The Genius Behind Pope Francis’ Advice to Give Up Gossip

Living a gossip-free life is harder than it sounds, but it’s worth it.
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Emily Mae Schmid
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Living a gossip-free life is harder than it sounds, but it’s worth it.

Earlier this year a list of “Pope Francis’ Resolutions” went viral on social media. Chief among his resolves? “Don’t gossip.” Every time I see remarks about the pope, it catches my attention, and this circulating list of resolutions was no exception. As the head of the Catholic Church for nearly three years now, he truly has made a name for himself for his humility and approachability. So I couldn’t help but wonder why gossip—usually heard circulating in high school hallways, around brunch tables, and by the office watercooler—had claimed such prominence in the life of this global religious leader.

The truth is, gossip affects all of our lives. I was horrified a few months ago when I saw a tweet from ESPN reporting that baseball player Josh Hamilton was getting divorced. Somehow the private marriage of an athlete qualified as sports news. “What has the world come to?” I thought. But it’s true; there really is no sector of our modern society that’s safe from idle banter and dishing the dirt.

In a society of fast-paced information sharing, the prevalence of gossip has grown so large that its impact is hardly noticeable. In fact, the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English defines it as “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.” That sounds like the conversations I have with my friends, coworkers, family, and even strangers—male or female—on a daily basis. (Yes, contrary to popular belief that gossip is primarily a woman’s vice, research shows that it is a thriving pastime of both males and females.) But just because gossip seems to meet the standard for respectable conversation and even news these days doesn’t make it a good thing. I think the pope was on to something to single it out. Maybe gossip really is a bigger issue than we think.

The romanticization of Mean Girls and the proliferation of stereotypical characters such as Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf speak to the power of gossip and show how easy and fun it can be to partake. Rather than expose it as the toxic weapon it is, popular culture portrays gossip as a tool, even—something used to get ahead or to be cool.

Studies on gossip have led some experts to suggest that gossip isn’t all that bad. Talking about others’ actions or misfortunes, the thinking goes, can help people who hear gossip assess their own decisions more effectively. But these all come with caveats as well. For Psychology Today, ethicist Arthur Dobrin writes that although gossip has a purpose in forming cultural and moral judgments, “as with all judgments about others, gossip can go wrong and turn into self-righteousness and cause unwarranted harm. Sometimes the talk is malicious and comes from something less than a clean conscience. The problem arises when gossip smears another’s reputation unfairly. Once the harm is done, it is sometimes impossible to set right.”

Commenting on the latest research on gossip, psychiatrist Dr. Howard Forman told the TODAY show in 2014 that although gossip can be useful for those who hear it, “the gossiper is never someone you want to be. . . . People won’t be comfortable around you. They won’t trust you. They won’t want you as part of the team.” According to Dr. Forman, “For the receiver there can be a net gain. For the gossiper there is a net loss. . . . Salacious enjoyment is very short-lived. Is ten minutes of pleasure worth ten weeks of misery? People may look at you as a great source of gossip but not as a great human being.”

No wonder Pope Francis singled out gossip. His job description, after all, has everything to do with leading others to be better human beings.

I decided that I needed to let gossip go from my life, as much as I could. Step one was realizing that I gain nothing by gossiping and, therefore, lose nothing by refraining from it. I’ve had to face the reality that gossip is inherently damaging, and any personal gain rooted in falsehood and insincerity cannot possibly last. If I use gossip to edge out a coworker from competition for a promotion, even if I succeed, what good is that, really? I’d be actively poisoning my workplace culture to be a more negative one, and that ultimately makes me a loser, too.

Once I embraced the idea of getting rid of gossip in theory, the next step was to acknowledge what that looks like in practice. As we know with any resolution, thinking only goes so far; for action, resolutions require having a game plan.

To stop gossiping in practice, I had to learn the difference between gossip and sharing news or venting. It’s a fine line, to be sure. Take, for instance, my Facebook wall or Twitter feed. When I look at posts, I started asking myself, “Are you seeing news and valuable information, or are you really seeing meaningless fluff or breaches of privacy regarding public figures?” A major step that I took was unfollowing all “celebrity gossip” sites and replacing them with inspirational speakers and quotes instead. Now, instead of retweeting celeb news, my followers will likely get an inspirational quote or the Verily Daily Dose, and that will likely have a more positive impact on their day.

I’ve also made a conscious effort to be a more active communicator. By that I mean not only watching what I say but also listening closely to what others say. Think about how many conversations turn negative without us even noticing. I’m committed to stop, even if that means resolving to be the first friend to break the cycle and move conversation on to better things.

For the past month I have tried my best to consciously avoid gossip in the workplace. I’ve focused on not only being conscious of what I choose to share but also being on the lookout for how other people are presenting things and then changing the subject when necessary. I’ve found that it takes a lot more effort to avoid “taking the bait” than simply monitoring my own words. Resisting the temptation to ask for details when a coworker says, “Did you hear why Lisa was upset yesterday?” can be tough. I had to teach myself to change the subject or respond with, “I would prefer to hear it from Lisa,” instead of following my curiosity and saying, “Ooh, tell me!”

I found that letting go of gossip, like breaking any bad habit, required effort and practice. I made mistakes, of course, but then I’d recognize them and do better the next day. It becomes easier every day to keep the conversation straightforward or empowering, and I don’t find myself missing the juicy dirt at all. Plus, I now drive home feeling less emotionally exhausted and generally happier.

I think what sets “Don’t gossip” apart from many other common resolutions is that it isn’t just a solo effort or impact. This is something we can all do to make our communities a better place. By taking it on, we are improving ourselves and our circles simultaneously. In the end I believe we’ll find that we haven’t lost anything by giving up gossiping; instead we will have gained a lot. Just as Pope Francis has dedicated himself to the teachings of mercy, we, too, can be merciful to one another by choosing to converse about meaningful things rather than idly chat about someone else’s business. One conversation at a time, our friend groups, workplaces, and social spaces will become more present and sincere.

Photo Credit: Andrea Rose Photography