Are You Gossiping Without Realizing It? 

Learning to discern the difference between talk and gossip

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I think Joseph Conrad captured the truth when he wrote, “Gossip is what no one claims to like—but everyone enjoys.” Gossip is a pervasive part of our culture and entertainment today (just look at the magazine covers), and Christians are not exempt from the influence. We love to revel in the juicy details of someone else’s drama, especially when we are privy to the news before everyone else. Even Scripture acknowledges how it entices, referring to words of a gossip as “choice morsels” (Proverbs 18:8). The lure, and the lie, is that engaging in such talk will actually satisfy us. Our curiosity about other people’s lives is normal - this is part of being human and doing life in community.  When people meet to catch up on the activities of mutual friends, the talk is not typically malicious . . . and sharing life in this way can actually be a sign of trust and intimacy.  Gathering information from others can even serve the benefit of informing people about their environment (expectations, boundaries, working norms, social cues, etc.). But even with “good intentions,” we can participate ignorantly in gossip . . . and as I discussed this topic with friends, I found out they too had a hard time deciphering their involvement. So how can we determine the difference between mere information sharing and gossip?

I was sitting at a wake with some friends from my Life Group, sharing about a dramatic confrontation that happened with my son and another friend at school.  The conversation segued into chatter about other children in his class (and their parent’s shocking manner of discipline).  I found myself looking around to make sure I was not within earshot of someone who knew these people, especially since some of them went to my church . . . so I started to whisper the details. But later I felt uneasy about what I shared. 

I am normally someone who actively avoids gossip, to the point that others have learned not to bother entertaining me in such conversation.  As a result, I am often the last to know the “news.”  But this time, I found myself indulging in the guilty pleasure.  Maybe it felt safe to share since I was among others in my Life Group (who are trustworthy “secret-keepers”), or maybe I felt justified because I was talking about how my own child was slighted.  But the details I shared about this incident painted another family in a negative light . . . so was it okay?  

My husband, a sociology professor, pointed out to me that gossip can be used as a means of social control.  It generally contains some element of judgment or criticism towards the event or person (even if only implied). Since people can feel pleased when comparing themselves to others who behave poorly, gossip often serves to create boundaries and exclusivity between different groups of people. And having the “inside scoop” often draws attention and acceptance from one’s peers, an added social benefit.

So what was my purpose in disclosing these details to my friends – was I trying to entertain them with the drama that went down, or attempting to make myself look better and gain an ally? Since evaluations and judgments are not imposed when just sharing information, I had to admit I teetered into gossip when relaying the details of my altercation. In retrospect, I realize my whispering should have also been a red flag that I had no business sharing that information (Proverbs 26:20).

I prayed for forgiveness and texted a confession to my friends the next day.  I did my best to correct any negative opinions I had relayed in the process, and asked the Lord to help me guard my words more carefully in the future.

Gossip comes in many forms, and can often be insidious . . . making even the quiet listener a culpable participant (Proverbs 17:4).  Though gossip generally entails sharing privileged information with others who have no business knowing it, there are many expressions of godless chatter. So how do we identify what is acceptable talk and what is ungodly chatter? Let’s break it down with a few questions:

  • Is the information hearsay, or verified as true? Gossip typically thrives when the facts are uncertain - neither publicly known nor easily discovered. Gossip is often based on one-sided, offensive judgments (instead of reflecting the true facts or true character of an individual). The first step in identifying gossip is determining if the information is even reliable. 
  • Is it public or private information? Step two is determining whether the person of interest would be open to others knowing these details about their life. Is it our business to repeat, or are we intruding by sharing?  For example, information about someone’s divorce, illness, or other personal struggles may be acceptable to share in some contexts, but if you would not want that information shared about you, or would feel uncomfortable sharing that information in the person’s presence, then think twice before speaking. “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31). 
  • What is the content of the information shared? Do the words honor the Lord and the other person, or do they enforce negative opinions and judgments about them?  Our words should be “encouragement to those who hear them,” helping to build others up, not tearing them down (Ephesians 4:29).  If we want to share negative information, then maybe it should be about ourselves . . . especially since our tendency is to point out someone else’s speck while ignoring our own plank (Matthew 7:3-5).  Our words (true or not) will affect other people’s perceptions, seeding bias in their minds . . . so we should strive to make our speech gracious at all times (Colossians 4:6).  If our words have the potential to hurt or damage another person, then we should keep quiet. 
  • What is the intent for sharing the information - are my motives pure? Is the information necessary to share, or beneficial in some way? Prayer requests can even be gossip, so we should examine our motives (even with this type of sharing) before we divulge the details.  When there is a genuine concern for the well being of others, it can be appropriate to share information for the purpose of prayer . . . or so people can come together to help problem solve and support an individual in need. But the context of the situation matters. The same information may be appropriate to share among certain people and circumstances, but considered gossip in a different environment. If we are simply seeking attention or trying to feel a part of the group, wanting to divulge information for shock value/entertainment, or trying to gain an ally through airing our “side of the story” . . . these are not good reasons to share! 
  • Have I prayed first? We speak out of the overflow of our hearts, so gossip is not usually a problem with our mouth, but rather an issue of the heart (Matthew 12:34). If we are thinking or feeling negative and judgmental things, this will eventually come out in our speech. If we are bitter, angry, or unforgiving, our words will reflect this. But since we are often blind to our own faults, we can ask the Lord to examine our heart and lead us in His ways (Psalm 139:23-24).If we set our minds on things above (Colossians 3:2, Philippians 4:8), and ask God to help us live life with clean hands and a pure heart (Psalm 24:4), He is sure to help us govern our speech (Colossians 3:17). “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight” (Psalm 19:14). Though I am still a work in progress, I am learning that it is best to speak after I have first aligned my heart with love.
  • Am I using my words for life or death? (Proverbs 18:21) We get to choose how we use our tongue, as a tool for God or a weapon for the enemy (Proverbs 12:18). Some things may be permissible to share, but are they beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23)?  “When words are many, transgression is not lacking”(Proverbs 10:19), so if there is any question at all, silence is the best choice.  Our silence can help end quarrels (Proverbs 26:20), and can help cover other people’s mistakes (1 Peter 4:8).  Even if they do not deserve it, we please God when we protect other people’s honor. “A man of understanding holds his tongue . . . a trustworthy man keeps a secret” (Proverbs 11:12-13).  

To be clear, this list of questions is directed at helping us discern gossip.  When we have experienced real hurts or offenses, silence is not always the best response.  To heal, and be able to live out of our true self, we cannot stuff our feelings - we often need to find a safe person with whom we can process and pray through our heart wounds. This “safe” person should be someonewho will show us love, but who is also willing to speak hard truths to us within the context of grace. The motive for this type of one-on-one sharing is pure, and instead of creating drama or spreading gossip, it can bear good fruit. 

James 3:8 tells us the tongue is a restless evil that is hard to tame, so will-power alone is not going to win this battle. It will take time to change a habit of gossip. But if we ask God to guard our lips (Psalm 141:3) and make our spirits sensitive to His voice, He will help us realize when we are gossiping . . . and we can be quick to repent! Eventually, as we practice taming our tongues, we will begin to hear God’s voice before we open our mouth. We will not get it right every time, but God does not despise small steps forward – He rejoices even at our imperfect progress (2 Corinthians 3:18).

But how should we respond when others come to us with gossip? We could start by trying to redirect the topic, maybe with a comment like:

  • I am more interested in what is going on in YOUR life.
  • Let’s talk about something more positive.
  • I feel uncomfortable listening to negative information about people unless we are part of the solution to their problem.

I have been blunt with others and just said, “I am really trying to work on not gossiping, so can we change the subject?”  There have been times when such comments have challenged my friends to be more careful about their words too . . . and taking such a stance proves one to be a trustworthy person.  But if this does not work, we can always just walk away from the conversation. Proverbs 20:19 states, “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much.” And Titus 3:10 counsels us, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.” 

Remember the gossip I repented of to my friends? I got this text back from one of those friends . . .

"I have been thinking about your text all day and I have to say that you are the most teachable soul that I’ve ever met . . . that aspect of your character is truly inspiring and humbling for me . . . I’m so thankful that He has placed you in my life . . . thank you for being honest and vulnerable about this – I can’t explain what your words have necessarily done to me, but it has been speaking directly to my heart all day."

Friends, I can tell you that receiving this type of feedback for repenting of my gossip brought me FAR greater satisfaction than sharing that information did. There is a temporary fleshly pleasure that comes from gossiping, but the joy that comes from walking in integrity far outshines it.

In summary, when trying to discern whether our sharing is gossip, we can use the six questions above to help us evaluate the content of our words . . . or we can simplify it to two basic questions. I have found that often these two questions alone help me discern the answer.

  • What is the intent/purpose of my sharing?
  • What might be the possible outcome/effects of my sharing?

I am still learning how to choose my words wisely, and still need God’s help in this journey . . . but I am determined to make every effort to use my words, and my silence, for life.  Will you join me? 

Further Reading:

8 Ways to Distinguish Gossip from Criticism

Questions To Ask Before We Gossip

How Can I Share Conflicts With My Spouse Without Gossiping?

Carey McNamara

I am a wife to Bob, a mom to Connor, and a physician assistant who is passionate about beating heart disease. As a devoted lover of Jesus, I am on an unending quest for more truth, love, and wholeness through Him. I have come to a place in my life where I realize God is not afraid of my questions, and I have learned the joy of pursuing Him until I discover His heart. As a result, I created a blog to encourage others in their own journey towards Life, Liberty, and Love in Christ. I am passionate about doing life authentically in community, and am thrilled to share a bit of that with you here.

*Please comment respectfully. I welcome honesty as you share your thoughts and feelings. However, since many of these subjects are controversial, I ask that you take care to honor others in the process. I reserve the right to delete any inappropriate comments.