“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” —Eleanor Roosevelt
What did Eleanor Roosevelt have in common with Oscar Wilde, Socrates, Mother Teresa, Balzac, Bertrand Russell, and the Old and New Testament? No they were not all Geminis. They believed gossiping is somewhere between a sin and unethical. That would place most of us on the spectrum between sinners and unethical.
It seems, no matter how hard we try, most of us can’t resist gossiping or listening to gossip. Maybe it is part of our DNA, and we can’t help it? The late Andy Warhol may have said it best: “I have a social disease. I have to go out every night. If I stay home one night, I start spreading rumors to my dogs.”
We can dispense with any ethical argument that gossiping has any social virtue. It does not. A question, however, that has not been frequently discussed is whether the mere listening to, rather than spreading, gossip is unethical. Is the listener of the gossiper as guilty as the perpetrator?
What ethically can the listener do when hearing gossip? Maybe Socrates and Mother Teresa, to name a few heavyweight historical icons, would cut the gossiper off? How about us mere mortals? What would we do? I think few of us, me included, would have the courage to tell the gossiper that what he was doing was offensive and ask him to stop.
Let’s change the scenario. What if you actually know the truth (facts) about the person who is the subject of the gossip and it contradicts the version told by the gossiper? What if the information is private?
Do you speak up? Set the record straight? Do you challenge the person spreading the gossip? What is the ethically right thing to do? If you do not challenge the gossiper, you have encouraged him to continue to spread false information to others.
In a perfect world where there would be no repercussion to your act, you would challenge the gossiper. But what do you do when the gossiper is your boss, a good friend, or someone who is in a position to do you social or economic harm if you openly challenge him? Maybe even spread rumors about you?
The ethical dilemma is to weigh your own social, and maybe even economic, well-being versus that of the person who is the subject of the gossip. Do you decide, regardless of the potential negative consequences to yourself, to challenge the gossiper? Do you tell him that he is wrong or that the information he is spreading is private?
Or maybe you go to the person who is the subject of the gossip and tell her what is being said? What if she confronts the person whom you name as the source of the gossip and that person denies it? Or even worse, the gossiper points the finger at you as the source of the gossip.
That scenario might make for a thrilling episode of the Housewives of Goleta, but it doesn’t shed light on the ethical dilemma we face when it comes to gossip. Is all gossiping bad? Maybe not. What if the statements made are not flattering but are true? Someone tells you that you neighbor spent a few years in jail; he shows you documents to prove it. You tell others about it.
The Old and New Testament speak of gossipers as those who talk about the failings of others, or who reveal potentially embarrassing or shameful details about another’s life. Neither makes a distinction between true and false gossip. It’s the act of talking about someone is that is the sin.
Finally, what if the gossip is positive but private information? In other words, just because something is true, does it justify gossip?
“Joan has gotten a new job” or “Barry has set a date for his wedding.” “Larry is going around the world.” All are true, but at this point non-public, information.
Assuming these statements are accurate, they do not appear to shine poorly on anyone. However, some religious, ethical, and moral fundamentalists would still argue that any discussion, true or not, about another’s secrets is still gossip.
I admit, at times I’m a blabber and even on occasions a gossiper.
Certainly, I’m not proud of it. If I can’t curb my lesser instincts, then maybe I should like, Andy Warhol, stay at home and just gossip with my chocolate Labrador, Ali.
That is, if he’ll listen.