The other evening I was having supper with four friends who I hadn't seen for ages. We were having a lovely time catching up, sharing news and discussing our opinions on various matters when suddenly out of my mouth came a piece of gossip that I had no business sharing. It was about a female acquaintance who is apparently now in a lesbian relationship after years of dating men. To compound matters I hadn't even heard it from her and so I had no real evidence whether it was true or not and I certainly had no place telling anyone else even if it was.
I cringe now writing this. And in fact at the time as soon as I'd said it I could feel the shame rising inside. So, why did I do it? Was it because the two glasses of wine I'd drunk had made me careless with my words? Was it because I wanted to join in the general gossip in the hope that I could increase my belonging in the group? Or did I feel proud somehow that I had some news that my friends didn't yet know? Truthfully, it was probably all of the above and no doubt there were other equally ugly reasons too. But what I do know is that it wasn't kind, it wasn't good and it wasn't clever.
The Cambridge Dictionaries online define gossip as, "Conversation or reports about other people's private lives that might be unkind, disapproving, or not true." The Bible is quite clear – gossip is harmful. It betrays a confidence (Proverbs 11:13), separates close friends (Proverbs 16:28) and fuels quarrels (Proverbs 26.20). Whether you are the person initiating it, spreading it, hearing it and especially if you are the subject of it – gossip is often toxic. It is like a virus spreading its negative impact on everyone it touches and once started it becomes hard to contain.
Most of us would probably agree that gossip is wrong but where do we draw the line on what gossip is and isn't? The other day I heard from two separate people that a mutual friend who lives near me – let's call her Sally - was going through a hard time. They didn't go into much detail and the next day I texted Sally to apologise that I hadn't been in touch for a while and mentioned I was sorry to hear she was going through a difficult patch and would she like to meet for coffee? Her response: silence. I heard later from one of the people who had shared the news that Sally was furious that they'd told me what she presumed was confidential information.
That incident made me reflect on how often I get involved in "caring sharing" or "share for prayer" which is often just gossip dressed up in respectable clothing. I've realised that I have a responsibility not just in what I share but also in what I listen to and how I act on it. In hindsight it might have been better to check with the original source whether Sally would be happy with what they were sharing and if it looked like she wouldn't I could have said something like, "Probably best if you don't tell me any more and I will just check in with her next time I see her." Then if Sally wanted to tell me herself, she could and if she didn't, it wasn't my place to know it anyway.
I am trying to clean up my act but it isn't always easy. It can be tempting to ask, "What's the goss?" or share some juicy bit of news, but I am working on taming my tongue. Here are my tips for anyone else trying to detox from gossip:
- Choose your confidants wisely. If you have sensitive news about yourself that you don't want spread – only tell people you can trust. Explain you want it kept confidential.
- Go direct. If you have been hurt or annoyed by someone or if you suspect that they are in the wrong about something, speak to them directly rather than to other people first.
- Guard your ears. If you suspect someone talking to you is mentioning something inappropriate check with them whether they've been given permission to pass on the news.
- Ask permission. If someone tells you something and you feel that you need to share it – perhaps because you feel the person needs more help, prayer or support – ask them if you can tell others or a specific person.
- T.H.I.N.K before you speak. Before sharing news or information with others pause and ask yourself: Is it T – true? Is it H – helpful? Is it I – inspiring? Is it N – necessary and is it K – kind? If that doesn't help – ask yourself whether you would still share it if the person you are talking about were standing in ear shot. If you wouldn't – don't!
Sarah Abell is the author of 'Inside Out – how to have authentic relationships with everyone in your life' (Hodder). You can follow her on Twitter at @nakedhedgehogs