We all do it—talk about people behind their backs. Gossip is the grease on which ice rinks run. And we all know when we are gossiping. But can private discussion of third parties ever not be gossip?
According to Jewish teaching, gossiping is a sin that harms three- the subject, the teller and the listener. It is actually proscribed in Scripture, in fact in the Old Testament, so Christians take warning as well. And for the secular, well, any tradition written down for thousands of years is probably something to abide.
But we all talk about each other, it’s human nature (otherwise, why have a tradition against it?). The gossiping woman is a literary trope. I love to gossip, although I tell myself that I’m gathering information. (UPDATE: Or as one friend texted me, "it isn't gossip, it's truth.) As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of people come to me with questions and stories, often with the same central subject, from opposing points of view.
So when is it gossip? When is it harmful and when is it harmless?
The best description I found referenced a Jewish sage, who felt :”it doesn’t have to be a false or slanderous story; as long as the subject of the report would prefer not to have information known, it is gossip and not fit for further dissemination.” (cite)
So next time you’re passing on a story (next time I am passing on a story) ask yourself. Could I say this to the person I’m referring to? Could I say it to her mother? Would it be harmful or embarrassing to him personally or professionally? Could it harm or embarrass me if my words got around? Then it probably qualifies as gossip under the definition in Leviticus (19:16).
I’m not going to stamp out gossip. I don’t want to—it’s a useful source of information. But remember that the only private opinion is one that is not shared.