At a conference a few weeks ago, I attended a session that discussed ways to effectively communicate with your constituency.
The session leaders made two observations about gossip that resonated with me: 1) gossip is the avoidance of addressing an issue directly with the person with whom you have an issue and 2) most people try to avoid confronting another person directly with an issue or concern, preferring to talk or complain to others because it seems safer and easier.
I think most of us have to admit we feel this way. I remember watching the television show LA Law in the 80s, seeing the characters storm into each other’s offices, confront the issue and move on. Although the behavior didn’t ring true to me at the time, I remember thinking we would all be better off if we did just that, albeit in a nice and respectful way.
The Jewish tradition frowns upon gossip and encourages us to speak only with the people involved to resolve an issue. Yet, we find it so hard to do so. And what does gossip accomplish? It resolves nothing, often inciting more gossip, trouble and negativity, which benefit no one.
Gossip is counter-productive and harms the person or institution the gossip is about, it harms the listener and it harms the person speaking gossip. It is a universal struggle and for the sake of our communities we all must strive to fight our inclination to gossip and deal honestly and directly with the people at hand.
What is there to fear that we avoid the person we need to speak with, yet speak openly and easily to many other people about that person or situation?
Gossip causes harm – plain and simple. Addressing an issue directly, more often than not, resolves issues. Most of our fears are unwarranted. An honest and respectful conversation with the person at issue has a chance for a positive resolution; gossip does not. No harm can come from addressing the issue. The worst thing that can happen is an issue goes unresolved, at which point the parties can agree to disagree or bring in another person to help.
Gossip can only thrive in a place where people allow it to thrive. In each of our communities - schools, synagogues and churches we should all strive to raise the bar and be countercultural. If someone comes to you to gossip, gently encourage that person to address the issue directly and do not engage in the conversation. We need to teach our children not to gossip, and that is achieved by discussing the harm of gossip and by being a role model for our children.
No doubt this is really hard. The session at the conference highlighted the widespread nature of gossip and how it impacts all communities. I know we can be different. It takes a community to reject gossip. A community that combats gossip is, in the end, a healthier and more wholesome community.
“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
-- Benjamin Franklin