Thursday, December 30, 2010

On gossip

Gossip is bad, right? We can all agree on that. But what is gossip? Most people say "I'll know it when I see it." But I'm not sure. There are some real differences in opinion on that topic.

Here's my definition: Gossip is saying negative things about someone else with the attempt to hurt them (by damaging their reputation before others). It can be true or untrue, but even if it is true, it is still wrong.

These things are not gossip:

Venting to a good friend about something someone else did to hurt us, because it helps us deal without our own pain.

Mentioning that we are frustrated with others' faults.

Telling about a negative experience with a person or organization in order to warn others away.

I hang around a lot of good Catholics who are definitely opposed to gossip. And I can tell when they think something is gossip: they say "I can't stay and hear these things" or "Let's be positive now" or they fade out of the conversation. And I think that's a fine reaction when you hear someone making cutting remarks about a mutual friend, trying to take someone down, sharing stuff that is no one else's business. Sure. Just walk away.

But, to take an extreme (and completely made-up) example, say there was a close-knit, religious community. One well-respected man in the community was secretly a rapist. One of his victims mentions to her friends, "You won't believe this, but I was raped by X."

Wouldn't it be a little unfair if everyone stood up and said, "You're trying to damage X's reputation, I can't stay and hear this"? Or, "Let's talk about X's wonderful virtues!"

Not all speech has to be positive. Yes, we have to watch what we say that's negative. We shouldn't be a fountain of negativity, that's just depressing. And you know what happens to girls who complain all the time about their boyfriends -- everyone tells them to break up. And if they don't, they may find they can never reconcile their boyfriends with the girls they dished about him to. And I whole-heartedly agree that it's very wrong to share your spouse's secret faults publicly (though with a trusted person, such as a priest or counselor, you sometimes should).

Yet sometimes we kind of need to be negative. When we're feeling bad, when there's stuff troubling us, when we want advice, sometimes it helps to talk about it. When I was a teenager, I obviously had some complaints about my parents. I had a close friend I could talk to, and I'd say, "My parents are very demanding; it's frustrating me!"

Luckily my friend didn't say, "Oh, let's not be negative about your parents" and change the subject. She knew that I was stating a (neutral) fact and my own (admittedly negative) reaction. Her opinion of my parents wasn't harmed. And she'd respond, "Gosh, I know just how you feel." Or sometimes, "Have you tried X, Y, or Z?" Either way, I always felt better. She and I are still great friends, and I know I can trust her with what bothers me.

You have to be careful though. In college I was very frustrated with John, how he seemed to like me but wasn't making a move. I vented to an acquaintance about it. Her reply was, "He's a total jerk. You deserve a thousand times better." She and I never became friends. I had made a mistake in trusting my problems to her, because she had a private grievance with John and wasn't willing to listen objectively. (Mind you, a good friend sometimes does have to be in the position of saying, "You should break up with him." But this is something to be done very carefully...)

My usual rule for venting about friends and family is to make sure I never do it in such a way as to damage that person's reputation or esteem among their friends. In other words, if someone's really bothering me, I either talk to someone who doesn't know that person at all, or I talk to someone who loves them a lot and will understand. I have a few dear friends whom I can trust not to take me too seriously, but to weigh what I say against what they already know of a person. This kind of friend will say, "Yes, I know you're mad at her now, but remember when she did that one thing for you?" Or, "Gosh, that must have been frustrating, but I know it was probably because of this reason." A friend who can do this for you -- treasure them like gold!

Here's another example. Mrs. A sent her daughter to Happy Days Preschool. And it was really, really awful. A year later, long after Mrs. A had pulled her daughter out, Mrs. B happens to mention that she wants to send her son to that preschool. Mrs. A jumps right in and says, "Not a good idea -- we had a horrible experience with that place!" And she tells her entire story.

Would you say, "Mrs. A can't get past her experience, she needs to forgive and move on"? Well, no. Chances are, she's moved on fine. But she's trying to help someone else. I don't even think there's something wrong with publicizing her opinion, publishing a review, deliberately damaging others' good opinion of Happy Days Preschool. Because she's not doing it to hurt, she's doing it to warn others.

In Catholic circles, there's a real problem over criticizing priests and bishops. Some do it so freely it's practically a hobby. Some will shut down if you even mention a word. I think balance is called for. Obviously the priest or bishop is only human and is bound to have faults -- the fact that he's in authority doesn't mean all respect, charity, or consideration go out the window. On the other hand, I don't think his authority makes him beyond criticism either. Personally, I try to treat those in authority with the same respect I do everyone else, by asking, "What harm could come to the person if I speak? What good is there in speaking?" So, if someone comes to me asking if Fr. Q is a good marriage counselor, and I know he's not, no harm in saying so. But if I'm in a parish where the priest isn't very bright, and we all know it, there's no point in my ridiculing him every time he comes up in conversation. If someone says, "Hey, this document from Bishop R says abortion could be okay sometimes," it's totally fair to say, "Ah, but did you know he's been disciplined by the CDF?" It helps people make decisions about who to trust and believe. But I don't go around constantly complaining about bad bishops either. Generally speaking, they all mean well; they are just misguided.

In conclusion, I know gossip is bad, I know it's best to focus on the positive, I know you have to be really careful with negative speech, but sometimes you really do have to say something bad. Bad things happen, and if we can't talk about them, it feels like there's a gag rule around. I have experienced firsthand the evil that gag rules have done. If people had been willing to listen to the "disaffected," the "detractors," the "complainers," maybe a lot of evils would have been stopped a lot sooner.

I used to adhere to the maxim, "Believe all the good you hear, and only the evil you see." Now I hold more to, "Weigh the evidence and make an objective decision." Not as simple, but it's the only logical way to judge things. Evil people exist, they do evil things, and they flourish in silence. On the other hand, liars exist as well, and they try to bring down good people with falsehoods. We have to use our brains to sort through the evidence and make the best judgments we can.

The priest scandals are a great example of this. Some people hear of an accusation against a priest and crow, "He's guilty!" simply on the rumor that they were accused. Others, trying to be charitable (as well as realizing that many accusations are later found to be fabricated), immediately deny the faintest possibility of guilt. I don't think either of these reactions are justified. Instead, we have to wait for more information, and do our best to suspend judgment till we get it. It might well be wise to keep our kids away from these priests until we hear more. It's sad that an innocent priest might be kept from ministering to kids for awhile, but it would be terrible if we let something happen to our kids simply to avoid making the priest feel bad. If we really think the priest is innocent, we can offer our comfort and support in other ways.

In any event, what we never should do is shut up someone who's bringing a real criticism or even accusation against another. Ask more questions, verify, sure, but not silence. 90% of the time, truth is better than silence.

So, those are my opinions on gossip. Do you think I'm drawing the line in the right place? Anything you'd like to add? (Want to criticize me? Go ahead!)


Sarah Faith said...

As a fellow Catholic I believe it would behoove you to mention/quote the Catechism of our faith on this matter in case someone misunderstands your words.
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury.
277 He becomes guilty:

- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

- of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them;


- of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.279

2479 Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one's neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.

I can see where you are coming from. I think it is a natural thing to want to vent to others. I think we can get too used to "our right to vent" and not be quite as careful when it comes to whom we are venting to and whom we are venting about. I personally am guilty of being indiscriminate at times. I think one thing to realize is that based on the catechism above, we need to be careful not to paint a one sided picture of someone - that would lead to a warped and "false" opinion of them. If you are talking to your husband about his mother - well, he KNOWS both sides of the story - he grew up with her and knows all the lovely things she did for him, as well as how annoying she can be in this or that way. But to talk to someone who does not know her good qualities - that may be tainting their opinion of her.
It is possible to get such a balanced and fair minded friend that they will not be led astray by the one sidedness of your complaints, but hear only your feelings (like a therapist). But I don't think this is usual!! And you might also be putting the friend in an awkward position.

Sarah Faith said...

Maybe if you say something good about someone at the same time you are saying something true but not as flattering, that might be a good way to temper your own feelings.
It might also help to admit, at the same time, your own fault in the situation to maintain a bit of balance.

I know that venting can really help (and I usually try to reserve it for my husband's ears) but at the same time, it depends on the individual. Sometimes it does nothing more than fuel the fire of resentment as well as causes triangulation - the getting in the middle of someone unrelated to a particular matter. This is actually a hindrance to charity a la Matthew 18. People need to work out their own differences with love and charity. Coming between them, even as a listener, is damaging to that relationship and chips it away.

It's a quite sensitive area and I try to err on the side of caution and confess it when I believe I may have stepped over the line.

I think in general it is safe to assume that NOT speaking is the best policy if there is any doubt. Maybe we should get into the habit of bringing all our complaining and venting to Christ in a holy hour - he knows all and will not be led astray by our one sided reports!! Or at least bring them to God in prayer, rather than to another person who cannot do anything about it.

Thanks for opening up the topic. You have made me consider it all over again and resolve to keep better control over my tongue in the coming year.

Sarah Faith said...

you know what else - thinking and soul searching a little more, it is starting to seem like this venting thing is mostly related to the sin of pride. how many things would I really complain about if I didn't consider myself better than others, rather than the other way around?
i am not saying that all venting is born of pride, but i do think it is related in many cases. what do you think? is there any truth to that? we are to bear with one another's faults in love. love "covers a multitude of sins."
i suppose asking a wise and experienced woman how to charitably deal with something you know she's dealt with, and giving her a few specifics, might not be as prideful as calling one's sister in law to complain about one's husband's latest gaffe in charity.

but i think maybe my reaction should be oriented more towards: "I will bear this in love" then "I must bring this to the Lord" and then, after prayer, "I must get some advice or feedback from someone who can help." I doubt many of us go through these steps before deciding to share info about other people with others...

and not to make people feel guilty - that is not the point - just to make us more like Christ, which we all want, right?
Happy New Year to you and your family!

Sheila said...

Mostly, when I vent about something, I'm basically asking, "Am I overreacting? Do I have the right to expect to be treated better? What should I do -- bear in silence or speak up?" That's why I vent to so few; I need someone wise to help me figure this out.

Sometimes you can't help judging someone. For example, if one person condemns another person, you have to choose: someone is lying. Suspending judgment is the best course, but you still have to admit the possibility that someone is lying.

For example, the Holy Father disciplined a certain priest. I have two choices: admit the priest might have done something wrong, or condemn the Pope for judging someone falsely. I didn't think the Pope condemned the person publicly for no reason -- rather, he wanted us to be cautious of the person -- so I was. Still allowing for the possibility of misunderstanding, but steering clear of the person until I knew more.

It might help to know that I am person who tends toward silence and brooding, not by nature, but because of some of my upbringing. I spent some time in a very damaging environment where criticism was not allowed. The worst is knowing that all of that could have been avoided if more people had spoken out and been listened to.

In any event, I leave each person's discernment about when to vent and when to be silent up to them. I consider it very hurtful to suggest a person is gossiping when they're just trying to find an outlet for very real pain. Instead I remember whatever good I know about that person, and, if the occasion is good for it, remind them of it. Otherwise I just listen and don't let it get past my own ears.

Sarah Faith said...

I don't really put church discipline or censure in the same category as gossip.

I agree it's impossible to help judging at times. I think what the catechism is saying is just that we need to lend a judgment of charity whenever possible. So we still judge - but using benefit of the doubt.

I totally know what you mean, the dangers of not allowing criticism. That is SUCH a bad situation and leads to loads of problems later!! My personal experience with that situation is it causes MORE gossip because people are "not allowed" to talk to one another -so hurt feelings abound and are shared with someone not inside the problem. I observe that the antidote to that is being up front WITH the person - not behind their back.
Basically I totally agree with you on whether to say something (and I like your thought process on how to get there) - I guess I'm just emphasizing that to whom we say it (our spouse, our Lord, or someone not involved in the situation at all) and why is what's at issue.

I certainly wasn't intending to accuse any one person of gossiping. thought this was a theoretical discussion and I am trying to apply it to myself. :)

Thanks for your thoughts. I am not trying to argue, just comment- As you requested. :)

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

I couldn't agree more. I think that much of the time it's about knowing your audience, as you implied, as well as balance. We should be objective and tell the truth, but we should also understand that the truth can really hurt people. And if telling the truth doesn't benefit anybody, then we should avoid hurting other people.

I really needed this today. Thanks for posting.

Sheila said...

Sarah, I didn't think you were accusing anyone of anything. :)

I think you pretty much agree with me -- like I said, venting is something you have to be really careful about so that you don't hurt anyone. It's just that there are situations where you can do it -- venting to your spouse about your boss, for instance, rather than going crazy because you can't talk about it.

Melodie said...

I think you said this very well and I completely agree with you. :)

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