Gossip hardens our hearts

Gossip seems like the main form of entertainment these days. We’re bombarded with the ups and downs, the personal embarrassments, of entertainers, politicians, and a whole swath of people on pseudo-reality shows whose only reason for fame seems to be self-promotion. This is nothing new. In the Middle Ages, instead of Perez Hilton, its purveyors were roving minstrels (the French medieval term for minstrel, jongleur, actually means “gossip”); people have always been attracted to lurid news. I think it’s worse now because of the information age — the obsessive focus on information to create an illusion of control. We substitute having an opinion about Kim Kardashian’s swimsuit for having an opinion about our purpose in life.

But I mention celebrity gossip only to point out how accepted gossip is in general. I want to focus on real life gossip — talking about people you know behind their backs — people at the office, people you call friends.

The dictionary defines gossip as: “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.” (Idle in this sense means “of no real value.”)

But the word’s odd derivation is even more telling. Gossip originally meant godparent (from God + sibb). To gossip means to take an interest in the personal affairs of someone who isn’t a family member as if they were in fact a relative. A godparent takes on that role righteously. A gossip does so when they shouldn’t.

Malicious gossip

Many people know rumormongering is technically bad, but feel justified if it involves someone they don’t like. That doesn’t make it OK, any more than it would justify physically attacking them — spreading rumors or slander about a person is an act of verbal violence and it’s never justifiable.

It also seems to be a powerful way to bond with others. In a famous 2006 study, “Interpersonal Chemistry Through Negativity,” Jennifer Bosson, a social psychologist at the University of South Florida, and her colleagues assert that we feel a closer kinship over shared dislikes of people than shared likes.

My own weak spot is complaining about someone who frustrates or annoys me — looking to get a free pass for having those negative feelings by confirming that someone else is backing me up about them.

Negative gossip does more than identify a common belief, says Bosson. Its real power comes in creating a sense of community by setting up “in-groups” and “out-groups,” putting those gossiping on the inside by putting the subject on the outside.

So, if it helps build community, what’s wrong with it? Gossip is toxic because in order to do it, we must harden our heart towards the “out” person. We draw a line between ourselves and them; define them as being outside the rules of Christian charity. And while it may come with the territory for a celebrity, or while that person in the office may have done something worth criticizing, we don’t get off free. We create a gap between ourselves and God’s Love. As we harden our heart towards one person then another, one group then another, our heart turns to stone; this negativity and feeling of separateness will grow and permeate our world, and we’ll find it more difficult to access God’s love in any aspect of our lives.

Gossip has a way of spreading and sticking around — “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.” (Proverbs 18:8) That’s why it’s so dangerous. Once out of the bag, it’s impossible to unsay.

What do you think? Am I making too much of this? What’s the harm in a little instant messaging, a little talk around the water cooler? Have you seen or felt the damage gossip can cause? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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