I hadn’t seen Jill for a long time, so although it was storming outside, I decided to pay her a visit. Hoping to avoid the biting wind, I knocked at the side door of her home, which was nearer to my car. She peeked out the window, looked relieved, and quickly let me in.
“Consider yourself privileged,” she said. “A few minutes ago, I made a neighbor go around to the front, and the storm was almost as bad as it is now.”
“Why?” I asked, surprised because Jill generally goes out of her way to make people feel welcome.
“The last time this neighbor stopped by, she told me in detail about the ‘despicable state’ of someone else’s kitchen, right down to the eggshells in the sink,” Jill explained. “I’ve been involved in about a million projects today, and, well, you can see why there’s no way I’m going to let her see this!”
I smiled because her kitchen looked about as lived in as mine sometimes does. “So,” she continued, “I made the poor woman endure the storm and go around to my nicely vacuumed front room.”
I know how Jill felt. None of us like to be talked about in less than compassionate terms; the prospect that negative, critical, or even careless words may be spread about us is as welcome as a subzero weather forecast.
Gossip does have a chilling effect on those who bear the brunt of it. Generally, our reputations are important to us, and there is an inherent, disconcerting unfairness about labels given or rumors spread when we’re not able to defend ourselves. Such words can be frustrating, painful, and even harmful at times.
What I hadn’t thought about until that day I visited Jill, however, is what gossip does to the person spreading the ill will. He or she also feels the icy aftermath of careless words. In fact, each of us risks being figuratively—and in this neighbor’s case, literally—left out in the cold if we indulge in gossip and speak unkind words about others.
Years ago a college classmate opened her binder and found a note attached to the inside of the cover: “Have a great day!”
“It’s from one of my roommates,” she explained. “She’s always writing me cards and leaving notes.”
Impressed, I responded, “That’s really thoughtful.”
“She also buys me gifts,” my friend continued.
Now I was even more impressed. “I’d love to know someone like that,” I said. But my friend’s voice didn’t register much enthusiasm, and I was puzzled. “You don’t seem particularly excited.”
She smiled sadly. “That’s because she criticizes me behind my back and spreads rumors about me when I’m not around.”
“Oh.” Again, I understood. Despite her outward attempts to show concern, this friend’s roommate had not yet learned that gifts and notes don’t mean much when unaccompanied by the warmth of loyalty and genuine goodwill. Sometimes we find it easier to write a quick note or purchase a token of affection than to bridle our tongues.
Good intentions can be undermined so easily if we’re not careful. For instance, a Sunday School teacher who mentions specific people struggling with gospel principles being taught in the lesson unwittingly leads class members to feel insecure, confused, or ill at ease. They may even wonder if the teacher has ever used them in a negative way to illustrate a lesson.
As visiting and home teachers we can be left out in the cold, unable to serve effectively, if we have created an atmosphere of fear that information we acquire will be discussed carelessly or be used to criticize. As a result, our ability to make a difference for good is deterred in this important area of service.
Cooperation and good feelings among those who work together in Church callings are also iced over when gossip occurs. One bishop released the members of a presidency because of the ill feelings they harbored due to the words they had spoken behind one another’s backs. They could no longer serve in their callings effectively or work as a team because of the cold antagonism that separated them.
The scriptures tell us that “every idle word that [we] shall speak, [we] shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matt. 12:36). Few words are more idle than those spoken critically about others, especially when we as Latter-day Saints understand that an important part of our commission here is to “love one another” (D&C 88:123; see also D&C 88:124–25) and to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5).
When we refrain from repeating cruel or careless words, we not only are able to serve more effectively but we also build a foundation for closeness and friendship. When I chided an acquaintance for not telling me that a couple we both knew had gotten divorced—something I thought would probably be common knowledge—her simple explanation put her on my people-you-can-trust list, and I immediately perceived her as a woman of honor and character.
“I just wasn’t completely sure if it was something they wanted discussed yet,” she said. I now knew that anything I told her would be kept confidential. Had she filled me in quickly on any details or, worse, conjecture, she unwittingly would have revealed that she was not careful with information.
By not gossiping, we create a warm shelter where those who know us realize they can come and freely discuss any problems they are having without fear that things will be inappropriately discussed or repeated. They can feel comfortable being themselves without fear that their mistakes or personal affairs might become the sport of idle tongues and itching ears. Both parties benefit and bask in this warm shelter.
When we gossip, it’s amazing how often the person we talk about finds out what we’ve said. People often sense when they are being discussed, or word simply gets back to them. Like the liar, we feel a need to look over our shoulders after having participated in gossip.
Our relationships are again affected as we alienate ourselves from others. We feel a cold, hollow hypocrisy as we greet or deal with people we have talked about negatively. Our own feelings of worth and our outlook on life are affected as we expect others to talk about us with the same lack of regard. We become nervous about appearing less than perfect because others might talk about us. After all, how can we expect others to act more nobly than we ourselves are acting? Worse, we pull ourselves away from Heavenly Father and cannot feel the warmth of his approval when we are being unkind to his other children. We alienate ourselves spiritually and thus feel even more shut out.
I felt a biting sense of wrongdoing when on my front doorstep I chatted with a neighbor about a former tenant my husband and I had rented an apartment to. Still, I rationalized, my neighbor didn’t know him and he had moved to another state years before. So what was the harm? In fact, I felt so confident that he would never know I was talking about him that I recklessly exaggerated some of his idiosyncrasies for humorous effect. What did it matter? He was hundreds of miles away, and I’d never see him again.
Then with the words still on my tongue, I saw someone coming down the street toward us. He looked exactly like the man I’d been talking about. “It serves me right; it’s him,” I said weakly. I felt as if I’d turned into a pillar of ice.
After all these years, why had he appeared at that time? The coincidence taught me a lesson. I promised myself never again to say things about others that I would not say if that person were present—no matter how safe I might feel.
Even if that man had not appeared when he did, my neighbor would still have wondered what I would say about her if she made mistakes. And the strange, cold, and unhappy feeling still would have been there—for I had felt it even before the man appeared. It was there because I was not speaking with love and compassion but rather with unfairness and deceit. For me, the man’s sudden appearance was merely an additional and powerful reminder.
Such telling, tangible reminders are rare, and we can’t always count on them. However, we can listen to other reminders, especially the soft voice of the Spirit. When we are alerted that what we’re thinking of saying may be inappropriate or hurtful, we can alter our conversation. When we feel prompted to defend someone who is being discussed in a demeaning manner, we can offer positive words. Such promptings should motivate us to examine our intents and feelings.
Filled with charity, we would never wish to hurt others in any way. We learn from the Sermon on the Mount that when we are tempted to judge others, we need to remember that we are not void of imperfections (see Matt. 7:1–5).
Years ago I struggled for a time with some personal difficulties. I longed for someone I could really trust and talk to. I quickly eliminated those people I had heard talking about others, revealing confidences, and speaking carelessly. Was there anyone I could turn to? Finally I remembered a loving relative I could trust implicitly.
As we talked and I bared my heart, I knew deep in my soul that my words would never be repeated. How fortunate that during a difficult, challenging time I could find a warm, safe shelter, a caring individual who would treasure my confidence and guard my personal information. Many times since I have vowed to offer that same shelter and warmth for others. I believe avoiding gossip is one of the best ways to invite others in from the cold and promise them the warmth of trust.
This article may furnish material for a family home evening discussion or for personal consideration. You might consider questions such as:
How does gossip affect the individual who spreads it?
In what ways does gossip damage our ability to serve in our Church callings?
What are helpful ways to respond when others around us engage in gossip?