As I worked in the Gardens in Carkeek Park this morning, I overheard two people talking about someone I assumed to be a close mutual acquaintance. The two seemed agitated – sweeping hand gestures, raised voices, rapid speech – all the signs of irritation, if not anger. I tried to close my ears to the diatribe and managed to ignore most of it, but the few words that broke the peace of an otherwise gentle morning were harsh and sounded, ultimately, like one long complaint about the third person’s personality. Ouch.
All people gossip at times. Psychologists, sociologists, and others who study human social behavior as a profession explain gossip as being motivated by any number of multiple causes: a means to differentiate oneself from a disliked or misunderstood person; a non-confrontational way to even a score; a way to demonstrate affinity between two people by excluding a third; a means of ostracizing someone disliked by one or more members of a group; or simply a way to cause harm. Of course, I have no idea which if any of the above reasons motivated the conversation between my garden visitors this morning, but it certainly sounded like the last one.
Gossip almost always results in unintended and unforeseen harm. For example, a scenario among 3 mutually acquainted people could run as follows: Person 1 has old resentments against Person 3, and decides to share with Person 2 some of the aspects of 3’s personality that 1 doesn’t like. Unforeseen by Person 1, 2 decides to act upon that information and subsequently treats 3 in a confusing and hurtful manner for many years. Person 3 becomes tired of the treatment and asks 2 for an explanation of the behavior. Person 2 tells Person 3 that he is acting on information 1 told him years ago. When the behavior doesn’t stop, 3 confronts 2 again, an argument ensues, 2 demands an apology from 3 which 3 believes is not warranted and does not give, and 2 terminates the relationship.
Who is responsible for the dissolution of the relationship? Clearly, Person 1 started the process by his gossip. But Person 2 made the decision to act upon that gossip in a malicious manner and end the relationship because Person 3 wouldn’t apologize for the confrontation. Person 3 should not have allowed the behavior to continue for years; he should have opposed it at its inception and asked for a meeting between all three parties. Or should Person 3 have taken a different path entirely and walked away from the situation rather than confronting Person 2? If all three individuals feel that they have acted appropriately, can the problem be resolved? The problem started with gossip. Gossip, which may have been innocently intended, caused irreparable harm. That is the real problem with gossip.
Yes, we are only human. All humans make mistakes and some mistakes have long-term consequences. But how we learn from those mistakes, how we respond to the damage done to us and that we have done, is the true measure of a person. As my grumpy Buddhist teacher once told me, if you do no more than live your entire life by the precept “Do no harm”, you will have lived a good life. To that I would add, Do no Harm and Spread no Gossip.