During my sophomore year, someone started a rumor about me. I don’t know who started the lie, but my so-called friends repeated the gossip. This resulted in half the class not talking to me, my notebooks being stolen, and my spending the rest of the semester isolated.
My high school memories of that time are a bit blurry, but I remember that I did not feel completely alone because of my church friends and my family. I survived, but it took years before I could trust people again.
Being the target of gossip can be traumatizing for any teenager. When you are a teen, you are already grappling with questions about your identity, relationships and purpose. The unwanted attention that gossip brings can make us feel embarrassed, betrayed or frustrated. The doubt and shame can also make it harder to ask an adult for help.
Gossip can turn into serious bullying and harassment, which can make a teen feel pressured to fit in and can deplete his or her self-esteem, potentially leading to serious issues like depression, eating disorders, and alcohol and substance abuse.
“Gossip dehumanizes the people we’re talking about by selling their dignity for a few cheap, ego-puffing observations,” said Elizabeth Scalia, author of Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us.
It might be easy to share “juicy” stories, but gossip can cause enormous damage. Repeating careless words can destroy a teen’s self-esteem and reputation, and shatter trust among classmates.
Father Mike Schmitz, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth in Minnesota, calls gossip “everyday betrayal.” Gossip can be true, partially true, a misconception or complete lies, but the information casts others in a bad light. Rumors spread without being fact-checked — if it’s interesting, people will want to hear it and repeat it.
The causes for gossiping vary. Sometimes people attempt to “bond” by making fun of someone. They belittle others because they are insecure and want to feel better about themselves, or they want to feel powerful or get attention. Others might be victims of gossip themselves and are trying to shift the target to others, or they don’t have the courage to defend the person being attacked.
“Idle chatter about others can bring great harm and draw many others into sin,” wrote Msgr. Charles Pope. Gossip falls under the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” and the Letter of James says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain.”
How can you avoid gossiping? Just excuse yourself and walk away, turn the conversation to something positive, say, “I’m trying not to gossip about people,” or stand up for the person and ask that they be treated with respect.
If you begin sharing “news” about your friends or classmates, stop. First ask yourself, “Is this true?” Second, even if it is true, ask, “Is it kind? Would I want someone talking about me in this way?” And finally, ask, “Is it necessary? Am I helping others by sharing it?” If not, keep it to yourself.
(If someone’s health or safety is at stake, then you should speak up and get help from an adult — this is not gossiping.)
Our words lift others up or tear them down. Instead of adding to the fire of gossip, use your words to be kind to others, express gratitude and genuine interest in your friends. Give up gossip and you will notice how edifying conversations can strengthen community bonds.
Maria-Pia Negro Chin is bilingual associate editor at Maryknoll Magazine.