“Gossip, noun: Hearing something you like about someone you don’t .” (Earl Wilson). Well, perhaps that is not the conventional definition of gossip or slander (to give it it’s more loathsome name). But gossip is so much nastier than just “casual conversation or unsubstantiated reports about other people,” as my Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines it. That definition would cover inquiring about how people are doing and finding out the latest in regards to births, deaths, and marriages. Real gossip is backbiting—malicious talk about an absent person. It is also taking up a reproach (an expression of disapproval or disappointment) against our neighbour. See Psalms 15:1-3.
Yes, we have all done it. If you are anything like me, you blush with shame when you remember times that you have participated in vilifying the character of an absent person. What makes us do it? I hope you are prepared for the answer, because it is not at all complementary. “…he that uttereth a slander, is a fool.” Proverbs 10:18 “An ungodly man diggeth up evil…” Proverbs 16:27. “Impress upon the students the fact that this habit reveals a lack of culture and refinement and of true goodness of heart; it unfits one both for the society of the truly cultured and refined in this world and for association with the holy ones of heaven. A noble nature does not exult in causing others pain, or delight in discovering their deficiencies.” (Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 5, p. 56) When we really think about it, we discover that we gossip because it feeds our pride and makes us feel superior. Making someone else appear bad makes us feel virtuous in comparison. But comparing ourselves with others only does more to show our foolishness. “…but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” 2 Corinthians 10:12.
We all know that gossip is wrong, but we often like to think that as long as the victim doesn’t find out about a damaging story, it doesn’t hurt anybody. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. In reality, gossip hurts you, no matter whether you are involved as the gossiper, the listener, or the (hopefully) oblivious victim. Gossiping crushes kindness in your heart and hurts your reputation. An Irish proverb says that “Who brings a tale takes two away.” Your friends will find out eventually that if you gossip to them you will gossip about them. Gossip also has a habit of travelling. The possibility is very high that your victim will find out about the story eventually.
Just listening to gossip hurts you. Even if the harmful story is later discounted, it is very difficult to get it out of your head. “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly” Proverbs 18:8. Furthermore, when you listen to gossip, you sin yourself. “The ears must not be defiled by listening to any gossip that faultfinding ones would have us hear, for I not only cause them to sin in allowing them to talk of others’ faults, but I sin myself in listening to them.” The Upword Look, p. 237
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, gossip hurts your victim. You assassinate his character without giving him the opportunity to defend himself by explaining his actions. “ are often the result of envy or misunderstanding, or they may proceed from exaggeration or a partial disclosure of facts.” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5 p. 58) “Satan exults when he can defame or wound a follower of Christ. He is ‘the accuser of our brethren.’ Shall Christians aid him in his work?” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5 p. 95)
We all need to take action against gossip, so how do we do it? The battle begins with ourselves; against our own character faults. Psalm 15:2 gives us a description of a person who will not gossip. “He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.” When we surrender ourselves to God we will learn to think pure thoughts. Paul tells us to think of things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report. “If there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” Philippians 4:8. If we have trained our thoughts toward the good and beautiful, we can then follow Paul’s advice to “speak evil of no man” (Titus 3:2). If we don’t think evil, we won’t speak it.
Secondly, make a decision to think the best of people instead of believing everything bad that we hear. “We should endeavour to think well of all men…until compelled to think otherwise….You may be just as severe and critical with your own defective character as you please; but be kind, pitiful, and courteous toward others.”
Thirdly, learn to hold your tongue. “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.” Psalm 141:3. The old-fashioned virtue of keeping a confidence (or secret, in modern terms), and protecting the reputation of your friends, is most important. “A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.” Proverbs 11:13. “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.” Proverbs 17:9. Of course, there are occasions when you may need to help your friend avoid injury or trouble by informing someone more experienced or in a more responsible position than you, like a parent or guardian. If you see sin in a church member, Matthew 18:15-17 lists the correct procedure to follow. Whatever the situation, if you see the need to divulge information about somebody, there is a principle to stick to. If it’s very painful for you to criticize your friends, you’re safe in doing it: but if you take the slightest pleasure in it, that’s the time to hold your tongue. “To the Christian every act of faultfinding, every word of censure or condemnation, is painful.” Testimonies Vol. 5, p. 95
What can we do in social situations if the conversation turns to malicious reports about an absent person? Fortunately, there are some very simple ways to stop gossip in it’s tracks, besides refusing to tell it yourself.
1. Walk away. This is the easiest way to avoid gossip, especially if you are weak in that area. By removing yourself from the vicinity, you refuse to participate in gossip.
2. Change the topic. This is another quite simple tactic. Whether you manage it in an obvious or a subtle way, the important thing is that the discussion moves away from character dissection to something more constructive.
3. Defend the person gossiped about. The victim of gossip is not there, and so can’t defend herself. The kindest thing you can do for the victim is to say something nice about her, or give a sympathetic explanation for the action in question. You could introduce into the conversation the virtues of the victim, or tell a good story about her. You will probably be surprised at how quickly the tone of the discussion changes.
4. Get aggressive. No, not in a bad way. Just tackle the gossiper head-on with what he should be doing. “When anyone comes to you with a tale about your neighbour, you should refuse to hear it. You should say to him, ‘Have you spoken of this matter to the individual concerned?’ …Tell him he should obey the Bible rule, and go first to his brother, and tell him his fault privately, and in love. If the directions of God were carried out, the floodgates of gossip would be closed.” Our High Calling, p. 293
Benjamin Franklin wrote, “I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of everybody.” This is a valuable resolution for all of us to adopt as our own.