Why Gossip Tastes So Good But Is So Unhealthy

In conversation, bulldozing is a way of trying to force our viewpoint through without really engaging with people. Failure to listen is also a failure to actually engage with people. Another way we fail to engage is when we have a problem with someone, we talk about that person rather than to that person. This is just one more way that we fail to have the conversations we need to have. As Joseph Grenny, et al., noted in their book Crucial Conversations, “At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations—ones that we’re either not holding or not holding well.” Our society is filled with talk about people, but few people are actually talking to the people with whom they have an issue.

The Bible presents to us a different alternative. It’s basic default is that we should talk to the person that we have problems with. For example, Leviticus 19:17 says, “Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.” Jesus tells His followers, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Mt. 18:15). In Galatians 6:1, we read the same from the Apostle Paul, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” When we are concerned about someone, we should talk to that person.

Now, not every issue we have is on the level of what we read in Leviticus, Galatians, and Matthew. There are many lesser issues about which we are afraid to talk. We often struggle even confronting someone who disappointed us in some way, who talked to us in a way we did not like, or did not do something we may have wanted them to do. If the bias on major matters is to talk to the person, how much so on lesser matters?

Why Gossip Tastes So Good
In spite of the obvious benefit of talking directly to people, we often prefer to talk about people instead of to people. Why? Because gossip tastes so good. Proverbs 26:22 says, “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels, they go down to the inmost parts.” The Message translation and paraphrase makes it a bit stronger: “Listening to gossip is like eating cheap candy . . .”

Why does gossip taste so good?

1. It builds intimacy. When you share your problems about someone else, you feel connected to the person with whom you are sharing them. It builds a connection and a sort of friendship. As Dan Allender put it in his book Bold Love, “It is a tantalizing thrill to repeat words that simultaneously deepen our position of power in an inner ring while we exclude someone else from being part of the group–a double pleasure” (100).

2. It gives relief. One reason we want to share about our problems with other people is because they give us anxiety. Sharing with someone provides relief. That’s one reason people don’t talk to the person they have a problem with after talking about them. They have found relief by sharing it with you, so they don’t need to share it with the person they are concerned about.

3. It refocuses attention. When we talk about other people and their problems, we can avoid dealing with our own. Dealing with our own problems is difficult. Dealing with the problems of others can be a welcome diversion. It also can make us feel better about ourselves.

These and other reasons are why I call gossip the best way not to solve our problems. They do not really solve the issues about which we have anxiety, but they provide considerable relief.

So why not do it?

Why We Shouldn’t Eat It
In spite of the advantages of gossip, we should avoid it. There are many reasons.

1. It freezes the problem; it doesn’t solve it. It makes us feel better, so we are less likely to deal with the real problem. That’s why a community characterized by gossip often explodes. There are all sorts of unsolved issues there.

2. It often makes things worse. The more people talk about another person and not to a person, the more distorted it often becomes. This is like waving a fan over a fire. “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down” (Prov. 26:20). It just gets worse and worse, and communities quickly become polarized and stuck.

3. People don’t like it. “. . . a gossip separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28). When others find out about it, it often breaks down a friendship.

4. It’s unjust. Gossip generally reduces someone’s reputation without a just hearing. “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Prov. 18:17). Gossip gives one side a hearing without giving the other side of the story.

5. It builds a false connection. Be sure that if someone is talking to you about others, they are talking to others about you. “The one who reveals secrets is a constant gossip” (Prov. 20:19).

6. God’s authority. The Bible forbids it: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people” (Lev. 19:16). This means that we should not go about talking about others and listening to and sharing reports about what other people have done. The idea instead is: “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.”

So, there are many reasons not to engage in it or to eat that cheap candy.

A Couple of Questions
The question people have is, what if I need advice on how to deal with someone? Well, gossip is often couched in a request for “advice.” The question I would ask is this. Is asking for advice merely release and relief, or is it seeking real advice?

Here’s how you know. First, does the person giving you advice challenge you as well as encourage you? If they just encourage you, you are not interested in advice. Get advice from those who will help you take a look at your own behavior. Second, does the “advice” ever manifest itself in you actually talking to the person with whom you have a problem? If not, then it’s not advice.

A second question people ask is, what if people come to me seeking “advice” about other people? What should I do? I recommend being willing to listen and encourage and challenge that person. However, I think it is also good to say up front that you will most likely encourage them to talk to the person, and, if they do not, then you may do so. This will change the tenor of the conversation.

Think about it, should I keep just one side of a story in my head and not allow another person to give their side of the story? Even with the best of motivations, this often ends up in distortion and unjust view of another person. It’s better to give all sides their hearing. This is how we move the community forward.

A third question is, what if I find out people are gossiping about me? My advice is, don’t worry about it too much. There is a great little passage in the book of Ecclesiastes. It says, “Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others” (7:21–22). That attitude will serve you well. Most people just don’t know how to actually deal with problems directly. We should be patient with others and ourselves.

Gossip is a part of life. We can’t avoid it. But we can be more deliberate about our involvement in it. If we can learn to talk less about people and more to people, we will make a great contribution to building up the communities in which we are involved in.

What are your thoughts on this? I would love to read them in the comments below. If you like what is written here and want to read more, subscribe below (mobile) or on the sidebar (laptop). Thank you for taking the time to read this article.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The Benefit of Not Talking in Bulldoze Mode

Sometimes I talk in bulldoze mode. It’s not something I want to do. It’s something I can do without thinking. It’s something I want to change.

What is bulldoze mode? It’s a way of trying to force your opinion through. You get in a mode of talking where you make it clear to people that if they contradict you or even try to nuance what you are saying, they are going to have a fight on their hands. You may start interrupting. You may speak more loudly. You may just say something in a way that warns people against any challenge.

Bulldoze mode is connected with anxiety. You may feel anxiety that something you feel is important won’t be heard. You may feel like you are no longer safe to share your opinion or that you are not respected. When anxiety goes up, people can either become completely silent, withdraw, talk to someone else, try to fix it, act helpless, or seek to bulldoze an opinion through.

The advantage of going into bulldoze mode is that it does release some anxiety. When you prepare yourself to fight, you feel like you are doing something productive. There is a payback of some sort, or no one would do it.

The problem is that people may not feel safe talking to you. They may not want to be with you or work with you. They may feel more comfortable talking behind your back. Continue reading “The Benefit of Not Talking in Bulldoze Mode”

The World Is “Full of Friends”: How to Become More Sociable

Last January, I stayed by myself for most of the month at a condo in Myrtle Beach. It was part of my sabbatical. It was a great time, but, with my family back in Tennessee, it could be lonely.

So, what do we do when we find ourselves without the people who are close to us? They may be travelling. They may have moved. They may have died. How do we process this absence?

According to the ancient philosopher Seneca, philosophy has some resources. He says, “The first thing which philosophy undertakes to give is fellow feeling with all men; in other words, sympathy and sociability” (V, 7). Philosophy trains us to be sociable.

How does philosophy teach us to be more sociable? It teaches us that humans are social beings. This means that humans are made to interact together. So, whenever we meet one, we meet with a person who has been designed to interact with us. Continue reading “The World Is “Full of Friends”: How to Become More Sociable”

How to Have Humility When Both Sides Stop Listening

In a previous post, I claimed that humility is a healing balm for political discord. If we can learn to value others with whom disagree, show them respect, and listen, then we can create a better and more peaceful community without sacrificing any of our convictions.

But what happens when both sides stop listening? What happens when we’ve tried everything and someone will not be at peace with us? What happens when all that’s left is coercion or, in the case of nations, war?

Before I give an answer, let me say this. There are very few who have tried to listen in the way they should. I have found that people regularly think there is no way forward, but there is almost always a failure to listen, to think beyond old ways of doing things, or to respect the other side.

Have we really given humility an honest try?

But back to the main question, what happens when we have done so and still find ourselves in entrenched conflict? Don’t just think of politics. Think of a split family where one side does nothing but attack. Think of a family that is like two armed camps. How do we exercise humility in such situations? Continue reading “How to Have Humility When Both Sides Stop Listening”


Doing for others what they can and should do for themselves. Overfunctioning. This is one of the many helpful concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST). In BFST, overfunctioning is not a moral category. It is a response to anxiety. The flip side of overfunctioning is underfunctioning. Underfunctioning is not doing what we can and should do for ourselves. This is also a response to anxiety in BFST, and it accompanies overfunctioning in a sort of reciprocity.

These are not necessarily bad ways of relating. Overfunctioning and underfunctioning get us involved with other people and reduce our anxiety. What they do not do is help other people grow. These reactions bring relief to anxious situations to a greater or lesser degree.

Like other responses to anxiety such as distancing and conflict, overfunctioning and underfunctioning can become problems when they produce symptoms. One of those symptoms may be the relationship itself. Overfunctioning can also keep us from focusing on the things that are within our power and are our responsibility. It can keep others from having to face their own responsibility.

Here are five quotes from practitioners of BFST that help to explain what overfunctioning is:

  1. “The pattern of overfunctioning and underfunctioning becomes a problem if chronic anxiety intensifies the emotional reactivity (overly sympathetic, overly caring, overly controlling) and drives the relationship interaction. These sorts of anxiety-driven interactions are based not on the realities of people’s capabilities but on anxiety and distorted perceptions” (Bowen Theory’s Secrets, xvii). Continue reading “Overfunctioning”