“Who is the man who desires life and will lengthen days that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking lies.”
This week The Washington Post ran an article in its health and science section on gossip. Gossip is good for you. Yentas unite! Researchers tried to convince us that gossip is an important cement for good behavior. It minimizes bullying by calling out bad behavior and creates an understanding of the rules and boundaries of our values because those who break them usually become the subject of our gossip.
“Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those who don’t. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize unworthy members,” concludes a researcher at Stanford University. The study created conditions for people to align themselves with the most cooperative in the group by identifying those who were not as helpful. Often a selfish or exploitative person will be left out of a group intentionally and may have to adjust behaviors or language to be accepted. If we know people are talking then we may adjust ourselves to be more generous than we naturally are to create a better impression and reputation.
OY. But wait…before you pick up the phone, let’s take a look at four verses from Proverbs to see what they have to say about gossip.
“One who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets. But one who is trustworthy conceals a matter” (Proverbs 11:13). When you gossip, you might create short-term intimacy, but no one will trust you. Tomorrow you may be their favorite subject.
“A dishonest person spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends” (16:28). Gossips create a toxic atmosphere that can potentially ruin otherwise good friendships and relationships, even when the content of the gossip is not true. It can become a wedge that creates such a deep crack between people that it becomes impossible to heal.
“Whoever goes about slandering, reveals secrets; therefore, so not associate with a simple babbler” (20:19). You will be judged by the company you keep. Spend time with high-minded individuals. Don’t waste time babbling. Gossip is a waste of time and can hurt your reputation.
“For lack of wood, the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife. The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels; they go down to the innermost parts” (26:20-22) Gossip can only spread like fire when people want to hear it. Gossip heats things up to a temperature that may not be bearable. If you change the subject, then there is no kindling and the air and appeal of gossip dissipates.
This last verse tells us why we gossip, even if it can cost friendships, create toxic work and family environments and ruin reputations. Simply put, gossip is a “dainty morsel.” It is delicious. It slides down from the ear into our “innermost parts,” satisfying our need to put someone else down to bring us up or even out the playing field. If I hear that a super rich, super blonde, super tall and thin model really has a terrible drug addiction, I’ll feel so much better about my life. Or will I? I am not going to get better by making anyone else worse. Even those who promote themselves by hurting the reputation of others rarely have long-term success. If trust is not the currency of relationships, then they won’t last long.
Perhaps this is why the verse above says that those who refrain from speaking badly about others are “lovers of life.” When you don’t gossip, it may be an affirmation that you have better things to do that keep your life buoyant, happy and virtuous. Modern research may sound compelling, but it should be balanced by ancient wisdom. It’s ancient for a reason.