"Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” This quote is often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt — and frankly, it’s always messed with me.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the point of it, and on the surface I am apt to agree with it. I don’t want to be the kind of person who demeans others and discusses the petty intricacies of others’ lives.
Yet, as someone who has spent the past five years as a relationship writer and editor, I find people and their wandering hearts absolutely fascinating. Because we are created as social beings, the things we find interesting always come down to the context of human relationships.
So if our experience is so contextualized by relationships — if that’s what we really find compelling — why is gossip so wrong?
Gossip isn’t harmless.
For many of us, gossip can seem like a benign immorality. Yeah, okay — it’s kind of bad, but also kind of harmless. It’s just a part of life, right?
Well, not exactly. Pope Francis does not mince words, likening gossip to violence. “Gossipers are terrorists because with their tongues they drop a bomb and then leave, and the bomb they drop destroys reputations everywhere.” He adds, “Don’t forget: to gossip is to kill.”
Sound extreme? Consider asking anyone who's had their reputation decimated by a vicious rumor, like Julia O’Donnell, whose senior year of high school was “completely destroyed” when a rumor ran through her church community like wildfire. “I lost all my high school friends because of a rumor, as well as the respect of their parents,” she said. “It was awful, because everyone heard these horrible things.”
Gossip is different from talking about people.
Talking about the people in our lives isn’t necessarily mindless gossip — but it can be. Yes, even if the gossip is 100-percent true. “Technically speaking, talking about people becomes gossip when it is without charity,” explains Father Kevin O’Keefe, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Ray City, Georgia. “It’s considered immoral because ultimately, it’s a misuse of the truth.”
We all have the gift of communication and the most noble use of that gift is to build others up. Father O’Keefe calls this an “expression of divine charity — and it is a participation of the love of God.” To use this gift of communication well, we have to communicate with wisdom — otherwise, it can be a weapon.
Father O’Keefe’s short-hand guide: it’s gossip if it lacks charity and humility.
We crave gossip because we crave human connection.
It can be confusing to tell just exactly what gossip is. A lot of that is because we crave connection, and gossiping is a way to feel like we’re sharing intimacy.
We have a good need and desire to share our vulnerabilities. It’s just that most of us have strong defenses when it comes to sharing about ourselves, so we borrow other people’s material. Ultimately, we fear sharing our own problems, so we tend to mine someone else’s personal business. “Perversely, we even thank people for divulging good gossip — like it’s some sort of personal secret they’re sharing, even though it’s not their personal secret,” Father O’Keefe points out.
Gossip doesn’t just crop up in the knitting circles of little harmless old church ladies. “Those little old ladies gossip because they have a human desire to share — but it’s the opposite of what they could be doing to make that happen,” Father O’Keefe explains. “They’re missing out on making genuine relationships, because we get closer with others by speaking about ourselves and what’s in our hearts.”
Here’s how to kick the gossip habit.
If you’d like to start living a more honest life, free of ruinous gossip and filled with far richer conversation, it’s important to begin with intentionality and mindfulness. “In an attempt to stop gossiping, a person might overcompensate and not share anything at all — which would be terrible, since sharing intimate details of our lives is how we grow. It’s how we become better people,” says Father O’Keefe.
So how do we bring up a touchy conversation that otherwise might disintegrate into gossip? Father O’Keefe shares some tips for when you are sharing about a topic that might cast someone else in a negative light:
- Make sure the conversation is about your own experience, not someone else’s. Consider asking yourself: Am I sharing this experience from the vantage of how it affected me? Or because it makes someone else look bad? Why am I pursuing this conversation?
- Make sure that charity is involved. Am I giving the other person the benefit of the doubt? Am I considering their motives? Am I talking about this person in a loving, honest, and respectful way?
- Make sure that your intention is healthy. Am I pursuing this conversation simply out of morbid curiosity? Will talking about this really help me?
If you find yourself in a situation in which someone is sharing gossip with you, here are some quick tactics from Julia O’Donnell that can turn a bash-session into something fruitful:
- Empathize with the speaker. “Oh, wow — that’s an awful situation. I hear you!” Then mirror the conversation back to the speaker’s experience of the situation, if doing so is applicable. “What a mess! That sounds like it hurt you.”
- Empathize with the subject of the rumor. After you empathize, consider standing up for the other person — flip it to their perspective, but gently play the devil’s advocate. “Maybe they thought you meant this instead …”
- Bring in light-hearted humor to redirect! Try using humor to redirect the conversation: “We sound like old ninnies! Let’s ease up...” Or, if that doesn’t work, (gently) direct more bluntly: “Oh man, I feel that we’re treading into dangerous territory right now, let’s not dig too deep here.”
Partaking in gossip, in a twisted way, is an attempt to seek intimacy. But intimacy through proxy — through other people’s secrets — will not bring you closer to others. Gossip will not lift you up, as it demeans others by misusing trust or truth, and then falsely fills the void of your need for intimacy with something far less gratifying.
But be easy on yourself. That desire for intimacy is real — and so if you find yourself with a deep urge to gossip, take a breath before you text your friend, and gently ask yourself: Why? Has it been a while since you had a real, down-to-earth conversation about your own life?
Maybe talk about that instead.