. And if you are assigned, you need to do so with accuracy and integrity. He said-she said conversations are complex and layered. They are dangerous, precisely because they involve so many people who are not present. These types of conversations are responsible for enormous misunderstandings and relational stressors. People who initiate “he said; she said” conversations such as these often do so in an attempt to indirectly address issues with an individual whom they do not want to directly confront themselves. Stop the conversation immediately. You owe no answer to the translator/mediator. Go back to the individual who initiated the conversation and deal with them accordingly. The translator/mediator needs to be removed from the conversational equation as promptly as possible.
Gossip is something you want to flee from. Literally. Learning how to do so is actually rather simple because there are only two options – but that does not mean it’s easy. Every circumstance is different, and the individuals involved can make it a delicate matter. So, you always want to handle it with integrity and grace.
When you see it happening in a group setting, the safest and most fool-proof solution is to gracefully make your exit, precisely because you’re outnumbered. In most instances you will owe no one an explanation or justification. Kindly excuse yourself and leave. Yet for a fear of being rude not everyone has this ability, and therefore that level of social integrity has to be developed through maturity and opportunities for practice. For this reason people end up getting sucked into gossip when they never intended or wanted to. Gossip can be a trap if we lack the strength to remove ourselves – or if we foolishly take the bait of curiosity and interest for the sake of an ‘intact’ social circle.
If it’s between you and another person, this can make it more difficult, because you will more than likely be forced to confront it. And such confrontation is not fun. You may feel obligated to stay and chat, especially in situations where you’re on lunch dates, etc. That can leave you feeling trapped. Therefore, knowing how to gracefully but firmly draw boundaries is imperative. Don’t wait when it comes to gossip. It has to be nipped in the bud. Your ‘stop sign’ needs to be firm yet polite. Here are three examples I think you can use in both personal and professional settings to constructively confront gossip:
Excuse me, but I need to let you know this is not something I want to discuss or be responsible for. We need to talk about something else.”
With all due respect, this is not something I want to hear or talk about.”
I kindly suggest that you go back to ________ and talk with them yourself. I can’t say anything in their regard. So, out of respect for ________ we need to change the subject.”
Don’t wait. Make your point clear by immediately taking the initiative to gracefully change the subject. If the other party becomes offended – let them be offended, and take note of their character. However, they also may apologize and be very willing to change the subject. So give them the grace to do so if this is the case. Everyone deserves that opportunity. How they handle this situation once confronted will reveal key character qualities for which you will want to make special note. If this individual is someone who practices gossip consistently, I caution you. Do not keep company with them.
Here is what is important to know: there is no safe way to stay involved in the conversation that involves gossip. You have two options: You have to find a way out OR the subject has to change.
Speaking Well of Others: The Glory of a Good Reputation
A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold, (Proverbs 22:1, KJV).
A good name is better than precious ointment…, (Ecclesiastes 7:1, KJV).
There is a lot to be said for a person’s name. An individual’s name is synonymous with their character and reputation. This is why God so fiercely commands us not to use His name in vain. Such vanity is a slander against the LORD. The glory of God’s name is found in His reputation: He’s perfect and holy.
We all have a reputation. We want people to speak well of us, and we need to give them reason to do so. We need to have our reputation established in Christ through a demonstration of His character. As representatives of Him, we have the ability to either glorify His name, or shame it. We also need to speak well of others. The lesson is that we are both accountable and responsible toward the integrity of the reputation of those we talk about. If we have nothing kind or good to say, then we need to keep quiet.
Your reputation both precedes you and follows you.
Our reputation is precious and expensive. It takes years to build and establish and money cannot buy it. It is often said that what money can’t buy, a good reputation is able to earn you. That is absolutely true. A good reputation is built over time through wisdom and godliness – yet it can be destroyed at the whim of a reckless tongue. We build our reputation in two primary ways: through our words and actions – and whether or not they are congruent. But it will precede us and follow us through the company we keep. People hear of us, whether we want them to or not. Keeping a good reputation is as much our responsibility as it is of those we associate with. Therefore, keeping company with people of integrity is imperative.
It’s important to establish just how expensive someone’s reputation truly is. What they have invested years to build through hard work, good relationships, and wise decisions can be damaged very easily. For this reason, there are laws in place to protect an individual’s reputation against such sins as libel and slander. When gossip gets out of control, slander is by far the most common. Slander is responsible for the defamation of their character and the denigration of their reputation. Therefore, repairing a damaged reputation can be near to impossible. This is why the sin of gossip is so gross. The effects of its venom are far-reaching and often permanent. It is indeed the poison of asps. The words of a gossip bring death.
An individual’s reputation affects absolutely every area of their lives: personally, professionally, vocationally, and yes – emotionally, physically, and spiritually. When a person’s character is defamed, and their reputation denigrated through gossip, the damage done is often irreversible, hence the laws in place to protect it.
You are responsible toward the reputation of others through the words you speak.
We need to protect the good name of those we associate with. It is imperative that we learn how to guard the words of our tongue both in content and intention. Because regardless, the effects are the same. Devastation and death lay in the wake of gossip, whether it was malicious or not. And by all means we need to keep good company. But that is another lesson.
So, I leave you with this:
Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth, (Proverbs 26:20, KJV).
Speak wisely and well of all who grace your path. God bless you.
Cheers & Shalom,