Young People Ask . . .
Gossip—What’s the Harm in It?
“They [adolescents] . . . spend their time hanging around places gossiping with one another.”—Socrates, c. 400 B.C.E.
‘HAVE you heard the latest?’ ‘Guess what?’ ‘Wait till you hear this!’ ‘Can you keep a secret?’ These are all common preludes to the passing on of private, tantalizing, or even spectacular news about others—a habit commonly known as gossiping.
As in Socrates’ day, youths are still particularly fond of the habit, and researchers call gossip a universal phenomenon that cuts across race, age, and culture. Why, according to the Journal of Communication, even small children gossip, “practically from the time they can talk and can begin to recognize others.”
Gossip is strictly a female habit, right? Wrong! Researchers Levin and Arluke analyzed the conversations of a group of male and female college students. The result? Males proved to be just as gossip-prone as females!
Just why, though, do we find gossip so appealing? Is there good reason to be wary of it?
Gossip—Good, Bad, and Ugly
Gossip is idle talk. Invariably, though, it focuses, not on things, but on the foibles, failures, triumphs, and misfortunes of people. Such talk need not necessarily be harmful or malicious. After all, it is human nature to be interested in other people. The Bible even exhorts us to ‘keep an eye, not in personal interest upon just our own matters, but also in personal interest upon those of the others.’—Philippians 2:4.
Carefully controlled, then, gossip may simply be an exchange of useful information. How do you learn, for example, that Mrs. Jones is sick and needs help with her shopping, that your friend John is depressed over losing his after-school job, or that your neighbor Sally is moving away? Through some formal announcement? No, more often than not, these things are learned through informal chatter—gossip, if you want.
The original Greek word used in the Bible for “gossipers” came from a verb that meant to “overflow with words.” (1 Timothy 5:13; A Greek-English Lexicon, by Liddell and Scott) We are reminded of the words at Proverbs 10:19: “In the abundance of words there does not fail to be transgression, but the one keeping his lips in check is acting discreetly.” The golden rule in conversation means thinking before you speak!
The line between harmless and harmful gossip can be treacherously thin. Announcing that ‘John no longer works at the mall’ can be just a short hop away from adding that ‘John just can’t seem to hold on to a job’—a flirtation with slander! Even attempts to say something nice about someone often go awry. The statement, ‘Judy is the brightest student in class,’ can easily be followed with, ‘But have you noticed the way she dresses?’ And all too often, gossip can become downright ugly, the vehicle for transmitting slanderous lies and rumors about someone.
Negative Gossip—Why It Occurs
Why, then, does gossip so often lean toward the negative? For one thing, ‘the heart is treacherous,’ and negative talk often satisfies certain selfish emotional needs.—Jeremiah 17:9.
“It makes you feel important to know something that others don’t know,” admits young Connie. And very often that “something” is quite an unflattering piece of information about someone else. Others seem to feel that spotlighting the flaws and mistakes of others obscures their own defects. For yet others, gossip is a tool to promote their own popularity. They strive to be in the know so that they can be the first to tell others. To enjoy this brief moment in the limelight, they will betray their best friend’s confidence. Remember, the person who talks to you about others will usually talk about you to others.
Gossip can be used as a convenient means of venting anger, hurt, and jealousy. Some will even resort to fabricating untruth in order to inflict pain on someone toward whom they feel ill will. (Compare Proverbs 26:28.) Thus, one girl spread a rumor that a schoolmate was pregnant—apparently because the schoolmate was dating a boy that she also liked.
Often, negative gossip results not so much from malice as from thoughtlessness. Admitted one teenager: “Sometimes I realize that what I’m about to say probably isn’t 100% true, but it’s almost like an addiction. I say things before I can stop myself—and a lot of times it all comes back to me later.”
Negative Gossip—A Two-Edged Sword
Whatever its motivation, negative gossip is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it can cause irreparable damage to the name and reputation of another person. As ’Teen magazine observed: “If you gossip about other people, criticize, break confidences, exaggerate or even outright lie, you’re probably jeopardizing or destroying relationships—and quite possibly hindering new friendships from forming as well.” Or as the Bible puts it: “The one covering over transgression is seeking love, and he that keeps talking about a matter is separating those familiar with one another.”—Proverbs 17:9; compare Proverbs 16:28.
On the other hand, gossip can also backfire and damage the gossiper. Instead of winning listening ears, gossip can breed distrust. “No one who gossips can be trusted with a secret,” says Proverbs 11:13. (Today’s English Version) And the one spoken about is sure to be unhappy if and when he learns that a confidence has been exposed or a fault broadcast. “Gossip brings anger just as surely as the north wind brings rain,” says Proverbs 25:23.—TEV.
One who speaks disparagingly of others also risks damaging his relationship with God. Often the loose talk amounts to slander. And Jehovah fellowships only with one who “has not slandered with his tongue. To his companion he has done nothing bad.” (Psalm 15:1, 3) However, when we spread an unfounded rumor, we may actually become a party to a lie—something that Jehovah God hates.—Proverbs 6:16, 17.
Avoiding the Gossip Trap
It’s next to impossible to stop talking about other people—at least entirely. But many problems can be averted if you apply the golden rule: “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.”—Matthew 7:12.
This means refusing to listen to harmful gossip! “With one that is enticed with his lips you must have no fellowship,” advises the Bible. (Proverbs 20:19) If you listen to malicious or damaging talk, you condone it. As a youth named Rosalyn puts it: ‘People who listen to gossip just encourage the gossipers.’ Besides, there is always the chance you will find the ‘juicy tidbit’ too appealing to keep to yourself and become part of a hurtful chain of slander.
So try to shut down negative talk. This does not necessarily mean giving a sermon on the evils of harmful gossip. But you can try changing the subject, steering the conversation in a new direction, or saying something complimentary about the one being discussed. If the hurtful talk continues, take that as your cue to excuse yourself from the conversation.
Yes, something may very well be true—not to mention titillating and exciting, but does it really need to be said? Will it offend, slander, insult, or embarrass? Would you say it to the person’s face? How would you feel if someone said it about you? “The tongue of wise ones does good with knowledge,” says Proverbs 15:2, “but the mouth of the stupid ones bubbles forth with foolishness.”
So keep your lips in check. It is said that great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about things, and small minds talk about people! Branch out in your conversation. There are many things—including spiritual matters—that can provide far better conversational fuel than empty, hurtful gossip.*
A future article will discuss being a victim of gossip.
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The gossiper often enjoys being the center of attention
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If you listen to malicious or damaging talk, you condone it