This post is offered in collaboration with the Catholic, Evangelical, and Faith and Work Channels, which are jointly hosting a symposium on spiritual disciplines for work.
I grew up in a family that eschewed idle gossip. If it weren’t my business, or if it were a complaint or a criticism about anyone but me, or if my parents hadn’t been authorized to share the news, I didn’t hear about it. We bragged on each other, and we shared the news we’d been given to share. And if the only thing we had to say about a person was negative, we just didn’t talk about that person at all. (Or, at least, my parents didn’t talk about him in front of me.)
The discipline required for such control of the tongue is truly a spiritual discipline–one that requires the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit to practice.
This is, I think, a sane and healthy way to run a family, and it translates into the work environment well. A person that worked in an organization that put a premium on respecting confidentiality and refraining from negative or idle chatter would be working for a good organization.
It’s a primarily negative posture, though, to truth-telling. That is, it works by refraining from bad speech–it concentrates on not breaking confidences, not spreading malice, not slandering people.
It may be that in some workplaces, this negative virtue–though genuinely good!–is too quiet, too unobtrusive, too subtle to get the job done. Imagine a workplace dominated by an inherited tradition of malicious talk, or part of an industry that tends to generate isolation or ill will, or newly confronted by external stressors that are having a destructive effect on co-workers’ relationships: truly good people who refrain from participating in idle or malicious gossip will not make things worse, but they will, perhaps, not change the tenor of the office as much as they’d like.
It may be that such a work environment requires a more pro-active habit, one that is equally spiritual and equally disciplined. We might call it holy gossip. It is not malicious, and it is not idle, but it involves sharing each others’ stories liberally, perhaps even without a strong sense of needing permission to do so.
My husband grew up in a family with this freer notion of family story-telling. And I think it, too, is a healthy way to run a family.
What’s most noticeable about it, when my husband’s family does it, is how good it can be to be gossiped about. Whenever someone comes up in conversation, I know exactly what my father-in-law will say. Not the exact words, but the exact pattern. “Oh, Bob Smith! He’s a [positive attribute] guy. Let me tell you something about him: [Long, detailed, utterly sympathetic story].”
The first thing he says about a person will always be a compliment. Always. Even that guy he’s having trouble with at work, even that snarly relative, even somebody he’s in the middle of a rip-roaring row with. (I’ve never actually seen him in the middle of a rip-roaring row, and I doubt it’s ever happened, but I’ll leave open the theoretical possibility.)
The second thing will always be a story about something good in that person–his devotion to his family, her hard work, how bravely he faced a terminal illness, that one time she helped this student everyone hated. Always. It will be a story that shows that person in a good light: it will be funny, or tender, or inspiring, or warm, or just plain silly. Even when the third thing is introduced by the word “but” (and life just has buts in it sometimes) or is something that might pain the person to hear (and sometimes people have to be pained by others’ evaluation of them), the first two things will always be things that cultivate the listener’s sympathy for the person being talked about.
Whatever else Dad says about Bob Smith, the first things he says are almost certain to predispose me to like Bob Smith (or, at least, to be willing to try to like him).
Whatever you end up calling it, this practice of telling stories on one other but telling one others’ best stories first is the sort of workplace gossip that should be cultivated rather than held in disrepute.
Refraining from idle and malicious gossip can keep good will from being destroyed, can keep bonds of affection from being broken. But it doesn’t quite do enough to form them when they’re not already there.
Holy gossip can do that. It is to the collective body what a gratitude journal is to the individual body. It is capable of generating spiritual and psychological wholeness–that is, it can cause good will in a body that doesn’t already have it.
It disciplines the individual as well. Wherever I am inclined to be snarly about someone, or to dismiss her contribution to our common work, or vote for a policy that unfairly disadvantages her, I am challenged to remember her story–indeed, to tell her story myself. “Susie called the meeting? Oh. Gosh. Well, I tell you what, she runs an efficient meeting. She has never gone over the time scheduled. It’s good to have someone who values our time like that.”
Even if I go on to say, “But, gosh, I’m not looking forward to it,” or “Meetings on Fridays are so inconvenient,” or “I hope we make an actual decision this time,” I have primed myself to do right by Susie, to treat her with respect, to notice what she’s doing right, and to work with her to do it well.
I think that’s a win for us both, and for all those who have to work with us.