Just what is gossip?

Just what is gossip? December 21, 2011

My grandmother had the sort of theology that believed humans could become sinless, and she believed she had achieved that level in her Christian life. I was suspicious of such a theology, and so were my parents and siblings, not because we were particularly adept in such things but because we were taught that we could not attain sinlessness in this life. Once I heard my grandmother talking about another person on the phone so when she came back into the living room I asked her if gossip was a sin. (I was ready for a gotcha moment with my fun-loving grandma. Grandma: “Of course gossip is sin.” Me: “Weren’t you gossiping on the phone?” Grandma: “What I was doing was a mistake, Scot, and God looks over mistakes.”

So, there you go, even among the most stringent of those who believe in sinlessness gossip is a sin. Which raises our question for the day:

What is gossip? When is talking about another gossip?

I ask this because I’m reading Joseph Epstein’s new book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, and he offers plenty of observations on what is and what is not gossip, and I thought I’d toss a few out there — and the one thing he doesn’t do is offer theological probings of what it ought not to be done by God-fearing folks. I’ve been reading Epstein for years, and in all of his writings there’s some gossipy tidbit tossed in about someone, and it has made for years wonder about the guy. What I wonder is two-fold: where does he get all this inside-job stuff and why is he so intent on revealing it? One thing I’ve seen in Epstein: he’s got a good eye for character and where others fall short. He’s not adverse, either, to turning it on himself. Lightly, of course.

For Epstein gossip is a reality; he enjoys it; and he likes to talk about it and observe how it works. But there are limits, and here are some of his many observations, and they can lead us to reflect today — together — on what gossip is, why it’s wrong, and why it is so dadburned incurable among even those who think it’s wrong.

“it usually serves to diminish or tarnish that reputation” (3).

“It’s hearing something you like about someone you don’t” (4) and “it can be mean, ugly, vicious, but also witty, daring, entirely charming” (8).

“To be out of it [the loop, the inner circle, the inside info], in the dark, clueless, this is a condition to which no one but a saint, and maybe not even a saint, would aspire” because, to be honest, it is “a sometimes dubious but often necessary resource” (33).

“… every first-class gossip is, when one comes right down to it, a spy in business for himself” (48).

“In gossip, intent counts for a great deal — sometimes for everything” (51).

“Gossip is the confession of other people’s sins” (58). “… candor, where possible spiced with humor, is the proper conversational note for gossip” (64).

And this one: “… one of the meanest things one can say about another person is that one finds him intrinsically too uninteresting to be worth gossiping about” (64).

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  • Tim

    Gossip is a social act, so it should be understood in the greater context of social behavior. What we want to avoid is social aggression. To the degree that gossip becomes socially aggressive or hurtful, it should be avoided. To the degree that it merely facilitates a normal exchange of socially useful information and facilitates socially healthy interaction, it could be welcome. As is often the case, there is sometimes a lot more grey in the real world than simple black and white. I’m sure gossip is not exception.

  • Scot, I don’t have the Metaxas bio with me right now because I gave it to someone else to read. But I distinctly remember that Bonhoeffer had a practice at Finkenwalde that they were not to talk about someone who was not in the room. Period.

  • Having worked as a reporter, the issue came up on where the “fine line” was between news and gossip. There really isn’t one, unless you’re a gossip who excuses your behavior by calling it news-gathering. News is information that truly is everyone’s business, such as government or business news; or a story that a subject participates in telling. Gossip is neither of those things.

  • Daniel Clark

    News is when we talk about other people, gossip when they talk about us.

  • 1) I enjoy living in close (relationally, not by proximity) Christian community. We have wonderfully opportunities to live life together, and sometimes that means talking about others’ issues. I’m not sure that Bonhoeffer’s rule (#2 above) is practical in such a setting, but I do struggle with making sure that any discussion is for edification and not slipping into gossip or back-biting. That’s how I’d like others to talk ab0out the areas I need to grow in too.
    2) A pet peeve of mine is the circulation if obviously false, or even unchecked, scurrilous emails about elected officials. I’ve seen data that these are especially popular among conservatives, so I assume many of them pass through the hands of evangelical Christians. I know public officials are on a different plane, but knowingly and purposefully lying about anyone, just to ruin the reputation of a political opponent, still seems greatly at odds with Christian “family values.”

  • DRT

    I wonder about church prayer lists, particularly from the children. My wife was appalled when helping in children’s church when the leader started quizzing the kids for problems in the family so they could pray for them.

  • Danny Sims

    I once delivered a sermon on gossip. I used the definition I had heard Rick Warren use: gossip is when you talk about someone and you are neither part of their problem or its solution.

    The sermon went over very well… funny thing was that the guy in the church who had a reputation as a busy-body & gossip pulled me aside after the worship assembly and quietly said, with a straight face, “Good message.” Then he asked, “Is there something going on in the church that I should know about?”

  • Susan N.

    If I am involved with a person or entity, then as much as they have impacted me (for better or for worse), any “telling” I do would be a part of my story. Talking for the sake of hurting someone, or to drum up an exciting conversation topic, why?

    Often, in conservative evangelical circles in which I have been involved, I sense a somewhat morbid need to know another’s struggles (confess your faults to one another…pray for one another…) But then when a problem is made known, or becomes glaringly obvious, avoiding and denying it (unspoken code of silence) is the typical response. Is that because people don’t know how to handle difficult stuff, or because they just don’t want to? I do not know; probably a little of both.

    One unforgettable memory I have of a conservative evangelical small group discussion on sin, accountability, and prayer:

    Leader/facilitator to group: “So, is there any struggle or “sin” that anyone would like to talk about?”

    Several seconds of silence pass, then I said: “You go first!”

    Leader chuckles, practically winks knowingly, and segues to next question… Uh-huh.

    Prayer time can easily begin to sound more like judgmental gossip. Trust is a rare commodity; is it any wonder?


  • AJ

    Also important: With what energy do I receive or share? Do I feel somehow energized by the information? Do I quiz for details for the wow-factor? Do I share anything for the shock-factor?

    I do think there are times when I share without these motivations in order to give an example or something. I’m guessing that this wouldn’t be gossip, but may be inappropriate or in violation of trust if I haven’t checked to be sure it’s ok to share. If love is the measure, then this would certainly fall short too.

  • reJoyce

    Down here in Texas we always say “bless her heart” after every juicy tidbit. That makes it okay, right? 😉

  • TSG

    Wesley’s standard sermon called “The Cure of Evil Speaking” should be read as to this topic.

  • Pat Pope

    I hate gossip and find it destructive. One of the things that it does is it deprives a person from getting to know another or the facts of a situation on their own without having their opinion tainted by a gossip.

    However, I have another take on gossip and that is some people take avoidance of it to an unhealthy extreme. I was in a church where people didn’t dare talk about someone or a situation that needed to be discussed and I can only attribute that to an unhealthy view of gossip or maybe a fear of confrontation. No, we should not gossip, but it helps no one if we’re so afraid to talk about what’s wrong in a situation that we won’t talk about it at all. People are allowed to be dysfunctional and spread their dysfunction throughout the church because no one dares say anything. We have to learn balance and sometimes we are called to speak truth to a situation and I believe that can be done without malice or ill intent. But NOT discussing issues is NOT the right way, in my opinion. In some situations, that’s why people continue to get their way and do what they want because no one is willing to confront them and be the “bad guy”.

  • I’ve been called a “malicious gossip” intent on “destroying the gospel” all because I have participated in the outing of a pedophile missionary doctor and the mission agency and men who covered his tracks for decades. I think gossip is a reactionary label pharisees and image control freaks attach to news and truth they don’t like. Yes, gossip is real and exists, but the task of defining it is difficult. Not talking about people “who aren’t in the room” is impractical and can lead to a dangerous power for those who would wield it. It may help keep short-term peace, but could lead to long-term damage within organizations and religious institutions if it is followed to the letter. We have to be willing to make sin public when there is good reason to. We have to be willing to inform another person about someone else’s sin when there is good reason to. When it comes to this, I DO think that intent is EVERYTHING.

  • I agree Bonhoeffer’s rule is impractical. His students thought so. And much of what Jesus taught is also impractical, requiring deep sacrifice we are usually not willing to make when it comes right down to it.

    In response to 13, I hardly think it would be applied across the board to the kind of setting you mention. Clearly Bonhoeffer did not apply that kind of logic to Hitler or the Nazi organization.

  • Diane


    I agree with you on the “prayer circles” in which praying for people becomes an excuse to gossip. But I also think of Dorothy Day: She often said that people don’t mean half of what they say. I guess the question is, which half?

  • Diane

    But seriously, many people would be mortified if the subject of their gossip heard what they had to say, because they don’t mean to be malicious or hurtful.

  • DRT

    One of the things I try to coach people in corporate life on is to be open and accepting of feedback that they hear from others. The reason being that everyone else already knows that feedback, so they should at least know what everyone else knows.

  • Alexa

    And what a grand lady she was!

  • Ana Cristina

    I once saw a church sign that said “Gossip, ear pollution”