There's something that I've tried to do since I was young: not say anything about someone behind their back that I would be embarrassed to say if they were standing there with me. I'm not sure if I originally had this idea explicitly taught to me from my parents, or maybe I just picked it up along the way as the right thing to do. The degree of my success in this area has been varying, but I do think I was better at it as a younger person. As life goes along, problems seem to increase, giving us many targets to consider as frustration points. Something that is dangerously satisfying is talking about those "frustrations", or people.
I Don't Gossip, I "Talk"
It's easy to think that we aren't gossips. That's such a Sunday school term that refers to people that have a real glaring problem, right? Surely, everyone knows who the gossips are in the group, and it couldn't be me and my friends. But I think we give ourselves too much credit. I've enjoyed being on the end of talking about my frustrations over certain people with friends enough times to know that I'm not innocent in this regard. I think gossip is particularly a vice that women tend to fall into, although it can be a pitfall for anyone. Even Paul, in the New Testament, warns the women against being idol so that they don't fall into this temptation of being gossips (1 Timothy 5:13-14). One big indicator of if it is gossip or not is if it is causing you to reconcile with the absent party, or just working to make you feel more justified in despising them, hence, driving you even further from them.
Gossip hurts people. For some reason it feels satisfying to commiserate about someone you are annoyed with with another friend that feels the same way or that affirms your feelings, but it isn't without casualties. It feels innocent enough, as if you are just getting something off of your chest without having the absent party be aware of how you feel. But gossip is cowardly. In place of actually going to the offending person and talking it out, giving them a chance to explain or even understand that there is a problem, we go to people that have no control in changing the situation, only to talk about the person and drag their name through the dust a little. Isn't that really what we're attempting to do anyway, if we're being honest? Hurt them a little, because they've caused some pain or annoyance in our life? And, on the listener's side, there's something satisfying about hearing about other people's failings. It makes us feel justified in our own imperfect lives. I know, because I've been that person more than I care to admit.
Sometimes it's OK to Talk
I realize we can take the idea of never talking about someone behind their back too far. Sometimes I really do need to talk through things with my husband or a friend in order to work out the situation in my mind. There's a difference in trying to understand a situation and basically spitting at someone's back. I used to take the concept of never talking about people so far as to never have others give input into what I was facing, and that isn't helpful either. We need each other to figure things out a lot of times. The danger is when we take it too far, and say things about the offending person that isn't working towards reconciliation. We also have to tread lightly, because everything we say badly about someone is being left with our listener to have to deal with as well. Even if we are able to work through it later, they may not have the benefit of a different outlook of that person. So we have to be careful.
The Ones that "Talk"
There are certain people I know, friends even, that I am pretty sure are quick to talk about me behind my back. It's not hard to pinpoint these folks, because they are the ones that are willing to commiserate with you about others in your or their life. You can be sure that if they don't stop you when you fall into the gossip trap, they won't stop others when they start up behind your back. As fun as it can be to really feel connected and on the same train of thought when you are commiserating with a friend about a mutual annoyance, we have to admit that we know we can't really trust that person once the conversation is over. After all, one wrong move and you're on the other end.
Defend The Absent
It is very hard to defend someone when your friend begins talking about them, but I think that's what we must do to end this gossip spiral. If we speak as if that person can hear us talking about them, we'd be a lot more gracious, and not so quick to put them down. When one of your closest friends comes to you to commiserate about a frustration with another person, do the brave thing. Be gracious, and speak as if the absent were present.
Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such as is good for edification according to the need , so that it will give grace to those who hear. -Ephesians 4:29