Q: You had written about gossip earlier. But don’t people need to know certain “secret” things? Wouldn’t it be irresponsible of me to keep some things to myself?
A: That is an excellent question. Life and relationships are complex. It would therefore be a bit simplistic to say something like, “Never talk about another person. Ever.” You are right in noting that there are times when we have to talk about another person. Not only that, but there will be times when we will have to talk about their faults.
Remember, gossip (or detraction) is when a person, “without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them” (CCC 2477). This definition implies that there may be an occasion when someone does have an objectively valid reason. There are times when an employer will have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of an employee with a colleague. There are times when a wife will have to process how to handle a difficult situation involving a friend with her husband.
And yet, simply because war has broken out does not mean that all bets are off. There are still some particularly helpful guidelines that we could follow if we want to make sure that the other person is honored (even in the midst of necessary criticism) and prevent our falling into “everyday betrayal”.
There are some obvious questions that everyone should ask. You’ve most likely heard a few of them. Before you say anything, even when talking about another person’s faults is justified, ask “Would I say this if the person could hear me?” Some of us have first-hand knowledge of failing in this area. Even when you are completely justified in your comments (for example, when it is your duty to assess the performance of an employee with a co-worker), how we speak of another person can vary wildly. Are my words, even if they are not flattering, guided by a respect for the other? Or am I careless and unnecessarily abrasive? The Book of Proverbs reads, “Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but those who restrain their lips do well” (Proverbs 10:19).
Another critical question we must ask when speaking of another: “Does the person with whom I am sharing need to know this information?” This can sometimes get tricky because we have a tendency to deceive ourselves. We may attempt to justify talking about the faults of another by conjuring up the most random of scenarios. “Jane is meeting Mary for coffee…I had better tell Jane that Mary and her husband are having issues. She should know that ahead of time.” False. If Jane needs to know that, Mary will tell her. But that is Mary’s information to share or not to share. “But I want to help…we are all friends…”. Again: false. You want to be the one who shared Mary’s issue. You may all be friends, but that is Mary’s information to share.
Another version of this is “holy gossip”. This is when a person gossips under the pretense of asking for prayers. I know that you can fool yourself into thinking that you “need” to share because others “need” to know what is happening so that they can pray. But that is, once again, a bunch of baloney. The amount of penance you will be doing by not sharing will more than make up for whatever grace might come about through your “holy gossiping”.
Side note: talking about celebrities like this is still gossip. Just because someone lives in the public eye does not give us license to read, listen to, or share details about their personal life.
I’ve heard people argue, “But other’s need to know such-and-such about this person…”. Fine. If they truly need to know, then it isn’t gossip. But be very careful here.
…venting should be about your feelings or thoughts.
But what about “venting”? People will say that you can’t just keep everything bottled up. I wouldn’t argue that; it can be helpful to have someone to talk to in difficult moments. But let’s clarify: venting should be about your feelings or thoughts. You may need to process a problem or a relationship. But even then, it is important to do that well. Are you focusing on the faults of others or how they were mean to you? Or are you sharing and processing how you are trying to deal with the situation?
What are you looking for in that conversation? Is it just an attempt to get people to feel sorry for you or to take your side against another person? What am I looking for in sharing this? I will leave this topic with a couple more “examination” questions.
Am I trying to feel “important” by sharing this information? Even if I didn’t think that I was at first, in retrospect, did it give me a jolt of self-importance? Am I trying to get this person to agree with me? Am I seeking their affirmation in sharing how I was “wronged”? Is my goal to get them on my side against this other person? Or am I truly seeking counsel? There is a clear difference between “I can’t believe so-and-so said such-and-such to me! Isn’t that incredibly rude?” and asking, “Someone who knows me well told me that I sometimes do such-and-such. I really need to know, do I do that?” In the first case, I am not only gossiping, but I am also simply seeking validation. In the second case, not only is the conversation centered on me, but is focused on moving forward.
For all of us, a good prayer to pray before going into the day might be, “Set a guard, LORD, before my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3).