'Matter of Laugh or Death,' the award-winning humor column
By Bill Dunn
Interesting observations on this thing we call life
(appearing each week in the Republican-American newspaper, Waterbury, CT)
THE GOLDEN RULE OF GOSSIP
If you think the SARS virus is spreading rapidly, there’s something else traveling even faster. Nothing moves quicker, or infects more people, than gossip.
I wanted to see how fast an untrue rumor would spread, so I made up a completely incorrect bit of information about myself and mentioned it to only one person, a co-worker. And, of course, I first said, “Whatever you do, don’t tell this to anyone.”
After receiving a solemn pledge of confidentiality, I revealed my bogus secret: “Hardly anyone knows it, but I’m related to the Kennedy clan. Ted Kennedy is my uncle.”
As the person walked away, I sat back and waited to see what would happen. Within 30 minutes, people were stopping by my office and saying, “Hey, I hear Ted Kennedy is your uncle.”
Within two days, reporters from the four major TV stations in Connecticut were calling to set up an interview with a “genuine Kennedy cousin.”
And by the end of the week, a black limousine pulled up in front of my house, and Ted Kennedy himself stumbled out of the back seat, saying, “Nephew William, let’s go bar-hopping, just like the good old days in Hyannisport.”
I respectfully declined, reminding “Uncle Ted” that we had never actually met, and the only connection we might have is that my ancestors were probably indentured servants for his ancestors. I did ask if he’d like to attend church with me sometime, but upon hearing the C-word he screamed in horror and dove back into the limo. I suspect the good senator won’t be visiting my neighborhood again anytime soon.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about gossip lately because I recently studied the topic in a Bible study class. I guess I always knew that gossip was a sin, since I don’t remember ever reading a passage in Scripture such as: “And God spoke unto Moses, saying, ‘Don’t tell anyone else, Mo, but did you see Miriam stagger in late last night? Wow, I hear she’s hitting the wine pretty good these days.’”
What really surprised me, though, is the actually definition of gossip. I always thought gossip was when you made up stories and started rumors about other people—you know, like gossip columnists, such as Liz Smith and Jayson Blair, and gossip newspapers, such as The National Enquirer and The New York Times.
But that’s not gossip. When the story about the other person is fabricated, it’s actually slander or libel. (If the lie is spoken, it’s called slander. If the lie is written, it’s called libel. And if the lie appears on television, it’s called a paid political advertisement.)
It turns out the definition of gossip is when you talk about other people behind their backs—even if it’s true!
And I always gave myself credit for not embellishing the details when I talked about people behind their backs—unless, of course, the truth was kind of boring and the story needed to be spiced up a little.
Simply telling the truth about other people behind their backs is sinful gossip. (And spicing up the story with a few creative details is not only sinful, it’s a criminal offense.)
According to biblical doctrine, the only time it’s OK to talk about others behind their backs is if you’re trying to help them. This is why many church-going people begin conversations by saying, “Will you please join me in prayer for our dear friend Mabel?”
When the other person replies, “Oh my, is there a problem?” the first person can then say with a clear conscience, “Well, don’t tell anyone else, but Mabel staggered in late last night. Wow, I hear she’s hitting the wine pretty good these days.”
Even though I was surprised to learn this particular definition of the word gossip, and even though it will be very difficult to hold my tongue in certain situations, I’m going to try my best to do the right thing. It’s what Uncle Ted told me to do.
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