Saturday, April 1, 2006

April 1, 2006: Why do we gossip?

The grapevine has been running amok in our support group this week. The past few days we've been bombarded with gossip masked as well-meaning, heartfelt concern. Even minutes after begging our members to stop gossiping and go to the source, I received an email from another parent in response—with a bit of gossip that she thought I needed to hear. Of course, when I went to the source, I discovered that there was no truth behind this latest rumor. No one wants to admit to being a gossip. We’d rather say “I have a concern…” or “This lady need our prayers and here’s why…”

I am not immune to gossip, I admit. As a teenager, I was a terrible gossip. I would pass on any information freely. I know my motivation then: knowledge is power. Knowledge gives you an edge-up on everyone else. I’m sure I never put the “well meaning” mask on gossip back then. Those were hard, back-biting years. Years when you don’t really know who is your friend, or why someone is mad at you. We were all tangled in a giant grapevine of rumor and innuendo. Even now, 20 years later, I had a high school friend ask me, “So, were you sneaking around with my boyfriend in high school?” I wasn’t, but I was well aware of that particular rumor way back then. The rumors were so rampant that it was pointless to even defend oneself.

I do remember one secret I kept particularly well, though. In fact, I was always good about knowing what was truly private information. I knew that my boyfriend’s brother was gay, for example, but never told my boyfriend. As fond of gossip as I was, I knew intuitively that this was something the brother needed to disclose on his own time, in his own way. Fast forward four years later, when my former boyfriend says to me, “Did you know my brother came out of the closet?” When I told him that I had known it for years, he actually did not believe me—because he knew I was terrible at keeping secrets. Ouch! He couldn’t fathom that I could actually have sat on this juicy bit of information for so many years.

That made a difference to me. One, I didn't like that my reputation was of being a gossip. And second, the pleasure in having made a good choice—keeping private information private—really impacted me. I’m not saying I cleaned up my act totally by age 22 and have gone on to a gossip-free life. My friends who are reading this will know that to be true. But I am working on it. I have learned more what it really means to act like a Christian from my husband, who has amazing control over his speech. If I was Teen Queen of Gossip, he is the Professor of We Don’t Know the Other Side of the Story. He keeps me on track because he’s just so darn good and kind and compassionate.

So why do we gossip? Why do we feel this irresistible urge to not only pass on information, but to solicit it? Here’s what one writer has to say: “From coffee gatherings, cocktail parties, conferences, seminars, meetings, family and school reunions we enjoy the guilty pleasures of talking about other people. … [Gossip] helps us establish, develop and maintain relationships, cement social ties and bond with other members of our social circles. Evolutionary scientists theorize that without the traditional gossip network, society would crumble.” From Lubna Abdel Aziz

Society would crumble without gossip? That’s crazy. Gossip helps us maintain relationships? Boy! No wonder we get away with so much gossiping, when the world condones it as beneficial. No wonder we often feel so mixed up, even when we know what the Truth says. When we know that dissension is ranked right up there with orgies. The book of Proverbs calls gossip “choice morsels.” Isaiah says that we need to look at fasting in a different kind of way: “The kind of fasting the Lord has chosen—to do away with the yoke of oppression…to do away with the pointing finger and malicious talk…not doing as you please or speaking idle words…” (Isaiah 58:6-14). James has a lot to say about our toxic tongues and this is what Paul says about sinners: “Being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful” (Romans 1:29,30).

So why do we tear each other down with gossip? Is the basis of gossip just that it somehow makes us feel so much better about ourselves? Or is information power? Does it raise our place among our peers to have “choice morsels” of information? Do we feel more important when we can convey a tiny secret?

I received an email tonight from a member who says she is quitting because she recently “heard” something that makes her fear for her children. I’m sorry she heard this. I don’t know exactly what she heard, or how much of the story she heard. And I can’t tell her the real story because we maintain confidentiality in our leadership—unless we believe something (or someone) to be harmful to our members. And, well, because it’s someone else’s story to tell. I suppose it would be too much to ask that this woman go to the person in question and ask for the truth.

But that’s exactly what we are called to do: “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matthew 18:15). Why don’t we just go to people instead of speculating? I am certainly including myself in this. I dislike confrontation as much as the next person. But I’m learning that going to the source sure does eliminate most of the issue.

Of course, we may just be the receiver of gossip—and in this case we need to learn NOT to listen. “He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with a gossip” (Proverbs 20:19). One of my friends told me yesterday that nobody ever tells her anything, because she stopped listening. I want to be like those 3 monkeys: See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. Perhaps we all need to visualize that every time we’re tempted to gossip!

The more I walk with the Lord, the more I want to please him. Peter said, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). The worst thing about gossip is that it is totally unloving. Before we open our mouths it might be good to ask, “Will this in any way benefit the person I am about to mention? Is it loving? Why exactly am I passing on this information?” If not, it would be better to leave it unsaid.

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