Gossip is Good

August 17, 2005 | 22 comments
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So says the New York Times. Among the various functions of gossip are the following:

Gossip not only helps clarify and enforce the rules that keep people working well together, studies suggest, but it circulates crucial information about the behavior of others that cannot be published in an office manual.

Members of the Church often are admonished by Church leaders not to gossip. In most instances, the primary concerns seem to be the bearing of false witness and negative criticism. When such pitfalls are avoided, however, gossip is not only useful, but essential to the functioning of a healthy ward or branch. How else would we learn that Sister Jackson is in the hospital? Or that Brother Murphy lost his job? We want to know those sorts of things so that we can leap to Sister Jackson’s or Brother Murphy’s aid, and I assume that information circulation in this context (“good gossip”) is uncontroversial.

I am more interested in a different role for gossip: rule clarification. Do you learn the Gospel via gossip? I do. For example, with regard to the doctrine of Sabbath observance, my views about Sabbath-appropriate activities have been influenced by hearing about what other families in my wards consider appropriate behavior.

I believe that most of us rely on stories to contextualize Gospel principles. We are all like lawyers attempting to understand the contours of a legal rule, constantly comparing highly textured facts to abstract guidelines. One of the important methods we use to acquire such facts in a setting close to our own is gossip. So don’t be embarrassed about sharing stories. Gossip is good, in more ways than one.

22 Responses to Gossip is Good

  1. danithew on August 17, 2005 at 7:49 am

    I have the impression that quite a bit of emailing happens in the ‘Nacle behind-the-scenes so to speak. No doubt at least some of it serves the gossip needs described in the NY Times article.

    A few weeks ago my wife came home from work and told me about a doctor who she felt treated the other doctors (including her) very poorly. Then a day later she came home and reported a semi-public conversation she overheard where other doctors were gossiping about this doctor’s infidelity in marriage, how this doctor dressed inappropriately (immodestly) for the job, that this doctor “was Satan”, that this doctor’s bad negative input should not be taken too seriously, etc.

    I think in a sense it was gratifying to know that my wife’s personal and private judgments of a person were verified and even accentuated by the reactions of many others in the group — that she isn’t alone in the conclusions and that in fact her viewpoints were originally more tempered and reserved in nature.

    Perhaps one of gossip’s main features is that it acts as a feedback mechanism, telling a person that he or she isn’t “crazy” or “alone” in his or her perspectives of things.

    At the same time, I’ve seen gossip and backbiting wreak havoc in a workplace. There are times when an institution has to consciously express a policy to prevent this sort of thing.

  2. danithew on August 17, 2005 at 7:50 am

    bad negative input” … yikes.

  3. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 17, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    I’ve been reading “Order without Law, How Neighbors Settle Disputes” and over and over again it stresses the importance of gossip. The NYT clip sounds like a quote from the earlier book.

  4. Mike on August 17, 2005 at 1:56 pm

    We need to define gossip.

    My definition: Sharing negative and either inaccurate or unfounded information outside of a person’s awareness so that they can not defend themselves or set the record straight.

  5. alamojag on August 17, 2005 at 2:10 pm

    MIke,

    An excellent point. The definition of gossip can depend on which side of it you are. For example, in Priesthood meeting last Sunday, the teacher told of how the gossip following his daughter’s relatively quick wedding drove her out of the church. She was not pregnant at the time, nor had she been during the four years of that marriage. The “crucial information” about her “behavior” at that time was that she was not as well-loved or welcome as she thought she was.

  6. Ashley on August 17, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    To me, the word “gossip” connotes maliciousness at the worst, poor judgment at best, and always having to do with other people, not institutions or rules. Your post (and the NY Times article) extends the idea of gossip to such an extent that I wonder if another word would be more useful–though I’m not sure what that would be–confabulate? palaver?–not quite as rough-and-ready as the word “gossip” are they?

    This broad understanding of “gossip” blends into the world of folklore and advice; I can think of a couple of areas of LDS life where informal, unofficial conversations have been helpful:

    1) garments–advice on fit and fabric, since one cannot try them on before purchasing, as well as really specific advice on the rules for when and how to wear them.

    2) callings–here the narrower, darker understanding of gossip comes into play a bit more; hearing how various people consider someone to have “dropped the ball” has shaped my sense of what is expected of me. (Conversely, hearing someone praised in specific ways for magnifying their calling does the same thing.)

  7. danithew on August 17, 2005 at 3:07 pm

    Maybe this link would be useful for scriptural references. It appears the word “babblings” only is used once.

  8. Kevin Ashworth on August 17, 2005 at 3:56 pm

    “Members of the Church often are admonished by Church leaders not to gossip.” Often? I don’t know about that.

    I don’t think I’ve ever met even one Mormon that doesn’t gossip and love to do it. I’ve had countless discussions about this. There have been countless times I’ve been encouraged to tell more, name names, join the fun, etc. It’s the one area in my life where I’m the most conservative person I know — and it kills me, so I’m giving up and starting to gossip. It’s fun!

    Why don’t we just remove all instructions against gossip from our manuals, to put our manuals in line with our practices and beliefs, which in this case appear to be the beliefs published in the New York Times.

  9. JKS on August 17, 2005 at 5:46 pm

    Gossip is only wrong if it is:
    1. Untrue
    2. Criticism
    3. When there is enjoyment coming from others’ misfortune
    Gossip is necessary and useful when it is:
    1. True
    2. Can protect you, your family, or others from harm
    3. You can be charitable while discussing the choices or misfortunes of others

  10. JA Benson on August 17, 2005 at 7:25 pm

    I love your post Gordon. I agree with JKS. Malicious gossip is sinful and harmful. Sometimes I am so glad that I knew a little background information on someone so as not to put my big foot in my mouth.
    We moved to a small ward a while ago that was really more like a branch. I was immediately called to be the Visiting Teaching Supervisor. Two of the sisters I called each month had the same unusual last name. I assumed that they were sisters-in-law. Fortunately someone told me that one of the sisters was an ex-wife to the other’s husband. That little bit of “gossip” kept me from saying something stupid.
    Just last week a brother that my husband works with in his calling called him up at work to tell him off over a trivial thing. My husband spent a couple of days feeling bad, hurt and confused. Later (unsolicited) another Church member told me that brother was going through a very hard time. It is good to know this bit of info as we are much more tender-hearted and forgiving towards that brother. Otherwise we were just assuming that he was a jerk.
    Finally if you have a secret about yourself that you do not want shared be careful with whom you share it with; (or not at all) because if you cannot trust yourself with your own secret you can’t expect others to do better.

  11. manaen on August 17, 2005 at 8:26 pm

    I’d always taken gossip to mean malicious and surreptitious sharing of knowledge about others. A quick check of dictionary.com confirms that, so we’re taking a broader context by including beneficial talk of others. Interesting that the word comes from Middle English’s godsib or gossip, which means godparent, which came from Old English’s godsibb, which is god + sib (kinsman). So much for family secrets!

    One of my favorite comments, which I hadn’t considered before in the context of gossip, fits well: “It is one thing to acquire knowledge and quite another to apply it. Wisdom is the right application of knowledge and true education, the education for which the Church stands, is the application of knowledge towards the development of a noble and godlike character.” (David O. McKay, “Gospel Ideals” p. 440). So, when we share knowledge about others, are we doing so edify or to pull down? D&C 108:7 rolls this concept across three kinds of talking: “Therefore, strengthen your brethren in all your conversation, in all your prayers, in all your exhortations…”

    Brigham Young offered pragmatic advice when one’s a target of gossip, “If your neighbors talk about you, and you think that they do wrong in speaking evil of you, do not let them know that you ever heard a word, and conduct yourselves as if they always did right, and it will mortify them, and they will say, ‘We’ll not try this game any longer’.” JD 19:70

    “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ” Phil. 1:27

  12. Jack on August 18, 2005 at 2:44 am

    The scriptural definitions of negative gossip that come to my mind are: bearing false witness, watching for iniquity, backbiting, speaking evil, etc. Nasty stuff. I’d say about once a year we have a family home evening lesson based on James chapter three. That chapter is so powerful when read as is that a commentary is hardy necessary.

    On the other hand, there can hardly be anything more edifying than speaking WELL of people behind their backs. Nothing pulls a community together like a belief in the good of others which is generated by sweet gossip.

  13. ronin on August 18, 2005 at 9:15 am

    Gossip, if malicious, or if rumor-mongering, isnt to be encouraged. On the other hand, finding out a lot of small details can be i ncredibly helpful at times. for example, a very close friend of mine has an almost 17 yr-old son. ( They are not LDS, btw). And it is from monitoring teenage gossip, that they were able to find out that this otherwise outwardly very normal, healthy, successful, and friendly high school senior was very depressed, and was contemplating suicide, and he had made plans for actually carry out his plans. They were able ti intercede, along with the Priest and the youth leaders of their Parish, and offer this young man the help he desperately needed.
    Gossip can be good, and indeed even life-saving at times. Therefore, I wonder the wisdom of taking an absolutist and literal interpretation of the “thou will not engage in gossip” rule.rule.position.

  14. Gavin McGraw on August 18, 2005 at 9:42 am

    I think there is an important way that we in the Church have institutionalized gossip (albeit a self-initiated form): Priesthood Interviews.

    This is the place where we can say everything we need to get off our chest, or secretly want others to know. This gets us off the hook for ‘not trusting ourselves with our own secret’ (love that comment, JA), because it is a safe environment with a great amount of confidence (ideally, maybe there are Bishops who bring people’s confessions home. I hope not).

    So if there is something about yourself that could assist others in knowing how best to help you or interpreting your behavior, tell it to your Priesthood leader who is obligated to use discretion, before the “word gets out”, which is not guaranteed to be a good thing.

    This all assumes that you have a decent relationship with these guys, and feel you can tell them things. I really enjoy having a Bishop my own age (27), so this helps me, but I think all Bishops can make themselves more accessible to all their members and remove any barriers that may be.

  15. annegb on August 18, 2005 at 12:07 pm

    I love gossip. I TIVO access Hollywood, and Entertainment tonight and I subscribe to the National Enquirer and Star magazine.

    I love knowing everything about everybody. I hate anybody knowing anything about me.

  16. GreenEggz on August 18, 2005 at 12:07 pm

    Gossip is anything negative, whether it is true or not. If negative information needs to go to someone who has authority over the subject, such as parents or bishops, it should be done discreetly, and given only to the authority figure.

    I realize it’s not always clear what is public information that can, and sometimes should be repeated, and what should not be repeated.

    Prov. 17: 28: Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.

    Or as Ben Franklin (I think) said, “Better to keep your mouth shut and thought a fool, than to open it, and remove all doubt.

  17. danithew on August 18, 2005 at 12:33 pm

    Gavin brings up an interesting point when he links gossip with priesthood interviews … which leads to another question. Bishopbric meetings, Ward Council Meetings, Elders Quorum presidency or Relief Society presidency meetings — any leadership gatherings where the needs, capabilities, or worthiness of members are discussed. To what degree do they present a forum for at the very least a pulled-punch kind of gossip? I’m thinking of the sort of comments where the bishop might say: “Right now we aren’t asking brother so-and-so to offer prayers or talks in church” or the Relief Society president might say: “Sister so-and-so is having a really rough time right now due to the fact that her husband doesn’t have a job” or the elders quorum president says: “Sister so-and-so has asked that we not send hometeachers over anymore because it creates too many problems between her and her (non-LDS) husband.” Do these kind of statements qualify as a form of gossip — even if they are being shared with the object of helping the church leadership to care for the flock?

    I would think something similar might happen when names are being considered by a bishopbric or a presidency for callings — that is a person’s qualifications, capabilities, worthiness, etc. might be discussed to a certain extent.

    The question is practical to a certain extent. Organizations need to function and in order to function they must contemplate, share and discuss accurate positive or negative information about people.

  18. D-Train on August 18, 2005 at 12:34 pm

    I mostly like gossip for the wrong, sinful reasons, but it has helped myself and a few friends to help others much more effectively than if we didn’t have the information. Most of the invitations to fellowship less active members or those in need of help haven’t come in institutionally sponsored meetings, but through hearing some juicy tidbit.

  19. Eliza on August 18, 2005 at 12:39 pm

    That’s one of those quotes that gets attributed to several people–I’ve heard Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin…

  20. Eliza on August 18, 2005 at 12:39 pm

    (“Better to keep your mouth shut and thought a fool, than to open it, and remove all doubt,” that is.)

  21. Mike on August 19, 2005 at 2:18 pm

    Reply to # 17:

    In ward council and such meetings is where it gets interesting. We can find black and white examples where people were run off by gossip (# 5) and lives were saved (#13). But what about the nebulous area between, which is where I think ward council meetings sometimes fall? I have not sat in one of these meetings for a few years, but I recall a time listening to “Dr.” Laura on the radio blast someone for gossiping and suddenly I realized that we had been gossiping in ward council. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

    The next Sunday in ward council I made a list of about a dozen statements that might or might not have been true made about various people. Then I set out to do a bit of detective work and find out the basic facts, by talking directly to those involved or otherwise finding first hand information. Surprize, in at least half of the cases the information shared in ward council was inaccurate.

    Whether the information is critical or hurtful is more subjective and difficult to evaluate, but I know of several instances where I was told byb a well meaning friend that someone said that some else said something less than lauditory about me and it hurt. People can be sensitive, especially about the sort of things likely to be of interest in ward council.

    I believe that most people in ward council mean well, but they may not realize that what they
    intend to be helpful can be hurtful.

    The next time it was my turn to share an inspirational thought in ward council, I presented some scriptural material about gossip and just asked those there what they thought about the possibility that it might be a problem in our ward councils. Everyone became very defensive, sounding like a bunch of children caught with their fingers in the cookie jar.

    I will be curious to see if anyone else feels guilty and finds the need to repent of a little well meaning gossip in ward council like I did.

  22. Mike on August 19, 2005 at 2:31 pm

    Reply to #14

    Priesthood interviews are I think a bigger problem. We rely on a lay Priesthood that may not be very well trained or experienced in some cases. There is a tendency to feel justified in sharing difficult cases with the next guy up the line; Bishops telling Stake Presidents, etc., especially if the leader feels that he is in over his head. I don’t know the law in my state but I think that it might be a breech of clerical confidentality to tell other leaders the contents of these interviews in some cases. I know of one such a breech that happened in my ward and that it was damaging to those who had gone to their Bishop expecting confidential advice and help.

    Another humorous comment our Bishop once made on this subject. He pointed out that when he announced something over the pulpit it seemed that no one was listening to him. But when he indicated in ward council that something was confidential, in no time the entire ward seemed to know about it. So he was telling us in strictest confidence that he was getting pretty tired of so many people arriving late to church and asked us all keep it a big secret that he would prefer that everyone leave home for church meetings about 5 minutes sooner.