“What you don’t see with your eyes, don’t witness with your mouth.” -Jewish Proverb
Too often, I realize that people preface their sentences with “I heard” or “they say.” Intrigued by the personal details and juicy information that is likely to follow, most of us allow these sentences to continue and build up into paragraphs consisting of nothing other than questionable rumors and gossip.
Gossiping, indeed, gives us all a temporary vicious thrill. But at what cost? Upon this realization, I began to feign disinterest when people would gossip around me. It was difficult initially, but as I made a habit of this, I noticed a significant change in my life. I was no longer actively accumulating personal, unconfirmed information that had nothing to do with me. I was focusing on myself, and I was more open to making and maintaining new friendships.
As an Iranian-Jew, I often see the effect gossiping has on other people’s feelings, opinions, and even worse, relationships in the community to which I belong. Why do we gossip? Is our curiosity so insatiable that we can’t help it? How does gossiping affect us anyway?
When you exchange gossip, you suffer the consequence of wasted time. You know what it’s like. So we know a few more details about someone that may or—get this—may not be true. How will this information benefit you? How will you move forward with your life, with your career, with your family, because of information that more likely than not, has nothing to do with you? I asked myself these questions and came up with the following.
By listening to gossip, you are masking your vision by looking through a distorted lens and, unintentionally, judging someone. Let’s say you have a friend named Danielle. Friend A says this about Danielle. Friend B says that. Friend C says something else. Now your perception of Danielle has been distorted by three different people. Could this be right? Judging a person does not define who they are, it defines who YOU are.
It’s beautiful and comforting to know that you are a different human being to everyone you meet. We have all had our share of joys and sorrows, of successes and defeat, of experiences that define us and make us unique and different from one another. But to listen to a rumor about someone and mask our vision with a story about them is inhumane.
A rumor, after all, is just a story. But if it does not involve us, what reason do we have to sit there and listen, to formulate an opinion, to judge, to agree, to disagree, or to repeat any of it? After I realized this, I not only began to express genuine disinterest, but I began to vocalize that the repetition of gossip made me uncomfortable.
“Lo telech rachil b’ameicha,” Rabbi Wolpe quoted the Torah in his sermon last year at Sinai Temple. “Do not go being a talebearer among your people (Lev. 19:16).” He went on to note that “Of the 43 sins we are about to confess on Yom Kippur, over a quarter of them are sins of speech, because we hurt more people with our words than we do with anything else, and the single most dangerous action that you can take in the world today is hitting the send button.”
He is right; it is too easy to hit the send button. It is too easy to sit idly by and listen. It is too easy to take pleasure in being the person who knows something. Because you get to say “guess what I heard?” at the expense of somebody else’s reputation, and even worse, their feelings.
“You can spread a rumor today that will hurt someone in Israel tomorrow,” said Wolpe. “All you have to do is repeat it.”
Before you are about to pass on a rumor, he advises us to ask: Is it true? Is it fair? And is it necessary? Whether we heard it from someone reliable is irrelevant. Whether it improves on the silence is beside the point. More often than not, you will notice the power of your silence, the honor in not being a talebearer.
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project observed that although gossip “unifies people who play by the rules” and “exposes the misbehavior of those who cheat on their spouses, don’t return phone calls, or take credit for other’s work,” she felt significantly happier after dismissing these types of poisonous conversations.
So before repeating a rumor this year and from now on, before even listening to the gossip in the first place, let’s opt out. “You can create a world with words, and you can destroy someone’s world with words,” said Wolpe. If nothing else, let’s use our words this year more wisely, more kindly, more effectively, and more productively.