We’ve all heard gossip. Unfortunately many of us have participated in it, as well. We may not be tempted to rob a bank or commit some other major crime, but Satan knows a little laugh at someone else’s expense might be an easier temptation to dangle before us. So he gives us plenty of opportunities to tarnish another’s reputation, and see it as innocent chatter. There are even “experts” who say it’s harmless, and even helpful if it serves to remind us of the standards we want in our communities and workplaces.

Many of us have also been the victims of malicious whispers, and can attest that they are not harmless. They can hurt deeply and leave lasting scars. It can be argued that the only thing we really own is our good name. And for someone else to drag it through the mud is to steal from us the most precious thing we own. Even if the rumors are true, they do not always remain true. People repent and change. An old bit of juicy “truth” denies the healing and changing power of the atonement. Gossip has been known to make people lose their jobs, families move, children transfer to other schools, and in the saddest of all cases, has caused people to take their own lives. It is dressed up as a harmless bit of conversation, but is actually a lethal poison.

So why do we do it? Let’s look at the reasons.

  1. People share in gossip if their lives are boring. These stories serve as exciting, suspenseful mini-movies—a way to get their heart racing again, a moment of drama to enjoy.
  2. They also gossip to make themselves look better by comparison: Pointing out someone’s sins or flaws means you must not have those, yourself.
  3. Gossip can also be a way to ingratiate yourself in a certain crowd—if the executives are all laughing about or disparaging the new guy, and you join in with them, you elevate your standing at the office.
  4. Sometimes a person can’t wait to share a bit of news no one else has, yet. It makes them feel important and “in the loop.”
  5. Another reason is simply to be funny and enjoy laughing with others. It’s as if we’ve forgotten this is an actual person, and we laugh as if it’s a fictional character we cannot truly hurt.
  6. Last, and perhaps worst, is gossiping to get even. Some people spin a tale they know is utterly false, just to damage an enemy.

Gossip is more serious today than in the past for two reasons. First, social media makes it last forever. A whispered slur years ago could possibly be caught before it spreads, and an apology offered. But today the nasty news goes viral and can never be retrieved. Second, the accusations and name-calling have escalated to cyber bullying today, thanks to the anonymity we have at our computers. Someone who might measure their words to your face can now hurl cruel labels and threats instead, launched into cyberspace with mocking memes attached.

We often hear the formula for avoiding gossip: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? and proponents urge us to remember this spin off “the golden rule” whenever we’re tempted to go engage in gossipy conversation. But who really does that? Who stops long enough to evaluate each of those three check points? Conversations clip along much too fast for us to plug every line into that litmus test. Even more cumbersome is the five-part THINK acronym many propose (to ask yourself if the words are True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, or Kind). It sounds like a compassionate test, but is completely impractical unless you’re talking at the pace of Morse Code.

Not only that, but those questions give justification for repeating rumors. I once knew a woman who would say, “This isn’t gossip, because it’s true” and would then proceed to disparage whomever she pleased.

I think a far better standard is the one Jesus offered us, simply to love one another. Be kind. Period. If it isn’t kind, don’t say it. If you wouldn’t want such things said about your child—or about yourself—don’t say them. WordsCanHeal.org, is an advocacy group created to combat “verbal violence.” They have a number of celebrity supporters, and they’re trying to get everyone to “replace words that hurt with words that encourage, engage and enrich.” I think it’s a good move.

When we’re caught in a swirl of gossip, it often takes courage to stand up to those around us, and defend the victim of their attacks. But what a wonderful thing to be known for. When you say, “But I’ve noticed Mary really goes the extra mile to help others” when everyone’s laughing at her appearance, they’ll soon take notice and stop the nitpicking. They’ll also know that if they ever become the target of gossip, you’ll defend them as well. Words have extraordinarily power. Let’s use them for good.

Hilton’s books can be found here. She is also the “YouTube Mom” and shares short videos about easy household tips and life skills at this channel. And be sure to read her blog. Hilton currently serves as a Relief Society President.