Spotting a Gossip

Slander 2

Earlier this week I posted some of Wolfgang Musculus’ thoughts on slander from his commentary on Psalm 15. I wanted to elaborate a bit gossip and slander.

A slanderer or gossip has three key characteristics. First, they want to influence the way people think about other people. They want people to think badly of Jill because she got angry with her two year old at church. They want so and so to think less of the pastor because he spent money on a conference.  Their goal is not change or communication, but rather destruction of people they do not like. 

Second, but they don’t want to influence people directly. They want to influence through insinuation, manipulation, and whispered conversations. They try to get people to think poorly of someone else without being able to understand why. They do not say, “Jill was wrong to get angry at her son.” They certainly don’t go talk directly to Jill. They hint. They imply. “Wow Jill was having hard morning. But don’t all parents from time to time.” “Oh, have you heard about Jane. Her kids sit so still in worship. Some moms are still working on that.” And everyone tries hard not to look at Jill. They are not direct.  Why, you might ask? That brings us to the last characteristic.

Third, they do not want to be held accountable for what they say.  They want to influence opinion, but they also want to avoid accountability for doing so. They want people to think badly of certain people. But they do not want a paper trail leading to them. They want you to think badly of Jill, but be unable to trace it back to them.  They are slippery, like an eel. A gossip loves the shadows.

They want indirect influence that has impact, but allows them to avoid responsibility for the way they help lower one person’s opinion of someone else.

What are some ways gossips accomplish this?

First, they say words that are innocent, but in a context or with a tone that adds malice to them. “Did you know that Mrs. Johnson is spending the weekend at her mother’s?” Nothing necessarily malicious about the words. But you just had a conversation about marriage struggles, porn, and infidelity.  And Mr. Johnson spends a lot of time on the road. And Mrs. Johnson has not looked very happy the past couple of months. And Mr. Johnson just came home after a three week trip. The insinuation is clear. Their marriage is struggling. The slanderer does not say, “Mrs. Johnson went her to mother’s because their marriage is on the rocks.”  That would allow for open discussion and accountability. A gossip hates open discussion. What they want is for you to think badly of Mr. Johnson. That is the goal. Not help. Not discussion.

Second, they will say things about people that you are not allowed to act on. The gossip says, “I think the Johnsons’ marriage is struggling.  I am worried about them.” You reply, “Why don’t I call Mr. Johnson tonight and have a talk with him? I agree they have been out of sorts at church. Maybe I can have lunch with him.” The slanderer says, “Oh no. Don’t do that. We shouldn’t meddle.” But the gossip has already meddled. The slanderer does not want to help the Johnsons. He wants you to form a negative opinion of them.

Third, they come with reports from other people, but refuse to reveal their source. “I heard that Mrs. Johnson caught Mr. Johnson with porn.” Who told you that? “They wanted to remain confidential.” Or “I can’t remember who told me that.” Slanderers pretend to be protecting people’s confidence when in reality they are only protecting themselves.

Fourth, they flatter. This may seem odd. Doesn’t a slanderer seek to destroy people? Why would they flatter? Flattery is a form of protection so that when the gossip needs to “say hard words” they will have their previous compliments to fall back on.  They say nice things about people. But it is a front. It allows them to say with a straight face, “I don’t dislike Mr. Johnson.  I complimented his suit just last week.”

Fifth, gossips will shade the truth to make their point. Here we find the heart of a gossip. They do not speak lies directly. Their words often have some truth in them. But they shade the truth just a bit or they leave out part of what was said or they add a line. “Did you hear they found porn on Mr. Johnson’s computer?” That is true. But the gossip left out the fact that the  Johnsons’ teenage son confessed to looking at it. The gossip said, “Did you hear they found porn on Mr. Johnson’s computer?” But what they want you to hear is “Mr. Johnson has a porn problem.” But if you confront the gossip later they will claim they were only speaking the truth. It was found on his computer. They did not lie about that. If you push they will say that you misunderstood and they never meant to accuse Mr. Johnson. Remember a gossip’s goal is to make you think less of someone without you being able to trace that feeling directly back to the gossip. What makes this so difficult to spot is that gossips are very good at this. The truth is malleable for them, but only barely. It is very difficult to catch them in an outright lie.

Finally, gossips are nosy people who want to know about the people around them.  Gossips like tidbits of information about others. This gives them leverage. Gossips will often discuss other people in an innocent way. They ask questions. Ask people to elaborate on things. They dig and follow up. But it is not for the good of the person being talked about. It is ammunition to be used at a later date.

Gossips lack integrity. They feed you lies wrapped in just enough truth to protect them and make their lie seem plausible. They want to shape people’s opinions of others without being accountable. The Scriptures demand integrity all the way down. A gossip is deceiver much like Satan in the garden. Tomorrow there is another post on how to deal with gossips. In the meantime, ask yourself are you honest in your speech about other people? Do any of the things above describe you?