Anyone who will gossip to you, will gossip about you.
When we think of gossip—idle talk, speaking about someone when we shouldn’t—we usually concentrate on the worst kind: defamation. To defame is to speak evil of another. One person may defame another for the sake of comparison; he may want people to think worse that person so that they will think better of him. This motivation for gossip is never good; if we are tempted to speak about another for these motives, we shouldn’t speak.
Unity and understanding
But we sometimes slip into gossip for two better motivations—unity and understanding.
We may end up speaking idly about someone because we desire unity in our community. If we know something—good or bad—about someone in the community, it is a good thing for everyone to know it. If it is a good thing, such as two people becoming engaged, we want the whole community to share in the joy. If it is a bad thing, such as a man’s bad behavior in the past, we would speak to guard the community against evil. Or we may have an even better motive: we may want everyone to know so that, in a community effort, we can help the person become better.
Second, there is gossip for the sake of understanding strange or evil behavior in someone else. Understanding is a good for which women in particular aim. In the drive to understand, we sometimes speak of things we shouldn’t or to people we shouldn’t.
To combat gossip
In all these cases, prudence is needed to judge whether speaking is truly good, or whether it is idle, detracting gossip. Each motivation for gossip can also be helped by better structure.
The desire for unity turns to gossip primarily in cases where authority is not centralized. We will not turn to inappropriate means of unity if appropriate ones are in place. If the community leader takes care to inform the community according to his own prudence and authority, no one will feel pressured to step in. If he does not, however, good speech can turn idle. Rumors will fly and explanations—whether true or false—will be provided.
The desire to understand is more complicated to combat. It requires not only great prudence, but also a strong sense of loyalty. Our closest friends, those to whom we might complain in an attempt to understand, must not be unduly influenced by rumors of evil.
Why is loyalty a help here? Loyalty isn’t simply support or allegiance; it is a scale of our relationships with people. The loyal man keeps the proper place of each relationship. He never puts the good of his family or friends below that of a more distant acquaintance. He will not speak ill of his father to a man he meets on the street.
If we are correct in our loyalties, our strongest bonds will be towards those who will not be shaken by hearing of evil. These are the friends to whom we can freely speak anything. We don’t need to worry overmuch that our experiences will taint theirs.
These friends help to give us perspective. If we can speak to them about difficult experiences without worrying that it will influence them too much, we will never speak to them out of self-gratification. We can concentrate on the better motive of understanding.
Besides, with these strong bonds that we will never break, we can resist inappropriately breaking even the less important bonds.