Gossip: The art of saying nothing

by Henrylito D. Tacio

ONCE upon a time, there were three priests who came together in a park. While talking with each other, they started to reveal their innermost secrets. “I have used the church’s money in building my mother’s house,” bared the first. “Please don’t tell anyone about this.”

My problem is,” the second revealed, “I have impregnated a beautiful lady. She will deliver our baby soon.” Like the first priest, he urged that it, too, should be kept a secret.

What about you?” the two asked the third priest.

Mine is not really that immense,” he said. “I just can’t control my tongue. You see, when I hear some secrets, I can’t help myself but share them to others.”

There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly becomes any of us to talk about the rest of us,” Edward Wallis Hoch once observed. Of course, he was talking about gossip.

Gossip is the act of spreading news from person to person, especially rumors or private information. The word “gossip” originates from ‘god-sib,’ the godparent of one’s child or parent of one’s godchildren (“god-sibling”), referring to a relationship of close friendship. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the usage of ‘godsib’ back as far as 1014.

One story (probably apocryphal) tells how, at the beginning of the 20th century, politicians would send assistants to bars to sit and listen to general public conversations. The assistants had instructions to sip a beer and listen to opinions; they responded to the command to “go sip,” which allegedly turned into “gossip.”

In the olden times, gossip were resorted to normalize and re-inforce moral boundaries in a speech-community; foster and build a sense of community with shared interests and information; entertain and divert participants in gossip-sessions; retail and develop stories and even legends; build structures and social accountability; and reflect unvarnished and spontaneous public opinion.

In modern times, however, “gossip” is now often commonly understood to mean the spreading of rumor and misinformation, often through excited conversation over scandals. As one saying puts it, “A lie has no leg, but a scandal has wings.”

Gossip is one of people’s favorite pastimes. This is the reason why gossip magazines are very saleable not only in the Philippines but also in other parts of the world. In fact, television shows are not spared. Why is this so? The reason is simple: Those famous people are just like you and me – they also commit blunders and errors. They have their own peculiarities, inhibitions, fears, and secrets. As Hollywood actor Errol Flynn – who was rumored to be a bisexual – puts it: “It isn’t what they say about you, it’s what they whisper.”

When it comes to gossiping, the Holy Bible uses tongue to symbolize it. James 3:5-6: “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and it itself set on fire by hell.”

All this happens when a person uses his tongue to say something bad or embarrassing about another person. Apostle James warned that so far, no man has ever tamed the tongue. “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” he said. Cato the Elder suggested, “We cannot control the evil tongues of others; but a good life enables us to disregard them.”

Gossip,” George Elliot once wrote, “is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it; it proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker.” Joseph Conrad states: “Gossip is what no one claims to like, but everybody enjoys.”

Erica Jong considers gossip as “the opiate of the oppressed.” Sholom Aleichem describes gossip as “nature’s telephone.” Walter Winchell has this idea: “Gossip is the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid.”

Gossip travels fast. “Nothing travels faster than light, with the possible exception of bad news, which follows its own rules,” says Douglas Adams. A Chinese proverb reminds: “What is told in the ear of a man is often heard 100 miles away.” Kahlil Gibran, in ‘Sand Foam,’ wrote: “If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.”

Next time someone starts to spread gossip, think of this story circulated via e-mail: In ancient Greece (469 – 399 BC), Socrates was widely lauded for his wisdom. One day the great philosopher came upon an acquaintance who ran up to him excitedly and said, “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”

”Wait a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Triple Filter Test.” The acquaintance wondered, “What is that?”

Before you talk to me about my student let’s take a moment to filter what you’re going to say,” Socrates explained. “The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”

No,” the man said, “Actually I just heard about it and…” Even before he could finish talking, Socrates stopped him. “All right,” said the philosopher. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?”

”No, on the contrary…” came the reply. “So,” Socrates interrupted, “you want to tell me something bad about him, even though you’re not certain it’s true?”

The man shrugged, a little embarrassed. Socrates continued. “You may still pass the test though, because there is a third filter – the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”

No, not really…” the man replied. “Well, in that case,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even Useful, then why tell it to me at all?”

The man was defeated and ashamed. And this was the reason why Socrates was a great philosopher and was held in such high esteem.

But there’s an anti-climax to the story above: Had Socrates listened to the man, he would found that his wife was having an affair with his student (Plato).

A gossip,” the Holy Bible says, “separates close friends.” Stop spreading rumors. Proverb 26:20 reminds, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.”

Henry Van Dyke also said: “There are two good rules which ought to be written on every heart; never to believe anything bad about anybody unless you positively know it to be true; and never to tell that unless you feel that it is absolutely necessary, and that God is listening while you tell it.” — ###


One response to “Gossip: The art of saying nothing

  1. I came across this page ,while searching for something else…funny how the Divine Idea works. I have enjoyed all of the content thus far and plan to return to it as often as possible…Thank you for all of the thoughts, quotes and wisdom contained here….

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