Wednesday, June 22, 2022

What's So Good About Gossip?

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

 Ephesians 4:29-32 NRSV

Even though we live on a circular court we are often not "in the loop" about what is happening with our neighbours. They are decent, open folk and we are actually on talking, friendly terms with all of them, we just don't want to get embroiled in some of the drama which unfolds along the way.

The other afternoon most of us emerged to take part in a pleasant outdoor gathering where we caught up with one another after being distanced by the pandemic and weather. Ruth commented afterward that there was some chatter about an absent neighbour who it turns out is into a variety of bizarre conspiracy theories which includes the conviction that vaccines contain government tracking devices. We chuckled because we have no doubt that there is talk about the slightly stand-offish old-timer couple (us) with their weird ways. 

Is there any good news about gossip, I wonder? At the beginning of the month there was an article in the Globe and Mail newspaper by psychologist Susan Pinker about the return to the office as pandemic restrictions are lifted. Her opinion piece was specifically about a staple of office life -- gossip. She seems to feel that it can be a positive aspect of a work environment:

So why go back to the office? 

The answer, in a word, is gossip. Getting the lowdown on your co-workers is one of the intangible, non-fungible pleasures of working in a real office populated with real people. Sure, you can get bits and pieces of information through direct messaging, Slack and phone calls, but informal face-to-face conversation is best for finding out what’s really happening. If you didn’t share the same space, how would you know that a managerial position posted by the company is already earmarked for Angie from sales, or which new hire is getting paid more than you – to do exactly the same job?

Pinker cites a study which found "that negative comments made up only 5 per cent of their conversation time. Another 5 per cent was devoted to exchanging advice about social conundrums. And the rest, or 90 per cent of the time, was spent chewing the fat in a general sort of way, with the time split between talking about other people, and talking about themselves."

While she suggests that gossip can be collaborative, binding a group together, she also concede that gossip can be toxic and notes that many religions forbid it. That is certainly true of Christianity. Jesus addresses destructive talk in the Sermon on the Mount and the apostle Paul directs members of the first Christian communities to mind their mouths.

I have seen how wicked gossip can be in congregations and I've been the subject of some along the way. It definitely did not bind people together and it was often absurd and cruel. It often pushed good people out of congregations, never to return. How the gossipers reconciled claiming to be followers of Jesus and being so childishly mean was beyond me. But the truth is, groups of clergy can often be gossipy as well, even though hate being the subject of it.

There were responses to Pinker's piece which disagreed strongly, naming that in their office situations gossip was destructive, and I have to agree about communities of faith. Although, did you hear about?...


kb said...

"Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."
These are wonderful words from Paul.
They relate to the intentions of the person who speaks. To build another person up, maybe build up a third party; to offer empathy to that person or to express empathy for another.
The intention can't be to entertain at someone else's expense or to make the speaker feel better, or to say something unproven, or to make a moral judgement.

Wise words -- they cover a lot! Kathy

David Mundy said...

And a wise reflection and commentary from you, Kathy. So well said. Thank you!