It takes two to gossip. When gossip occurs, there is an initiator (the one who shares the nugget of information), and there is a listener (the one who swallows it down and asks for more).

In general, people who gossip are insecure and have a need to elevate themselves above others so they can feel better about themselves. One way to do this is to step on others with words. We push ourselves above others by pushing them down with words that are not flattering or favorable but instead cause people to question or doubt the goodness of another person’s character.

Gossip leaves a lot of blanks, filled in by another person’s imagination, which often embellishes the information and leads to outright fabrication. People who need to feel superior often use words designed to bring others down.

We have names for people who gossip. We call them tongue-waggers, tattlers, scandalmongers, talebearers, backbiters and dirt-dishers. Gossip, of course, is something others say about us. We’ve all known that kind of individual, but you and I are not like them, right? You and I—we just share with others what we’ve heard. But we don’t gossip or spread rumors, do we?

After three years of researching gossip, Indiana University sociologist Donna Eder has identified an important dynamic involved in gossip. Eder discovered that the initial negative statement was not the starting point for gossip. The critical point was found in the response to the initial negative statement. Eder found that the key is whether or not a negative statement is “seconded.” If a second is provided, gossip ensues. If not, the conversation changes direction.

This makes sense. It takes two to gossip. When gossip occurs, there is an initiator (the one who shares the nugget of information), and there is a listener (the one who swallows it down and asks for more).

Proverbs 26:20-22 says: “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.”

Here’s a valuable test you can use to deflect harmful gossip. The story has been attributed to the great philosopher Socrates.

One day an acquaintance met Socrates and asked, “Do you know what I just heard about your friend?”

“Hold on a minute,” Socrates replied. “Before you start telling me anything, I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Three Filter Test.”

“Three filter?”

“That’s right,” Socrates continued. “Before you talk to me about my friend, it might be a good idea to take a moment and filter what you’re going to say. That’s why I call it the Three Filter Test. The first filter is TRUTH. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”

“No,” the man said, “actually I just heard about it and …”

“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second filter, the filter of GOODNESS. Is what you are about to tell me about my friend something good?”

“No, on the contrary …”

“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him, but you’re not certain it’s true. You may still pass the test, though, because there’s one filter left: the filter of  USEFULNESS. Is what you want to tell me about my friend going to be useful to me?”

“No, not really.”

“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor even useful, why tell it to me at all?”

If another person is always relaying gossip to you, it may be because he or she has found you to be a willing listener. You have given that person permission to share the choice morsels of gossip. Even if you are a rare soul that would never repeat the gossip, the truth is that you have added wood to the fire by your active listening.

Even your lack of response can sound like a second to the one who has come to you with the harmful words. You contribute as much to gossip with your receptive ears as the one who shares the choice morsel of information.

Here are some choice pieces of advice on gossip not found in “The National Enquirer”:

  1. Don’t repeat what would shame you if those about whom you are talking received a tape of your conversation. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk 6:31).
  2. Don’t second a gossiper’s words. Find something good to say about the subject in question or tactfully change the subject, letting the gossipers know that your ears are not grateful to have received their harmful comments.
  3. Be reminded of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 7:3-5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
  4. “‘Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,’ declares the LORD”  (Zech 8:16-17).

Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column first appeared in The Moultrie Observer.

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