An anonymous sister writes:
How can we avoid gossipy situations without seeming unnecessarily “holier than thou”?
What an interesting phenomenon gossip is. It’s from archaic words for “god” and “sibling” and actually takes its meaning from close or common intimate chatter. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that much of our “gossip” has this benign or even benevolent flavor of concerned intimacy as its initial motive. As in every area of our lives, however, we need to heed the spirit very carefully and honestly as any sort of intimate activity begins to unfold. We know that we have the capability of selfish or even unkind motives. It is part of the challenge of inhabiting a mortal body in a mortal world, even as we become more aware of the far greater and more enduring reality of our spiritual entity, which is eternal. That is why the word gossip today carries just as much malevolent context as the happy, intimate chatter it might also describe. Our strong oral traditions for exchanging family stories are just as important today as they were before our distant ancestors could read or write. I think it is an intrinsic part of our nature to get on the phone or around the dinner table and catch everybody up on the latest.
At what point does this need, which can be such a delight, turn on us?
Let’s return to our acid test of discipleship: “If ye have love one to another.” The unfortunate effect of spreading unkind, untrue, mischievous, or deliberately damaging stories about another whether that other is a child or spouse, a neighbor, a co-worker, a ward or branch member, or a political leader has been thoroughly documented elsewhere. Warnings against evil speaking appear frequently in scripture and were recently repeated in a general conference in the beautiful, lyrical phrase, Your Name Is Safe in Our Home.
Is there anyone out there who has not witnessed a cruel, habitual gossip at work? I think there is possibly “one in every crowd,” as the old clich� goes. These folks are often just heedless victims of a habit ingrained from countless repetitions, and almost always modeled by one or both parents. In nearly every case, they “know not what they do,” to quote our beloved Savior in one of His most magnificent and Godly gestures. It may feel as if the results of negative, critical, judgmental or vicious comments are only mischief. Malicious gossipers may see the pastime as merely recreational or even positive, as in “blowing off steam.” But it is common for the consequences to be far more harmful than they realize. We have all been taught that we need to self-manage very carefully against this precise behavior. If we are not building up, loving, helping, or serving, we are not following our Savior.
How can we turn the tide if we find ourselves in a situation that has become malicious? Again, I think it is “the real McCoy” that provides the best answers. Charity never faileth. If we can show love to and for the gossipers, all the listeners, and the target of the unsavory comments, we have a positive solution. For me, the exit has to be humorous, or the implication is always “holier than thou.” I think it is the only way to be fast enough and positive enough to avoid the very “appearance of evil.” I truly don’t want to be even in the same room. I don’t know any way to sit at the same table and not partake of this activity in some manner, actively or passively, willingly or not. On two occasions in my recent past, I jumped up immediately, before the first sentence was completed, and said “This is family chat; I’ll scram.” (I wasn’t related to anyone in the room, so it was airtight, at least for my purposes.)
The third experience was similar, but much more offensive to me. I joked that the room could be bugged for surveillance by management, and I couldn’t afford any more corrective feedback that month. I jumped up quickly as if alarmed at the prospect of corporate espionage and made a comedic exit. For fun, I closed the door behind me, then cracked it open and mugged a silly posture of elaborately eavesdropping through the opening. I was rewarded by a nice laugh, and later a friend stopped by to tell me quietly that everyone agreed the quick get-away was not only a successful comedy, but also a class act. Another of the participants also visited my cube to apologize for her offensive words. What a welcome opportunity for me to tell her my spin: I have given birth to six children, and have nothing but reverence for the divine engineering of female anatomy. I find human reproduction not only not offensive, but truly, amazingly wonderful. I was then privileged to assure this colleague that I held her in the same esteem as always and was very much moved and impressed by her sensitivity to my feelings and her courage in coming to me in person to apologize.
These were successes, dear sisters. I have certainly had failures as well, and I’m sure I have acres and acres of damage on my eternal record books for which to repent. A new year is a great time to find new optimism, courage (and encouragement) for repentance, and I welcome your input on this question.
Only a few weeks after moving to Florida in 1991, I was rather taken aback when I was approached separately by a couple of “helpful” sisters who felt it their duty to inform me about the particular failings and foibles of other not-so-pious sisters. Of course, this was not gossip. No! These helpers were merely kindly giving me advance warning about certain people my family and I might want to avoid. They were merely looking out for the new kids on the block. They were providing safe passage in the rough waters of South Florida church attendance.
In truth, as the years passed, I did find some of this unsolicited information to be genuine. There really was one sister who, for a number of years, accused every single one of her son’s Primary teachers of picking on her son and a similar sister who made claims about her daughter. There really was another sister who became “inactive” at regular intervals (approximately semi-annually) when another unwary ward member “offended” her. And there really were a handful of couples who refused to prepare for the future because it had been “revealed” to them (through an underground video being circulated in the stake) that the second coming was only minutes away.
So, you can see why I was glad to have had this important background information revealed up front. Not!
I found this advance notice problematic for three practical reasons:
- I was deprived of the opportunity of getting to know these new ward sisters on my own, without a jaded impression of them.
- I found it very difficult to keep the repeated information from affecting the way I treated, or at least thought, of them.
- More often than not the information was highly inaccurate and unfairly filtered a fact that often took years to discover.
But even these problems aside, the moral and spiritual damage caused by gossip is well documented. Here is a tiny sampling:
But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. Matthew 12:36–37
Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:16
Joseph Fielding Smith:
There should be no backbiting, evil speaking, gossip hurtful of our neighbors, neither iniquity in the Church.
Franklin D. Richards:
In being just, one will not condemn, find fault, or gossip, as there is no salvation in being critical of another.
Harvey L. Taylor:
Men [and women] of honor live above pettiness, gossip and small talk.
Milton R. Hunter:
Sometimes I gossip and judge others, and when I do it I act unrighteously before the Lord.
Spencer W, Kimball:
Speak no ill of others. Slander, backbiting, evil speaking, faultfinding are all destructive termites that destroy the home. Lies and gossip which harm reputations are scattered about by the four winds like the seeds of a ripe dandelion held aloft by a child. Neither the seeds nor the gossip can ever be gathered in. The degree and extent of the harm done by the gossip is inestimable.
Mark E. Petersen:
Gossip, to say the least, is hardly Christ-like.
David O. McKay:
Let us avoid evil speaking; let us avoid slander and gossip. Gossip bespeaks either a vacant mind or one that entertains jealousy or envy. Gossip, too, brings discord and thrives best in superficial minds, as fungi grows best on weakened plants, “Bear ye one another’s burdens,” but do not add to those burdens by gossiping about your neighbors or by spreading slander.
James E. Talmage:
I have no right to speak in condemnation of my brother, unless I do it in an official capacity, in the exercise of the authority of the Holy Priesthood, and then I should do it in love and with yearning for him.
Thorpe B. Isaacson:
It is a deplorable fact that the eye of the gossip and the slanderer sees not only no good in others, but sees evil where no evil exists.
Spencer W. Kimball:
Of course, no one sees himself in this category. It is always the other person who gossips, invents tales, slanders, and is double-tongued. But are not we all guilty to some degree and do not all of us need introspection, self-analysis and then repentance?
Bruce R. McConkie:
Gossip is unwholesome, serves no beneficial purpose, and should be shunned.
Joseph F. Smith:
Let it be remembered that nothing is quite so contemptible as idle gossip.
What is even sadder about this scenario is that, in spite of my strong distaste for gossip, I ended up sometimes contributing to it myself. Over a period of years friendships developed and habits were formed that bit-by-bit contributed to this awful behavior.
In analyzing how that could have happened, I realize that there are some relationships that are based almost entirely on gossip and there are some people who have very little to say unless it is about someone else. Perhaps in my case the two best remedies are preventative. First, I must avoid people with whom I have nothing in common but tales of others (at least until I can figure out a “safe” way to get out of such situations) and, second, I must be conversant on myriad topics none of which are other people’s business.
I remember well a Relief Society lesson over a decade ago where I first realized that gossip didn’t have to be constructed of lies! I had thought that if what I said was true (never mind that my personal version of “truth” might be just a teeny, weenie bit biased), then I was justified in shouting it from the rooftops. What a revelation to find that I was wrong! Gossip is idle talk or rumor about the personal or private affairs of others true or not.
Recently I moved to Utah and, like all moves, I look at this one as an exciting opportunity for a “fresh start” or sorts. I have determined that I will not speak unkindly or “idly” of anyone I meet or reacquaint myself with while here. The litmus test for me will be that I will not say anything behind a sister’s (or brother’s) back that I would be embarrassed (or unwilling) to say to her face.
Many of us actually believe (or make believe) that we are “discussing” someone in order to “help” him or her. This is almost always a big bunch of crock. Spreading personal information and negative comments about someone isn”t ever likely to be of help.
Some of the worst gossip is delivered in an extremely self-righteous manner: “Well, she was so inconsiderate, but I have forgiven her.” Yikes!
Other gossip is passed on with the pretense of some sort of compliment. “Oh, she has come such a long way since she had that morality problem a few years ago.” I can’t imagine that there is someone who cannot figure out how to give praise without dishing the dirt in the process.
There can also be a temptation to gossip about others under the guise of fulfilling our church stewardships. Those who visit teach, who give compassionate service, who serve in church leadership positions must realize the absolutely sacred nature of the personal information that our callings sometimes make us privy to. Even among counselors and others involved in helping and serving, we should use the utmost discretion when relaying information.
Perhaps one of the most insidious forms of gossip is from the alleged victim of a perceived wrong. When we are mistreated, how many people do we tell? Do we feel it our right to express our pain and garner support from the outside? Do we expect others to side with us in the battle against the offender? Do we couch our gossip in the form of a question? “Sister Jones didn’t show up at the ward party like she promised and left me without enough mashed potatoes. The bishop won’t release her from the activities committee. How can I make sure the next party won’t be ruined by something similar?” Do we hide our gossip under the banner of humility? “The stake president said that my son couldn’t pass the sacrament because his hair is bleached. I would never question his authority, but now my poor son doesn’t want to come to church at all. How can I help my son say active in the church?”
Certainly there are extreme situations where a professional a counselor or the police might need to be called in to resolve an issue. I am not suggesting that serious or severe abuse should be concealed or covered up. But we have been given a clear, scriptural pattern for general conflict resolution.
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. Matthew 18:15
And if thy brother or sister offend thee, thou shalt take him or her between him or her and thee alone; and if he or she confess thou shalt be reconciled. And if he or she confess not thou shalt deliver him or her up unto the church, not to the members, but to the elders. And it shall be done in a meeting, and that not before the world. D&C 42:88–89
Of course, it is easier to tell our best friend how rude Sister Baxter was, than it is to try to resolve the situation with Sister Baxter herself. But I suggest that if the problem isn’t serious enough to motivate us to approach Sister Baxter in spite of the discomfort, then we ought to be charitable enough to motivate ourselves to shut our mouths around our best friends.
I make an exception to this rule for children. I believe they should be able to discuss troublesome situations with their parents (not their peers) so that they can receive guidance as to how to resolve these situations in the most civil, Christlike way possible. And hopefully as parents we will be mature enough not to turn the situation into gossip by spreading it around to others!
Gossip is truly harmful, to the person speaking, the person hearing, and the person being spoken about. It is harmful to the Spirit and to our ability to receive that Spirit. Often as women we feel that bonds of friendship are formed and strengthened when we share confidences one with another. But in the course of sharing, let us be sure that our confidences are truly our own, and not those belonging to another.
Gossip is a true chameleon. It can camouflage itself as “genuine concern” or begin with the sentence, “I need to talk to you about something.” Our antennae have to be very attuned to the Spirit in order to discern the difference between true concern and its counterfeit: idle gossip.
Setting is one of the most transparent ways in which gossip can be identified. It’s a “no- brainer” to figure out that negative, demeaning, or damaging remarks being tossed around in a group setting, qualify for the label “gossip.” Even if they begin under the guise of well-meant concern, group discussion of personal or delicate matters is rarely “well-meant.” In fact, it belies everything Christ teaches about loving our neighbor. When we love someone, we want to protect him or her from unrighteous scrutiny and would never indiscriminately share with an inappropriate third party.
Discerning gossip from true concern in a private setting can be a little more difficult. I always try to consider the source. If it’s someone passing a tidbit to me as a gesture of “closeness,” I bury it just about as fast as radioactive waste and try to gently set a boundary with that person (we’ll get into boundary-setting in a second). If it is a person whom I know and trust, my antennae relax a little but I still pay attention to vocabulary. True concern is proactive and never ends with the mere repeating of a rumor or incident. It takes the form of helping, healing, promoting honesty, or evoking change. It does not judge and is always directed toward the goal of eternal progression. It protects the right of a person to repent, change, or explain without the scrutinizing eyes of those not directly involved.
There’s the detective work. Now, how in the world do we behave in those sticky situations without appearing to be judgmental? Here are a few tools that may be useful.
Be the leaven. If, in a group or private setting, someone relates a “negative;” counter each comment with a “positive;” or use a Devil’s advocate approach. By taking a tactful, but opposite view, focus may be gently shifted to include another way of looking at the same situation. “Maybe s/he wasn’t aware that ?” or “Do you think that perhaps, s/he ?” A sensitive person will pick up on the re-focus immediately, back off, and shift the subject.
Set boundaries. OK. Not everyone in this world is sensitive enough to pick up on the “gentle persuasion” approach. Time to put up a picket fence. Humor, as Kathy so wonderfully illustrates, is one of the most effective and non-confrontational ways to do this. “Whoa ?let’s look at world peace first then maybe we’ll be qualified to discuss this one.” Without offense, a “declaration of separation” has occurred. As with a picket fence, interaction can still take place but a boundary is now in place and, hopefully, understood.
Deflect. This is the buck-stopper. When all else has failed or when the gossip is so damaging that it must be silenced, this will bring results. However, it is the most direct of all. Just as a shield is held in place to repel potential damage, deflection turns the remark on its perpetrator. It calls for accountability and examination. “Have you discussed this privately with her/him?” or “Is this the right setting for such a discussion?” or perhaps, “I really don’t feel comfortable commenting on this.” The message sent that you will not be party to further discussion will not be misunderstood.
There are times when we have to do the unpopular thing. To some, it may appear “holier than thou.” That’s a risk we have to take when trying to stand in holy places. But let’s face it sisters, wouldn’t we all be grateful for a loyal friend who would take the risk if our reputation were on the line?