QUESTION: I wonder where the line is between gossip and just talking things out with a friend or neighbor?
ANSWER: “Just talking things out” can be a helpful way of coping with life’s challenges and frustrations. But in the realm of sinful behavior, the subject of the talk is the critically important factor. For example, if someone has done something to hurt you, is the conversation with a trusted friend about how you feel or is it an attempt at character assassination of the offending party? They really are two different conversations.
If someone has hurt you and you want to talk about it, do you necessarily have to reveal the person’s name, or can you just describe the words or actions in general? “Someone said (or did) this to me and this is how I feel” can be the beginning of a helpful conversation. We might then describe feelings of being misunderstood or misjudged. We might speak of how difficult it would be to respond because of the person’s position. We might even speak of our immediate reaction to retaliate in some way.
All of these feelings are real and material for a talk we might have with someone else. But does it really matter who said what, or is our desire to reveal the identity of the offending party a beginning of our retaliation?
Gossip is defined in dictionaries as “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.” Gossip is often our “judgment” about someone because of what we have heard about them. This behavior is potentially sinful and especially dangerous when it involves our own anger, insecurity or jealousy.
Our efforts at “talking things out” become gossip when it is not about ourselves and how we feel but about what someone else did. It is unfair because the other person is usually not present and we are describing the “facts” when there is no possibility of explanation or defense from the other.
In every case of gossip, we are dealing with one of the most precious possessions of another person — reputation. There is almost no way to rescue a destroyed reputation. It is most painful when the destruction occurs because of a lie or distorted truth.
There is no such thing as a “harmless” bit of gossip. Even if the “gossip” is true, what right do we have to be the disseminators of all the “truths” of someone else’s life? In addition, even if a bit of gossip does not seem to do any harm, each time we do it it does something to us. Patterns and habits of gossip are rather easily formed. How well do we trust people who constantly tell us gossip about others? Most of us want to be people who are trusted by others. Gossips are rarely trusted.
Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the words of St. Paul: “Never let evil talk pass your lips; say only the good things people need to hear, things that will really help them” (Ephesians 4:29).
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.