I recently engaged with an article that described gossip and slander as “the curse of women.” The article has since been withdrawn, I suspect one if those articles written in haste and frustration at specific circumstances. However, the association of women specifically with gossip is a common misconception.
I suspect that the reason why people particularly associate women with Gossip is twofold. First, I suspect that Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:13 on the care of widows notes a number of dangers that they may face. However, I do not believe that this is saying that women are prone to gossip because they are women. Rather, the point is that these particular widows are at risk of this and other temptations because of having time on their hands. Check out Romans 1:29 and 2 Corinthians 12:20 and I think you’ll quickly see that the problem isn’t limited to one or other gender.
Secondly, I think ts because we have a particular perception of gossip as being concerned with the personal details of people’s lives. We also tend to think of women being often more interested in people and their lives, more ready to ask the follow up questions, more attuned to feelings. These may or may not be in themselves stereotypes and may or may not be generally true but that’s the perception that dominates. That might be seen as a positive description of particular behaviours and with that positive strength will come potential risks and weaknesses. Genuine interest, concern and empathy may lead to a need for additional detail and a slip into intrigue.
The problem here is that I think we have learnt to perceive gossip only when it happens in a certain way. So, it is helpful to understand a bit more about what gossip really is and why it is so dangerous. We often pair it with slander and so people assume that gossip is something that is untrue, a lie. However, the fact that we have a specific word for untrue accusations, that there is a category called slander reminds us that gossip is not necessarily false. Nor is it about whether it is unverified.
I want to suggest that gossip is about how we handle information. There are two questions I should ask when I receive information from someone else.
- Is this something I need to know?
- Is this something that I need to pass on? If so who to?
If I don’t need to know the information and if I don’t need to pass it in, or if I pass it on to the wrong people then I’m engaging in gossip. In legal terms we would talk about jurisdiction and competency. Do I have jurisdiction to come to a conclusion and to act on the information? For example, an elder in a church does have jurisdiction when someone in their local church is in sin. However, if he hears about someone at a completely different church, or outside of the church doing something then it’s really none of his business.
Competency is about whether I have the ability to come to a conclusion and act. Am I able to verify the claims and then do I have authority to act on them. Remember that something may be gossip if it is verified but it definitely is gossip if unverified or unverifiable. So, one important question to ask is whether you are hearing information first hand or second hand, whether there are witnesses and what they are specifically witnesses to, what evidence is available.
Gossip is dangerous because it hurts people. It breaks trust. Because gossip is information out of context then whilst it may even be true in itself, it creates a distorted picture that can damage the character and reputation of others. Gossip encourages the participants towards pride and self-indulgence, it creates cliques. Gossip also distracts people from ensuring that issues are properly dealt with in the place and by the people who need to be involved.
So, if you hear information and it isn’t for you either because you do not have jurisdiction or competency then what should you do? Well, if it is something that someone needs to know, then you should make sure that the information gets to them, preferably by linking them up with he originator. If no-one else needs to know, then don’t entertain the gossip. Name it for what it is, tell the gossip that you want no part in their behaviour and urge them to stop. Insist that they apologise and retract the gossip from whoever else they’ve spread it to. Encourage them to recognise that this is sin and they have harmed another person. They need to repent and seek forgiveness.