Before you speak, always ask yourself: “is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?” --The Buddha
How does gossip differ from conversation? The distinction may seem too obvious to warrant deeper analysis. However, even if we are quite clear on the difference, it doesn’t hurt to clarify again what we already know. For e.g. a silver vase left untouched on a shelf for years on end will tarnish unless it’s polished again, so too does our understanding of things we already know. Therefore a re-view of what we know is essential to keeping our mind alert, open and bright. By doing this, understanding shifts from being merely intellectual to becoming experiential.
In our everyday interactions, we can easily slip from conversation to gossip without awareness. Gossiping’s most insidious danger is that it can so easily masquerade as normal everyday conversation.
Last weekend a friend came to visit. We are two women who are intensely curious about life, and we thoroughly enjoy debating and discussing religion, politics, literature and travel.Of course, we both also share common friends. After hours of chatting from Friday afternoon late into the evening, I awoke Saturday morning startled and ashamed to realize that we’d ended up gossiping about a friend.
Our socialized upbringing inculcates in us the protocol of following up a greeting with a query into a person’s health and life situation. We do this when we are face to face with someone, and if we share mutual acquaintances, friends or family then we also often ask after people who aren’t present.
And therein lies the danger. The seamless transition from curiosity and even perhaps healthy human interest in another person’s well-being can quickly devolve to tittle tattle. Gossip doesn't only happen in face to face interactions, but can also occur in social media and email settings.
Webster’s dictionary defines gossip as casual unconstrained conversation about someone else involving details that may be unconfirmed. We often think that gossip is only saying bad things about a person, sharing private information and lying about the person. But gossip is also speculating, wondering about, analyzing and judging someone else, and then sharing those mental cogitations and opinions with others.
Ironically even if we enjoy listening to gossip, we don’t like to be thought of or think of ourselves as gossip mongers. This is because it harms the speaker, the listener, and the subject of gossip. It makes the gossip monger a pariah and untrustworthy; it poisons the mind of the listener, and can destroy the reputation and good standing of the subject. The effect of gossip spreads quickly like one tiny drop of black dye in a bucket of clean water, it tints and taints all of the water.
So how do we undo this destructive habit?
The “I” word is paramount – Intention. Know your intention for speaking about someone else. Sometimes you really do need to solicit confidential advice from another person regarding someone you are concerned about. But you have to be absolutely clear on your intention for speaking about the other person. To check your motivation, ask yourself:
The second important step is to become alert and mindful during the conversation to catch when the discussion is slipping into the danger zone. So then you must:
Gossiping isn’t an easy habit to break. But it is a habit and as such it can be worked on. Even if we don’t totally eradicate the habit, our consistent effort to avoid it will be hugely beneficial. So the next time you sit down with a friend for a catch up - on the phone or in person - be mindful of your speech and aware of your intention.
Know that if you’ve formed a friendship around gossiping, then this change in your behavior could impact that relationship. It may leave you open to becoming the brunt of gossip. Here again, your motivation for changing this unhealthy habit will help you negotiate your path forward to happier and kinder way of living. When we are rejoicing and genuinely happy for someone's success and appreciative of their good qualities, then even though we may be speaking about the person, it isn't gossip.
May you always speak with awareness and kindness.