The Moral Minefield of Everyday Chit Chat: Gossip

Recently, I was honored to have been asked by Jeff Christian to present a paper at this year's Christian Scholars Conference held at Lipscomb University (where I taught for a year). Jeff hosted two symposia on the topic Constructing a Hermeneutic of Culture. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend due to my trip to Germany, which saddened me as so many friends, many of them new friends formed through the blogging world, were in attendance. However, my paper--The Moral and Psychological Landscape of Chit Chat: Toward a Theological Hermeneutic of Everyday Conversation-- did make it in my place. Again, a warm thank you to Jeff for letting me participate.

Since its presentation in June I've reworked the paper and have submitted it for publication. But I wanted to share a bit of it here. In the paper I attempt to use some psychological theories to create an interpretive structure that might help us analyze our motives in everyday conversation. Once those motives are made salient the hope would be that moral discernment could be better informed. The two motives I focus on are called in the psychological literature agency and communion. Informally, they describe the tension between "getting ahead" (agency) versus "getting along" (communion). I use the interplay of the agency/communion motives to analyze three ubiquitous features of everyday chit chat: Lying, gossip, and humor usage. Presented below is a part of the paper showing how I work through the case of gossip:

Most Christian communities have a low view of gossip given that gossip is roundly condemned in both the Old (e.g., Proverbs 11.13, 16.28) and New Testaments (e.g., 2 Corinthians 12.20; Romans 1.29). And yet the biblical accounts present us with a more complicated picture of gossip than is typically assumed. For example, both the Old and New Testaments tout the value of cultivating a good reputation in our communities (e.g, Proverbs 31.31; I Timothy 3.7). Reputations, good and bad, require a backdrop of gossip. More specifically, reputations are gossip.

In short, with gossip we encounter a social phenomenon similar to the one we observed with lying. Our knee jerk judgment is that gossip is sinful. But on reflection we realize that we are awash in gossip and its existence might not always be evidence of wickedness. Consequently we quickly find ourselves back with sticky discernment issues. When is gossip appropriate and when is morally problematic?

To answer this question we should back up and define gossip and discuss its social functions (see DiFonzo & Bordia, 2007). At its most basic gossip is sharing evaluative statements about individuals. These evaluative statements can be negative (e.g., “Bill is lazy.”) or positive (e.g., “Susan is a wonderful mother.”). The sum total of the evaluative statements being shared about you in your social world (mostly behind your back) is what we call your “reputation.”

Although no one likes being negatively talked about, social psychologists have long noted that gossip serves both strategic and social functions. From a strategic stance I need good evaluative information about my social world to navigate it successfully. Who should I trust? Who can keep a secret? Who can be depended upon? These evaluations are necessary and important. So we gossip. From a sociological stance, gossip helps communicate and enforce important group norms. A business treats its customers fairly for fear of cultivating a bad customer service reputation in the community. This motive for being fair may be self-interested, but this case does illustrate how gossip very clearly communicates the values and standards a community demands from its participants. All in all, then, gossip is vital to both our social and moral well-being.

How, then, are we to determine when gossip is morally problematic? Again, I think the agency/communion hermeneutic gives us a good first round of questions to ask of ourselves. Specifically, when I am sharing socially evaluative statements am I doing it for agenic and self-interested motives? Or are my goals communal in nature?

In the case of lying the answers to these questions were relatively straightforward. We have all told lies for self-interested motives (e.g., getting away with something); so self-interested lies are relatively easy to spot. But what does self-interested gossip look like? When I gossip it always appears that my goals are other-oriented. After all, we get nothing out of gossip. We are simply passing on information that my conversation partner “needs.”

So where is the self-interest to be found in gossip? The Bible gives us a clue. First, Proverbs 18.8 says, “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels.” Also, in the New Testament the issue of “idleness” is associated with sinful gossip (1 Timothy 5.13). In sum, the issue boils down to this, are we taking joy in the gossip? Is the gossip entertaining?

To be concrete, imagine a single female asks her Christian co-worker and friend about a man in the office who has asked her out on a date. The Christian knows that this man has been sexually exploiting women in the office. Should the Christian share this information? Should she, in a word, gossip? I think she should. More, I think she would be morally culpable for not sharing her concerns based on what she knows. But there is a thin line here. And it is largely an emotional one. That is, will the Christian enjoy and relish the sharing of this information? For it is this enjoyment, this delight in the dirty laundry of the world, that leads us to share things beyond any benefit that might be gained by the person we are sharing with. In those cases the gossip has become idle, pointless. The only function has become entertainment.

There is no single English word for this emotion of taking delight in the misfortunes and misdeeds of others. But the Germans have a word for it, Schadenfreude. In short, when applying the agency/communion hermeneutic to the case of gossip we are looking for Schadenfreude as diagnostic of agenic motives. In the presence of Schadenfreude information is being shared that is uniquely, and wickedly, for us. Again, as with lying, the agency/communion hermeneutic is not the final word in discerning the rightness or wrongness of gossip. But it does recognize gossip as being ubiquitous, socially valuable, and complicated. And, given these factors, the model asks important initial questions for moral evaluation.

DiFonzo, N. & Bordia, P. (2007). Rumor psychology: Social and organizational approaches. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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8 thoughts on “The Moral Minefield of Everyday Chit Chat: Gossip”

  1. I'm leaving this weekend to make a major career move, coming to ACU to teach journalism. The final piece of advice I have from my friend Michael Brown, an optometrist who once upon a time was a psych major at Harding, is that I need to look up your Experimental Theology site. Today's offering shows me he was right. I look forward to digging into your archives.

  2. Quickly reading today, I thought of Murray Bowen's theory of self-differentiation. Within Bowen's framework, the concepts of anxiety and triangles provide help in apprehending the function of gossip in society.

    Briefly-- the low diffentiated person is less able to manage anxiety in dyadic relationships and therefore prone to triangle third parties (agency). An example would be one's tendency to tell co-workers about a bad review from a supervisor, in an effort to draw them into collusion against the supervisor.

    A highly differentiated person might work through the anxiety of a bad review, recognizing the validity of the supervisor's critique (though not necessarily agreeing with all of it).

    The capacity to manage anxiety (self-differentiation) seems to be integral to avoiding the vice of agency gossip.

  3. Jason,
    That makes sense. There have to be psychological and interpersonal variables that make certain persons prone to gossip and to do for various goals. I've not looked around the psych literature on this, but I've never seen any research on factors associated with gossip proneness. Your observations seem a fruitful beginning place.

  4. Richard, this is good, thoughtful. I have kind of used this as a discernment tool when having I enjoy telling this too much? Then...maybe I shouldn't say it. I can tell all I want about myself and my shortcomings...and those are many...but with my thoughts about others, I should stop and think before I say it. I will be the first to admit that I don't always do that. Thanks for making me think about this again.

  5. I think this is recognised on some level by many of the most prolific offenders. Usually by prefacing the gossip with, "I'm worried about x" or "I mention this for prayer", so it seems like the goals of the gossip are community-orientated.

  6. I have heard some pretty creative "sharing" or "concern" and its just so dangerous. How would gossip survive if we were confessing our sins one to another?...we would be reminded that we are all in this together...All the people that Jesus physically touched were ones that the pious were standing back talking about...Jesus was just so in their face and our faces with the gospel of not putting ourselves above someone else..
    good stuff, Richard

  7. The musical Avenue Q has a song called "Schadenfreude." I'm sure you can YouTube it!

    I have seen quite a few Christians ask other churchgoers to pray for someone while secretly (and often, I think, unconsciously) hoping to shock them with the information they're providing. When you're the gossiper, you stand in the implicit seat of judgment to whoever you're speaking to; it seems to be a way of asserting one's own moral superiority over the absent third party. The gossiper is assuring the listener that s/he would never do something like that (whatever it was).

    Anyway, great thoughts.

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