Gossip: The Jelly Doughnut

"Jelly Donuts" by Vegan Feast Catering, via Flickr, Creative Commons

"Jelly Donuts" by Vegan Feast Catering, via Flickr, Creative Commons

There's a tongue-in-cheek Hallmark card that shows two women in a restaurant. One of them is beckoning to the other, saying, "If you don't have anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me!"

We chuckle because we all know how delicious and seductive gossip can be—as long as you are not bothered by that old "do unto others" rule.

Before writing this blog, I researched the origin of the well-known “feathers in the wind” tale and found that the Jewish faith has a particularly sharp position on gossip: Lashon hara, translated “evil tongue,” means the spreading of true information which causes harm or humiliation. False witness, otherwise known as slander, has a different name: motzi shem ra.

The story of feathers has been told around the world for hundreds of years, not just in Jewish circles. Most of us are familiar with the parable, attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, and the lesson: If you regret gossiping and wish to make amends, get a pillow and tear it open in the wind. Then collect every feather.  

Gossip is sometimes a way we humans connect and achieve social status. I read a study which compares it to monkeys picking fleas from each others' fur (not a study worth citing, I would add). But the sense of intimacy created by gossip is a jelly-doughnut kind of intimacy: gooey and tempting, without substance, ultimately self-sabotaging. Here's why:

1. Gossip cuts friendship off at the knees. If you gossip about a friend, she may forgive you. She will never again trust you. And without trust, there can be no intimacy. No intimacy means a superficial friendship, if that.

2. A person who gossips meanly about others will gossip meanly about you if she ever perceives a personal advantage in it.

3. That old adage about sticks and stones? Totally untrue. Most people would rather endure physical pain than deal with the fallout of a malicious rumor.

Rabbi David Wolpe, author of Making Loss Matter, a wise and moving book about death and other losses, spoke about gossip in one of his short podcasts. Wolpe’s mother, after suffering a stroke at age 52, was unable ever to speak freely again. “When you live with someone who struggles with speech,” Wolpe reflects, “you realize how profligate, how thoughtless we are with our words. How they tumble out one after another.… We can say whatever we want; we need only open our mouths.”

He links gossip—as well as kindness—to character: “What you do and what you say—that’s who you are. Not what you intend, or how you feel, or what you think. What comes out of you, what emerges. Your words.”

Can there be any disagreement? Is You are what you say as valid a truth as You are what you eat? The difference, of course, is that eating a jelly doughnut or two occasionally is not harmful; spreading one harmful piece of gossip is—often beyond repair.