Reclaiming and Redeeming Gossip…

Posted by on Jun 5, 2022 in Blog | 0 comments

man in white dress shirt covering his face

It was a prayer meeting I was at several decades ago. The person praying suddenly asked that God would help James and Jenni (yes, I have changed their names) in their marriage problems, especially after their last major argument which had been overheard by neighbours and was really very ugly. As the prayer elaborated on each detail of this troubled marriage I heard the person next to me say excitedly, “oooh, really” and then a little later, “didn’t know that”.

This was prayer as gossip, and our well attended weekly prayer meeting was a great source of information for those who delighted in hearing of the scandal and heart ache of others. Sure, we also prayed about many respectable things – worrying medical diagnoses, horrible global injustices and important church events soon to take place. But there was no missing it – part of it was information sharing and often of information those involved wouldn’t have wanted shared. In the end we shut that prayer meeting down and relaunched in a more considerate and respectful vein, but numbers were never the same again. Prayer as gossip has it fans – and without it, the crowd is simply smaller.

Is it possible to reclaim and redeem gossip as a force for good?

Did you know that the origin of the word is entirely positive. It comes from the old English word “godsibb” or God + sibb (as in sibling), or a God parent, who was to serve as your sponsor or speak up for and look out for you if your own parents weren’t able to. The words the godsibb or gossip spoke were intended to help and advance the person being spoken about. But then language does change. There was a day when wicked meant truly awful and now it usually means rather wonderful.

However it is not the change in the meaning of words that I am concerned about. That is simply part of the evolution of language and seems to me to be neither here nor there – so long as we all keep up with the play and know what it is we are talking about (which can be a bit of a challenge at times!)

Is it possible to be people who speak about others and who do so in such a way that good flows from it? Put slightly differently, is it possible to reclaim and redeem the original idea of being a gossip – of being someone who speaks about others so that it benefits and helps them? Or should we resolutely refuse to speak about others lest our words have unintended consequences and we do harm – not only to those who are spoken about, but to those who listen. After all, toxic gossip harms not just the one spoken about, but does something ugly to the soul of those who listen a little too eagerly.

It is the most natural thing in the world to talk about people we care about. It is also natural to talk about people we are struggling with. We need the perspective of others to help us consider if our own response is proportionate and fair. They might have insights which help us understand things differently, or might have some information which leads us to be empathetic rather than judgemental about some otherwise hard to understand behaviour. Often when we are in conflict with another person it turns out that the issue had relatively little to do with us and was much more about a difficult situation the other person was facing – and knowing that can shift us from a posture of defensive indignation to trying to figure out a way to help. Humans talk to one another – and our conversations shouldn’t only be about the weather, but about things that matter to us deeply. That usually involves talking about the relationships we are in, and finding a way to process both the joy and frustration inherent in being in relationship.

Like everyone else, I grapple with how to speak well about others, while also processing my reservations, hurts and confusion. Here are a few principles I find helpful. You might have others to add, and that could help us all.

First, I differentiate between private and limited conversations with trusted friends and guides, and public spaces. One on one I try to be candid, and to express things from my perspective while inviting the person listening to push back and to challenge me about things I might have overlooked. I am especially curious when I realise that I am editing what I say, and want to only tell the parts of the story that make me look good. I ask, “why do I want to talk about this in this limited way, and what does that tell me about me?” Curiosity is becoming an ever more important friend in my journey of growth. If I am processing a difficult situation with someone, I try to make it clear that I am simply processing – and that when we process things we are often not entirely fair. In fact, I sometimes say, “though I am talking about (whoever), what I am saying probably tells you more about me and the way I experience things, than it does about them”.

If private spaces are places for candour, public spaces are places for generosity. If you are going to speak about others in public (and public is often a group of friends around a table), remember the “do no harm” principle as the minimum starting point. Perhaps it is possible to do a lot more – and to speak words that will enhance the other. And if neither is possible, why not zip it, and say nothing?

Second I try to remember three key biblical principles to guide speech. The first two flow from Eph 4:15: we are to 1) speak the truth and 2) to speak the truth in love and 3) to remember, “a word in season how good it is” (as Proverbs 15:23 puts it).

In short, if it is not true, or even if it is, but I am saying it because I dislike you, I should stay silent. I should also be alert as to what is going on in your life. We all have lots of things to work on – but what is high on my agenda might be low on yours – and that for very good reasons, for there are some things which while you know you have to face them at some point, you simply know that now is not that time. We should allow others the grace to work at their pace, not ours. Words out of season do harm, not good, and we need to cultivate the wisdom to sense the difference.

Third, I try to imagine that the person I am speaking about has just walked into the room. I try to sense how they would feel. I have overheard conversations about me that have left me heartened and exhilarated. I love it when people talk about me with a generosity of spirit. I don’t mind if they joke about me or point out my foibles – for I can quickly differentiate between words spoken with an edge and words spoken with love. Loving banter leaves me willing to work at being a better version of myself – actually, when you sense love in the tone, you can manage most things.

Yes, I have also overheard things that have seen me scurry away feeling hurt, demotivated and defensive, and yes, embarrassed that my non perfections are being glibly spoken about and paraded before others. And so I try and work with Jesus’ take that we should love our neighbours as ourself. In my better moments I speak in a such a way that if I am overheard by the person I am speaking about, they are pleased and sense that they are accepted, loved and welcomed. For good gossips are “godsibbs” – family who speak God words into our lives. That’s the kind of gossip I want to be…

As always, nice chatting…

Feel free to repost with acknowledgment and forward to those who might find this helpful.

Photo by Yan Krukov on

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