My parents, it turns out, were not nearly as stupid as I thought they were when I was a teenager. I suspect that a lot of us learned that lesson when we were growing up, and we learned it right about the same time that we moved out on our own, started paying our own bills and such.
Oh, I guess the word “stupid” is a bit strong, at least in hindsight. Let me just go ahead and get this out on the table: When I was a teenager and even well into my early twenties, I was a genius – a regular, bona fide know-it-all genius.
My parents, especially my mother, had a saying for every situation (and I mean every single one). With respect to choosing our friends, she’d say, “When you lie down with dogs, expect to get up with fleas.” On the topic of cleaning our rooms: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” (I was nearly thirty years old before I figured out that she made that one up). When the subject of taking risks turned up, we got, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” And on the topic of, well, infidelity: “If they’ll do it with you, they’ll do it to you.”
I have since learned that that last one applies to all sorts of transgressions, so I held onto it and passed it on to our children. However, I have always reserved that maxim for the topic of gossip. In my experience, gossip is perhaps the most destructive habit we humans have ever concocted, maybe even more destructive than lying itself. A lie can stop with the person who told it, but gossip, by its very nature, perpetuates itself. In fact, it multiplies, and then it spreads.
Gossip is a practice that I cannot stand. Years ago, I stopped allowing it or tolerating it, either in my life or in my presence. I have seen people’s spirits crushed, plans derailed, families torn apart and reputations smeared, all because one or maybe a few people derive pleasure from doing those very things to other people. I have even seen gossip drive a person to the most desperate of acts, and that’s suicide. And now that we have smart phones and social media at our fingertips, the amount of damage that one gossip can do is astounding. Sickeningly astounding.
Why do people gossip? I have a couple of theories, and chances are they’re both correct. First and simplest, I believe that people – and I mean people who may not have a nasty, meddling streak under normal circumstances – get caught up in gossip out of sheer boredom. My mom had a saying about boredom: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”). Turns out, she was right about that one, too.
Second, I truly believe that people who choose to gossip on a regular basis are miserable souls. I believe that they are compelled to spin their hurtful, meddlesome webs in order to satisfy gaping holes in their own lives. It seems that angry, bitter and jealous people are the same people who engage in gossip, who get the ball rolling in the first place. It seems that those people truly enjoy hurting others, dragging others down rather than lifting them up.
Another point we always tried to communicate to our children is that it’s not just the gossiper who commits the transgression. People who give that person an audience – those who listen to gossip and encourage the perpetuation of it – are every bit as guilty as the one slinging the gossip. You see, if the person doing the gossiping loses his or her audience, then gossip is no longer fun. Gossip only spreads when the hurtful words and lies spread, if you’ll pardon the pun, by word of mouth.
So the next time you hear someone begin a sentence with, “Hey, do you know what I heard about so-and-so?” I challenge you to respond, kindly but firmly, with these words: “No, and I don’t care to hear it now. I avoid gossip, because I can’t think of one good thing that ever came of it.” Sound extreme? Not really, especially when you think about all that you’ve said in those few short words.
You’ve told the other person that you won’t participate in a hurtful activity, even if that participation means just passively listening. You’ve also told that person not to come to you in the future with gossip. Just as importantly, you’ve told that person in a kind manner that you have their number. Usually, when a gossip is discovered (or uncovered, what our kids refer to as being “called out”), they understand that they can’t operate under cover of darkness or anonymity, not with you around. Think of it as standing up to a verbal bully. You’ll be amazed at how well it works and how good it feels.
Integrity is becoming a commodity that’s in short supply, and never is that sad fact more evident than during election season. However, that’s a topic for another day.
Do your part in keeping integrity alive and well. You won’t regret it.
Carole Townsend is a Gwinnett author and freelance writer. Her fourth and newest book, BLOOD IN THE SOIL, is slated for April 5, 2016 publication. It is the true tale of a crime that took place in Gwinnett County nearly 40 years ago. Her most recent book, MAGNOLIAS, SWEET TEA AND EXHAUST (July 2014, Skyhorse Publishing) takes a sidesplitting look at NASCAR from a Southern suburban mom’s perspective. Her first two books, RED LIPSTICK AND CLEAN UNDERWEAR (a book about our Mothers’ advice) and SOUTHERN FRIED WHITE TRASH (a hilarious look at the unique, charming and sometimes outrageous ways we Southerners conduct ourselves) earned Carole almost instant national fame, with her “distinctive humor and hysterical honesty,” – Los Angeles Times. Carole has appeared on local and national news and talk shows, including CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates. When not writing, she travels throughout the southeast region, teaching writers’ workshops, speaking to various civic and literary groups, and advocating for the health and well being of the family. For more information, visit www.caroletownsend.com.