Maya Angelou famously got up from her table at a special luncheon and walked over to another table. She had heard the women there gossiping about someone who was not present, and she told them, in front of everyone else in the room, to stop it. Dr. Angelou often said that in life it is essential to be with good people who encourage each other, and not to allow others in one’s presence to gossip or tear down another human being. She never hesitated to abruptly end the conversation of guests in her home if she heard negative words spoken about anyone who wasn’t there or about any racial, ethnic, or religious group. She would call out “Stop! I do not allow that type of talk at my table!” When in someone else’s home, she felt she should let them do what they wanted, but she wasn’t going to listen to it. She would say a quiet goodbye, get up, and leave.
Oprah was a close friend of Dr. Angelou, who she saw as her mentor. She had herself faced a great deal of negative gossip in her life and said she learned that “when we make negative statements about others behind their backs, we often do so because we want to feel powerful — and that’s usually because we in some way feel powerless, unworthy, not courageous enough to be forthright.”
She is right. One ubiquitous proof of this are the ever-present Internet trolls. (See my article “What’s Going On with the Trolls?”)
It is easy to sink into the temptation to talk about other people — it brings some of us satisfaction, for reasons that are varied and unpleasant. Others gossip for entertainment or to be the center of a conversation. Some gossip because they have no interest in finding out the truth. Some love the drama of it. And others just do it so they can belong to the group that is doing the gossiping.
But the outcome is the same — a human being, one or more, is being discussed with judgment and usually some level of disparagement. For the ones telling and speaking the stories, the put-downs inherent in gossip make them believe there is something wrong in other people, but thank heavens, of course, nothing wrong in them.
Yet the need to talk about other people behind their backs is probably one of the most insidious behaviors we have, and one of the most destructive. It also uses up our psychic and emotional energy. It is unnecessary drama treated as real. It is utterly dysfunctional.
Test yourself the next time you have the chance to gossip when someone has a juicy tidbit to share. See if you dare to ask this question, and possibly, to challenge the answer you get:
“Why are you telling me this?”
There’s a good chance you might not get any answer at all. The person might just walk away, puzzled, or even angry with you. They likely will then turn to someone else who does want to gossip.
We must absolutely protest and condemn actions of people who have set out to cause harm in some way because of a prejudice they hold or an anger or violence they act upon. We are meant to create a better world and not be doormats for the negative energy that racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry create. In the same way, we are meant to create a life experience free of the negativity that comes into our heart and spirit from participation in gossip. When we choose (it is always a choice) to say or repeat a negative statement about someone we know or don’t know in their absence, we contribute to poisoning the atmosphere, not to improving or creating a better world. When we spread rumors we expand the negativity.
Words are things. They hold power. Dictators know this. Domineering people know this. And people who gossip know this. What they offer by their behavior is verbal violence. It is also F.E.A.R. — False Evidence Appearing Real. The reality is that we are on this Earth, this remarkable planet, for so much more than the petty exchanges we use far too often to make ourselves feel important, or because we want to feel we belong.
Gossip is a toxic habit that does no good anywhere, not in any direction, nor for any purpose. Tearing down another in no way brings happiness. Telling lies about others is not a way to live well. When we cease doing it, we free ourselves to be who we are in far more powerful, more creative, and more meaningful ways.
What we do affects all of life, as it is implied in Matthew 25: 40 — “ Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
The thing people who gossip forget is that there is no separation, anywhere. We all belong to this infinite cosmos, in the One-ness of the God-energy. We are never alone. And it is when we know this, that we begin to thrive.