When Not to Talk

by Terry L. Sumerlin

I was asked if so-and-so is still alive. When I answered “yes” for the millionth time, the response was the same – for the millionth time: “Well, I’m surprised one of his ex-wives hasn’t killed him by now.” The fact that the fellow’s daughter happens to be one of the exes might have biased him, and stirred his emotions, just a tad. However, I wondered why we must go through the same song and dance every time he sees me.

I’d had enough! First of all, I don’t care how many ex-wives my acquaintance has, nor is it any of my business. Also, and more important, I feel it is just as bad to listen to gossip as it is to tell it. So I decided to put a stop to it with a simple suggestion: “Why don’t you give him a call and take that up with him?” It suddenly got very quiet.

From a moral point of view, gossip is an ugly thing. But our primary focus here is not moral, religious or theoretical. It’s practical because of the impact such talk has on organizational morale as well as relationships.

Although, as we all know, you and I would never engage in this destructive form of speech, perhaps some gentle kick-on-the-shin reminders about gossip would be in order. Keep in mind, though, what Ronald B. Zeh said years ago: “The gossip of the future may not be a backbiting, nosy, tongue-wagging two-face, but a super-megabyte, random-access, digital interface.” Gossip can be spoken or written.

The first thing we need to remember is what this form of speech says about one’s character. Though we will grant that sometimes what we say about others is not as much a matter of character as it is carelessness, we need to give more thought to what we are about to say and then sometimes just not say it. It’s so easy to drift from simple, innocent, harmless conversation about others into that which is harmful and should not be repeated, even if it’s true. Some folks just talk too much, and should be more careful about what they say.

On the other hand, deliberately telling or repeating that which we know to be harmful to another’s reputation strongly suggests a character problem. This, by the way, is vastly different from saying what must be said about someone, saying it to the right person and saying it for the right reasons. That’s responsible action, and requires courage. The other is irresponsible, abusive and cowardly.

Another thing about gossip is what it does to the reputation of the one who makes it a habit. It makes that person someone who can’t be trusted. It tells others that anything said to him or her, even in confidence, is not secure. It also says that if that person will gossip to you, the same person will gossip about you. As a result, trusting a gossip becomes a huge issue in relationships and business.

Gossip also indicates a lack of emotional and/or intellectual maturity. Those who are comfortable and secure with themselves don’t feel the need to tell things about others in an attempt to tear them down. Rather, they are inclined to say things that build them up. In this respect, they’re genuine leaders!

With regard to maturity and how it impacts what we talk about, it might be good for everyone to keep in mind what Socrates said: “Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”

Finally, slander can come back to bite us. What makes its way to our ears, and then is repeated by us, can just as easily make its way to the ears of those who will take action.

Notice that for the first time I used the word “slander” in place of “gossip.” It has legal connotations. Slander that we have spoken, and is then repeated back to us, could be very embarrassing. It could be worse than embarrassing when repeated back to us in court.

LEADERSHIP TIP: Before speaking, carefully consider the what, the how, the why, the of whom and the to whom.


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