What to do about gossip? This question nags at people — in families, in workplaces, and in parishes. In the past I gave some advice in a homily, and people told me that what I said was helpful. Here’s a short summary, as a reminder or in case you didn’t hear the homily:
First: Take a lesson from the Jewish tradition, that says that to listen to gossip is a greater sin than to speak it. (The rabbis argue that, since spreading gossip is a sign of moral or mental weakness, the gossiper can be — partly — excused from moral fault. But the listener to gossip doesn’t have that excuse, so bears greater responsibility.)
Second: Rather than simply be caught and paralyzed when someone speaks gossip to you, decide actively to care for that person; be charitable toward his/her weakness by offering genuine care for the distress the gossip indicates. But know how to offer care in a way that’s truly helpful, both to the person and to the wider community, and in a way that preserves your own moral and personal integrity.
Third: Memorize and practice the simple, three-step approach below as a way of responding to gossip helpfully and morally.
Suppose, for an example (I know that this never happens in real life, but just suppose) that someone comes to you with a rumor about something I’ve said or done. What do you do? What do you say?
- Sentence One: “Have you told Fr. Vin of your concern?” If the answer is “yes,” then of course you can say, “then there’s no need to tell me also.” But if the answer is, as is likely, “no,” then move on to —
- Sentence Two: “Would you like me to go with you so that you can tell Fr. Vin of your concern?” This is exactly in accord with what the Gospel tells us (see Matthew 18:15: “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you”). If the person is willing to take responsibility for his or her concern, but fearful, you’ve helped the person by offering to accompany him or her. But if the person is still too weak or fearful to accept your offer (since these are the motives behind the gossip in the first place, otherwise the problem would have been confronted directly), apply —
- Sentence Three: “May I have your permission to tell Fr. Vin of your concern (using your name, of course)?”
If the person eventually says, “yes,” you’ve genuinely helped the person — and perhaps gotten a message to me that I needed to hear. If the person is only interested in gossip, and says “no” to each, you’ve at least given the person the opportunity and assistance to take some responsibility, and taught him or her how to deal appropriately with disagreement (instead of gossiping). And, at the very least, you’ve probably made certain that this person won’t try to gossip to you again.
Gossip is a plague in our culture, and it’s a sin. It needs to stop. More next week. Until then, Peace.