A report by the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, England, contained some interesting facts about gossip. It noted one recent study that found gossip accounts for 55 percent of men's conversations and 67 percent of women's.
Researchers in a similar study premised that these percentages weren't as interesting as the different ways gossip was being used. For instance, men, it was suggested, use gossip for networking to further their careers, while women often use gossip to set moral boundaries and build relationships.
Though I've heard experts make a case for gossip's beneficial socializing effect on society, many people would agree that it can be less than productive, if not harmful. Talking about other people can often be about consciously or unconsciously diminishing them in order to elevate oneself. The fact is, what people hear about another person – true or untrue – can cause them to regard that individual with less respect. In families, church communities, and through the news, gossip creates divisiveness rather than establishing a foundation for progress.
Perhaps one of the most glaring aspects of the rumor mill is the buzz about celebrity slip-ups and the personal misdeeds of government officials. This seemingly innocent "news" can be a form of gossip that aims to point out the faults of those in power, even tempting us to relish their demise. Even "good" gossip – chatting about the day-to-day activities of others – can sometimes be voyeuristic and verge on an invasion of privacy.
Several years ago, a friend and I tried an experiment to exclude all gossip from our conversations. We even decided to gently point out any slip-ups to each other. I can tell you, this required discipline. And a few times we actually had friendly but heated discussions to determine whether a topic actually constituted news or gossip. It was enlightening.
The original meaning of the word gossip actually refers to someone of a close spiritual relationship – a godparent, kinsman, or close friend. And this idea of a friend or kinsman who appreciates all that is spiritual and good in us suggests a marvelous pattern for how we can treat one another.
"Have we not all one father?" the Bible asks. "Hath not one God created us?" (Mal. 2:10). As we are all God's children, we have authority for valuing one another as close siblings. Refraining from thinking of people as flawed mortals separate from God – from good – we can instead recognize and identify in them unique spiritual qualities, such as innocence and goodness.
What a difference it would make if conversations were based on this concept of true spiritual kinship, our shared relationship to God! Networking would take on a higher, more productive tone. "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" by Mary Baker Eddy alludes to this kind of networking as the recognition of God's "universal family, held in the gospel of Love" (p. 577). The door would open to building relationships based on genuine goodness as defined by Christ Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. He said: "I'm telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst ... respond with the energies of prayer" (Matt. 5:37, 38, "The Message").
And though I still have to work at it, I've profited by seeing how important it is to think spiritually before I speak. Rather than restricting me, the experiment with my friend showed me that a willingness to be watchful in conversation leads to a kind of mental freedom and a natural ability to be more charitable, kind, truthful, and Christ-like. This commitment to speaking the truth, instead of bluntly voicing whatever comes to mind, is a firm basis for building solid relationships and bringing healing to the world.
To respond in conversation "with the energies of prayer" helps us see our neighbors' true spiritual identities shine.