I mentioned gossip in the last post and that began a train of thought leading to this blog. Mentioning gossip reminded me of a joke I sometimes use when talking about gossip and the church. It goes like this:
Q: How do Baptists (or whatever group you prefer) gossip?
A: They say, “I have a prayer request to share with you.”
We humans love to gossip but since gossip is one of those things specifically mentioned in the lists of things we believers shouldn’t do, we need to find a way to do it that at least sounds acceptable. We all know that the prayers are really a minor part of the whole process but it at least gives a veneer of respectability to something which is no different from what everyone does.
We humans love to talk about other human beings. Sharing what we know, think we know or speculate we know is probably as old as speech. Probably the first intelligible conversation between people was a warning about the predator hiding in the tall grass–but the second was probably someone telling about how so and so was so stupid that he almost got eaten by the predator.
Gossip seems to be almost a necessity for humanity. Get people together, provide coffee, tea, wine, beer or boredom and the talk will almost always turn to someone who isn’t present. Rarely will it stay on basic concern for that person’s welfare. Eventually, the comments will become negative, pointed and exaggerated. Depending on the status of the individual in the group, the comments can be gentle or nasty but in the end, the group members will feel something that made the process of talking about the absent one(s) worthwhile. The person being talked about, however, rarely gains status as a result of the conversation.
And this is the real problem with gossip–it contributes to a lessening of both the one being gossiped and those doing the gossiping. There are certainly legitimate times and reasons to talk about someone who isn’t present–but in general, the purpose isn’t to help anyone but to make the gossipers feel something–a superiority, a sense of being better, a feeling of being in the know, all at the expense of the absent person’s reputation.
As a pastor, I have an ambivalent relationship to gossip. I think it is wrong to talk about someone absent without their permission and knowledge. But at the same time, the gossip going around the church and community often provides me with important information that benefits my ministry–the gossip helps me anticipate and deal with issues that may or may not develop in the church.
But in order to get the information, I have to hear the gossip, which encourages the whole process. I let people know that as pastor, I am not going to tell them anything I know about people and their situations because of confidentiality issues but in the end, it is as much gossiping to hear it as to say it. I am still working on that dilemma because it does help me as pastor to know what is being said. Could I do my work without hearing a lot of what I hear–probably–but I would likely be slower picking up on some things that are easier dealt with earlier.
If I could make everyone stop gossiping, things would be great. But in truth, I can’t even really control myself in that area. Give me a cup of coffee, some free time and a group of non-church friends and before too long, I am telling the group about our mutual acquaintance who….
So, at best I am a passive consumer of gossip (purely for professional reasons) and at worst, I am as involved as anyone on the giving and receiving of gossip. But then, it gets even more complicated.
I am sometimes called upon to give a reference for people, a process that generally involves no more than writing a letter. But sometimes, I get a call from the person who received the letter. Or, I might simply be contacted about someone in the context of a job search, asking me about someone we both know. Is it gossip to talk about the person to the prospective employer?
This is getting complicated. Maybe I need to figure out just what gossip is–it might help me to know when I am receiving and sharing legitimate and important information as opposed to gossiping. So that is my task and the topic for the next post–what is gossip?
May the peace of God be with you.