Young People Ask . . .
What’s So Bad About Gossip?
“At my high school, it’s like an epidemic. We don’t have drugs, or guns, or fighting—we have gossip. That’s the big problem.”—16-year-old Michelle.*
SOME say it is delicious. Others say it is poison. A steady stream of it flows through magazines, newspapers, and television programs. It is also the spice of many conversations. What is it? Casual talk about people and their personal affairs, otherwise known as gossip.
Perhaps nothing grabs our attention more quickly than the words, “Have you heard the latest?” What follows those words may be fact or fiction—or perhaps a little of each. Whatever the case, the temptation to engage in gossip can be powerful. “It’s so hard not to be interested in other people’s business,” says 17-year-old Lori. “There’s an unspoken promise between you and your friends that when you find out something juicy, you have to tell them.”
Why We Do It
Why do we find gossip so intriguing? For one thing, humans are social creatures. In other words, people are interested in people. It is only natural, then, that sooner or later our conversation will veer toward the latest goings-on in the lives of friends and acquaintances.
Is this bad? Not always. Quite often, informal conversation provides useful information, such as who is getting married, who just had a baby, and who is sick. Even first-century Christians discussed the latest happenings in the lives of fellow believers. (Ephesians 6:21, 22; Colossians 4:8, 9) Really, casual talk about friends and acquaintances is an integral part of the way we communicate and maintain healthy relationships.
The Pitfalls of Harmful Gossip
Sometimes, though, discussion about the lives of others is motivated by something other than concern. For example, 18-year-old Deidra says: “People gossip to gain popularity. They think they’ll be [popular] by knowing a story that’s better than the one they’ve just been told.” The desire to impress others might even impel the gossiper to distort the facts. “If you know the story, you have the power to manipulate it,” explains 17-year-old Rachel. “It’s like your canvas, and you can make the story as abstract as you want.”
At times, untrue gossip is used as a means of retaliation. “I spread a false rumor about my friend once,” says 12-year-old Amy. “I did it because she had said something about me.” The result? “At first I was thinking, Wow, I really got her back.” However, Amy goes on to explain: “Soon it got out of hand and I started to hurt a lot more from doing it than if I had kept my mouth shut in the first place.”
It is easy to see how gossip can become, as one mental-health expert puts it, “like a flame that gets out of hand really quickly.” (Compare James 3:5, 6.) When this happens, the results can be disastrous. For example, what if something is spread that should have remained confidential? Or what if the gossip is false and by broadcasting it you ruin someone’s good reputation? “One of my friends started the rumor that I do drugs, which is not true,” says 12-year-old Bill. “That really hurt.”
Silencing Malicious Gossip
With good reason the Bible says that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21) Yes, our words can be like tools for building or like weapons for destroying. Sad to say, many today use their tongue for the latter purpose. They are like some described by the psalmist David who have “sharpened their tongue just like a sword, who have aimed their arrow, bitter speech, to shoot from concealed places at someone blameless.”—Psalm 64:2-4.
Those who want to please God should not spread untrue reports, for the Bible states that “false lips are something detestable to Jehovah.” (Proverbs 12:22) Deliberately starting or passing on a rumor that you know is untrue is lying, and the Bible says that Christians are to “put away falsehood” and to “speak truth each one . . . with his neighbor.”—Ephesians 4:25.
So before saying something about another person, ask yourself: ‘Do I really know the facts? Will what I say cause my listener to think less of the person I am talking about? If so, what is my motive in saying it?’ Remember this: The fact that something is true does not in itself justify spreading it—especially if the information will harm someone’s reputation.
Another question to ask is, ‘How will my gossiping affect my reputation?’ Yes, by gossiping you say something about yourself. For example, Kristen says: “If you can afford to spend so much time talking about other people, then your own life must not be very interesting.” Lisa found that her reputation as a gossip cost her the confidence of her closest friend. “It got to the point where she questioned whether I could be trusted,” she says. “It was awful—I had to prove that she could depend on me.”
If you are known as a gossip, people might come to view you as someone likely to do injury, and they may no longer seek your company. A Bible proverb states: “A gossip goes around and tells secrets; don’t have anything to do with a person whose mouth is always open.” (Proverbs 20:19, Beck) But did you know that you can contribute to harmful gossip without even uttering a word?
Listening—The Other Side of Gossip
It takes at least two people to engage in gossip—a speaker and a listener. While the listener may seem less culpable than the speaker, the Bible presents a different slant on the matter. At Proverbs 17:4, we read: “The evildoer is paying attention to the lip of hurtfulness. A falsifier is giving ear to the tongue causing adversities.” So the listener of gossip bears a heavy responsibility. “In some ways it is even worse to listen to gossip than to speak it,” says writer Stephen M. Wylen. Why is this so? “By providing an eager audience,” Wylen continues, “you encourage the speaker to go on.”
What should you do, then, when hurtful gossip reaches your ears? Without taking on an air of self-righteousness, you could simply say: ‘Let’s change the subject’ or, ‘I don’t really feel comfortable talking about this. After all, she is not here to defend herself.’
But what if people draw away from you because you refuse to share in their conversations? In one sense this could work out for your protection. How? Well, remember that the person who gossips to you about others will likely gossip to others about you. Therefore, you can spare yourself much grief by drawing close to youths and adults who do not tear down others with their speech. Says Wylen: “Whatever loss you suffer by not gossiping, you will soon see that you have lost nothing but the opportunity to make yourself miserable. In the end you will come out ahead because you will gain a reputation as a trustworthy person.”
Most important, you will acquire a good name with God. He is interested in the way we speak of others, for Jesus Christ warned: “Every unprofitable saying that men speak, they will render an account concerning it on Judgment Day; for by your words you will be declared righteous, and by your words you will be condemned.”—Matthew 12:36, 37.
It is the course of wisdom, then, to follow the apostle Paul’s admonition: “Make it your aim to live quietly and to mind your own business.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) Doing so will help you to maintain good relationships with others and a good standing with God.
Some names in this article have been changed.
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“The World’s Greatest Gossip Engine”
Have you heard the latest? With the advent of electronic mail, E-mail, gossip has now gone high tech. In fact, writer Seth Godin calls E-mail “the world’s greatest gossip engine.” While acknowledging its benefits, he warns: “Someone can start with something that’s a fact or a misstatement, and suddenly thousands of people are potentially privy to it.”
E-mail can reach a wide audience—and reach them quickly. Says Godin: “It’s the first new form of communication that combines the weight and measured thought of something written with the speed and instant tenacity of a telephone call.” Wisely, then, when sending E-mail, be sure to make the intent of your message clear. And by all means, do not pass on unconfirmed information to friends.
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The person who gossips to you about others . . . will likely gossip to others about you