The Gossip Test — How to tell if your interest is justified

Last week I talked about the harm done by gossip — especially the harm we do to ourselves by creating separation between ourselves and an “other” and so creating separation from God’s love. OK, you’re saying, sure rumormongering and slander are bad, but I don’t see the harm in a little talking about people’s business when they’re not around — not in a hateful way, just being a little nosy. I’m trying to be helpful. And it’s fun.

As I said last week, the word gossip is derived from godparent and means taking an interest in the personal life of another as if they are a family member when they’re not. Idle talk about others may seem harmless on its surface, but the gossip grapevine seems to have a strong bias towards judgment. As the negativity study I mentioned says, people tend to bond over negative views. So idle talk usually drifts into what we think is wrong about someone else, taking their inventory. Be honest, how often do you gossip about good things?

Busybodies often think they’re just trying to help, offering correction or advice, or talking about someone out of genuine concern — and we do have a responsibility to help each other follow the path, as “iron sharpens iron.” (Proverbs 27:17) But, odds are, this isn’t one of those cases.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)

J. John, Anglican speaker and author of Ten, offers several useful tests for whether something is gossip or justified interest in another:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Will it benefit anybody knowing this?

And even if the answer to both of those questions is “yes,” answer these additional two:

  1. Would you be willing to put your name to it — to be known to all as its source?
  2. Would you be willing to say it to the person’s face in a public setting?

If not, then even if you might be justified in talking to the subject about it, you have no business talking to others. Ask yourself how you feel when someone does the same about you.

It really is as simple as this: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12)

And I would add one additional test to any impulse to gossip:

  1. What is your motivation? Is it to help the person, or is it self-seeking — to bond with another person? to feel morally superior? to justify your own choices? If your motives are impure, then even a valid attempt to help will probably fall flat or cause harm.

I probably shouldn’t tell you this…

Consider trying not to be complicit even in listening to gossip. J. John says, “When people say, ‘I probably shouldn’t tell you this…’ why don’t we say, ‘Well, you better not’?” Instead, we likely respond, “Oh, go on. What is it?”

I do it. The temptation is tremendous. Sometimes I listen for pure entertainment value. Sometimes I wouldn’t mind hearing the subject taken down a peg. And sometimes I just don’t want to cause conflict with the gossiper. But consider telling the next person sharing a juicy bit of gossip that you’d prefer not to hear it, that you don’t care about the other person’s personal business, or suggest they could be wrong — challenge them to defend their story.

And, as they’re gossiping to you about someone else, remember the old saying: “Who gossips with you will gossip of you.”

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About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the editor of Paraclete Press; coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, presider, cook and leadership team chair at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.