If I were to create a “worst hits” list of the sins I have committed throughout my life, gossip would absolutely top my list. Some sins don’t tempt me very much. Some sins have such dire natural consequences that I scarcely consider them. Gossip, though, is a trap I fall into again and again.
What counts as gossip?
In its section on the Eighth Commandment, The Catechism of the Catholic Church lays out two kinds of gossip, detraction and calumny:
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty: …
– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
For me, calumny is usually easier to avoid. Gossip that is an outright lie or even seems doubtful usually bothers my conscience enough to keep my mouth shut. If I witness something myself or I have it on good authority that it is true, though, the news flies out of my mouth faster than you can say “detraction.”
Why does gossip seem so satisfying?
I’m sure people have a variety of motivations for gossiping, both conscious and unconscious. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what makes it so hard for me to stop. I see four main reasons:
- Gossip makes me or my life seem better. If I think and talk about other people’s faults and mistakes, I don’t have to think about my own. After all, I would never be like So-and-so. Did I tell you about that time she…
- Gossip gets people’s attention. With my soft voice and small stature, I find people often inadvertently overlook me. It took me a while to realize this rather subtle dynamic, but when I gossip, people seem to pay better attention to me. They want to hear about how So-and-so did …
- Gossip makes me part of the “in” crowd. Gossip creates a sort of “us and them” mentality between those I gossip with and the object of our gossip. A few years back, I had some coworkers who were almost constantly gossiping. There were times with them that I had the presence of mind to say to myself, “This is gossip. I should not participate.” Between the lure of the other reasons I gossip, and the fear of being a “self-righteous goody-two-shoes” after I left the room, I gave in. Better So-and-so than me …
- Gossip can serve as a way to process events. This is the easiest kind of gossip for me to justify. If So-and-so did something that directly or indirectly disturbed me in some way, telling someone can help me cope. This is where the “valid reason” part comes into play. Telling my therapist or my spiritual director specifics about problems with my husband to help them guide me is not detraction. Letting close loved ones know we’re having general marital problems is not detraction. Telling all my girlfriends the gory details of things my husband did so I can get attention and sympathy is detraction. I hear So-and-so does that all the time …
So how does a person stop gossiping?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a foolproof formula to stop gossiping. I still struggle with it, but I have found a few things that help. Not surprisingly, each of them is a sort of answer to the reasons I find gossip so alluring:
- Focus on improving myself. When I downplay or justify my own sins and shortcomings, gossip comes more easily. When I recognize myself as a fellow flawed human in a proverbial glass house, those gossip stones have an easier time staying in my pocket.
- T.H.I.N.K. before I speak. Sometimes attributed to the Rule of St. Benedict, in this case, T.H.I.N.K. is an acronym for what to consider before speaking. Is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind? If I answer “no” to any of these questions, then I think twice before saying it.
- Avoid near occasions of gossip. It may mean quietly excusing myself or spending less time with certain friends or colleagues. Sometimes I even brainstorm non-gossip topics of discussion when I know I will be around someone I tend to gossip with.
- Find a few confidantes. I find someone like a therapist works well because they often don’t know the people in my life personally. I don’t have to worry about ruining anyone’s reputation when I need to get that awful thing my family member did off my chest. If there is no objective third party available, being more vague helps prevent detraction. Telling my friend my husband and I had a fight doesn’t ruin his reputation. Telling her he called me “a blankety-blank” while he was drunk does.
With God’s grace, I continue fighting my ongoing struggle with gossip. Please join me in praying for perseverance in the face of this and all our temptations.
Copyright 2018 Monica Portogallo