WHAT IS GOSSIP?

I love digging into the meanings of words–but I generally don’t bother much with dictionary definitions of words, unless it is a totally unfamiliar word to me or it is a Swahili word I haven’t used in a while.  Dictionary definitions of words are important and significant because they tell us what the general population means when the word is used.  But there are two problems with dictionary definitions.

The first problem is that that what words mean to people changes over time.  For some reason, people seem to shift the meaning of words in ways that no one can predict.  As an example, consider the word “gay”.  At one point, it was a synonym for “happy” and was used that way–a Christmas carol says, “Don we now our gay apparel” and the old Flintstones cartoon show promised us “a gay old time” in its theme song.  Today, the word has a very different meaning, one that can give a very ironic meaning to these old songs.

The second problem with words is that words also have another meaning, one that can be harder to define but which people tend to understand.  The meaning can have an emotional content, a practical content, a contextual content–all of which can go well beyond the dictionary meaning.

All of that is to lead into a discussion of gossip.  Dictionaries suggest that gossip is the passing along of information whose validity is in question.  But as I have been thinking about the word and the practise–or, to be perfectly honest, my own practise of gossip–I think that definition really only scratches the surface.

When I gossip, the issue generally isn’t whether what I am saying is true or not.  In fact, I have an aversion to being wrong so I try hard to have my facts straight, even when I am gossiping.  Generally, the issue for me is why I am saying something about someone.  And after some soul-searching this week, I realized that the times I can be accused of gossiping are the times I am saying something to make myself look good–I want to be seen as someone in the know, someone with knowledge, someone who has a superior grasp of the situation.

In my desire to look good, I turn another person into a tool.  I can climb on them to get myself higher.  Ultimately, I am guilty of disrespecting and dehumanizing the other person so that I can gain some selfish advantage.  And that selfish advantage doesn’t generally have to be some grand and long-lasting thing.  Just getting the best comment at coffee with someone by showing how much I know about another person’s issues is sufficient.

I don’t like that–and am not too happy that I wrote myself into the corner of having to admit not only that I gossip but also making myself look at why I do it.  Now, I could make myself look better by saying that I don’t do it very often and I at least try to have my facts straight and–well, there are lots of other ands but nothing really changes the fact that I actually abuse other people for my own temporary and minor gain.

I would like to say that having forced myself to take this look at myself and confess my sin, I am now going to change and never gossip again.  I would like to say that  but I know it isn’t that easy.  In all honesty, I have to say that I will likely gossip again–but I am hoping my confession means that I will feel guilty enough that the gain from gossip is blunted.  I am hoping (and praying) that having confessed, I will be more willing to seek another path that leads me away from using other people for my own gain and benefit.

While there are sometimes when people experience overnight change, I have generally found that I have a slower, more incremental process which I hope I have started with this blog entry.  When I realized that my gossip is actually an abuse of others, that hurt me and my self-image.  Now comes the hard work of changing patterns and doing what I have been telling others to do and which God is obviously telling me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A PRAYER REQUEST

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.