Let’s begin with a one-sentence working definition of gossip for the purpose of this post: saying or listening to information (true or otherwise) about someone that you wouldn’t feel comfortable participating in if that person was standing next to you.
Between a difficult half-dozen or so years in school and growing up as a preacher’s kid in a series of small, insular towns I spent a good chunk of my childhood avoiding the ridiculous stories other people shared about me and my family.
The most important lesson I learned from those experiences is that it’s never just gossip. Listening to or spreading the latest juicy earful, even if it seems to be harmless speculation, can permanently damage your relationships for the following reasons:
It erodes trust. Most people consistently exhibit the same types of behaviours over time. If someone wants to share the latest titillating rumour about so-and-so I can only assume that they’re saying equally unflattering things about me when I’m not around. This makes it extremely difficult to share anything with them that I’m not ready for the entire world to know and if I can’t trust someone with at least some private or highly personal information we probably won’t be spending much time together in the future.
Words have sharp edges. They can destroy reputations and annihilate a lifetime of trust in one conversation. If I’m going to influence someone else’s life I want to build them up instead of tearing them down. Destruction is easier and faster but the only thing it leaves behind is emotional rubble. I want to be and do more than that.
You don’t know what you don’t know. Outward appearances and our assumptions about what is going on should never be taken as substitutions for the truth. They can point towards it but ultimately we can never truly know what is in the heart or mind of someone else unless and until they tell us.
Criticism is a habit. The more you practice it the easier it is to view others, the world and yourself with a critical and unforgiving eye. We need more grace and acceptance in our lives, not nitpicking or condemnation so this is how I try to treat both others and myself. Criticism does have its place in certain situations…but I believe it is a far smaller one than most people think.
I’d include celebrity “gossip” in this as well. Hearing that so-and-so is getting married, having a baby or won a prestigious award is fine. Rumours about alleged personal problems or nit-picking someone else’s appearance, family status or religious/ethical beliefs are activities that I find rather offensive. If it isn’t something I’d want to be said about me or someone I love why would it be somehow ok to do it to a stranger?