The sages teach that each time someone speaks badly of others, it is like killing three people.
Who is dying?
1. The Person Speaking
In whose eyes is this happening? On one level, the person speaking is being killed in the eyes of God. The Almighty has given that person the gift of speech, and he or she is using it to pit one person against another, to put others down and to speak of other people's private business.
On another level, he or she is being killed in the eyes of all those who are listening. When you have "the goods" on some-one and say to a group of people, "Guess what? I heard the real story about so-and-so's marital breakup," what happens?
Everyone leans in to hear the juicy gossip, and you become the center of attention. You are, in a sense, being crowned! You become the queen or king of this moment.
But it's just a moment. If you are known as the type of person eager to speak badly of others or quick to share "the dirt" at any given time, you will not be the person others come to for advice or with whom they entrust their lives. After all, if you are so quick to speak badly of others, everyone knows that soon they will be fodder for your social hobby.
If you speak badly of others, everyone knows they will be fodder for your social hobby.
When Bob was a television newscaster, he was also an avid speaker – as well as listener – of gossip. According to Bob, "When I was with certain people, it felt like we were best friends; as though it were the two of us against the world. But I also knew that the same was true for whomever my ‘friend' was with at the time. If they talked about others so viciously, what did that tell me would be said about me when I wasn't the ‘best friend of the moment'?"
Interestingly enough, not only did most of Bob's coworkers not trust people like this, but they didn't like them either. Of course, that didn't stop anybody from listening to all the juicy gossip.
The truth is that at any moment you can be the popular one, but in the long run, you are lessened in everyone's eyes if you gossip. When you speak badly of others, it is like committing slow suicide.
Did you ever wonder why gossip is called "the low down" and "the dirt"? Let's face it, putting others down only brings us down. Some time ago, someone in my evening class on ethics shared the following story with everyone in attendance:
I was attending a ceremony at our house of worship and my sister-in-law walked in dressed very inappropriately! She was wearing a revealing top and I just couldn't believe it. I pointed this out to my husband and told him that his sister had done it again. When will she ever learn?
But my husband did not respond. He just stood there and stared at me. It's maddening. He does it every time I speak about people. Don't you think he should say something to his sister, or perhaps I should?
I responded by saying, "First, do not say anything to your sister-in-law. She won't be able to hear it from you. If you have that type of relationship, chances are she won't be able to hear the weather report from you, let alone a comment about her choice of dress – as this can often be a challenging relationship.
"Second, when you speak negatively about others, who is being lessened in your husband's eyes?"
The woman didn't have to think long. "I am," she whispered.
"You've got a good guy there," I answered. "Don't just hang on to him. Learn from him."
2. The Person You Are Speaking About
The person who is the topic of discussion at hand is obviously being killed. Such people are going about their business innocently, oblivious to the fact that you are speaking about them and affecting the way others view them. Irreparable damage can be done with every word, whether the information is true or not.
Money can be earned back easily, but a reputation developed over years can be wiped away instantly.
A person's reputation – their good name – is certainly a major part of his or her joy of existence. Money can always be earned back fairly easily, but a reputation for honesty, integrity, and kindness, for being a loving husband, a good parent, a charitable and righteous person, while developed over years, can be wiped away instantly in a flash of evil speech. Depending upon the circumstances, it may be nearly impossible to restore it to its original level.
The Japanese have a term that describes very well what happens when a person's reputation is damaged: The person is said to have "lost face," as if they no longer exist.
3. The Person Listening
The Talmud says that the person who is damaged most of all is the one who is listening. Worse than gossiping is listening to gossip!
We all know deep down that, although almost everyone does it, speaking badly about people is plain wrong. The person you are slicing up is being harmed to no end. Yet, we wonder, why in the eyes of God is the passive listener the one who is doing the most harm?
The answer lies in the word passive. Of all three parties, the listener is the only one who has the ability to stop the evil speech in its tracks. The speaker has already made the decision to speak badly of others. The one being spoken about has no control over the situation. The listener is the only one who has the power to change the course of the conversation, which is why God puts the onus on the listener.
Reading gossip is even worse than listening to it.
My son pointed out to me that reading gossip is even worse than listening to it! Sometimes, he said, we are in a situation in which someone will blurt out something negative about a person, and we have heard it before we have had a chance to block it. However, reading gives us time to decide whether or not this is something we want to know about. If an article is a juicy exposé on a person's life – exposing private details that are surely embarrassing and damaging to that person's reputation – why do we spend even one second of our lives reading it, other than for a momentary thrill or as a sick form of entertainment at someone's expense? There can be no excuse that we couldn't help hearing something that was suddenly blurted out. Clearly we would have made a conscious choice to "listen" to things we shouldn't.
Reputations are destroyed, marriages are ruined, partnerships are broken – there is no end. Are you beginning to understand why Bob and I are so emphatic about one of the world's favorite pastimes?
Keep in mind that these biblical laws apply not only to talking about people, but also about organizations, groups of people and an individual you probably never expected – you. Yes, you are not allowed to speak badly about yourself! If you put yourself down, you are transgressing these laws. By doing so, in essence you are saying that God blew it. God doesn't blow it. He made you in His image, and God doesn't make junk. So forget the self-deprecating dialogue. You are unique. You are special. You have potential for greatness. Now use that potential for good.
Ten Pathways Of Positive Speech
Better pointed bullets than pointed speech. Otto von Bismarck
The Ten Pathways of Positive Speech
- Speak No Evil. Say only positive statements. Let words of kindness be on your tongue.
- Hear No Evil. Refuse to listen to gossip, slander and other negative forms of speech.
- Don't Rationalize Destructive Speech. Excuses like "But it's true" or "I'm only joking" or "I can tell my spouse anything" just don't cut it.
- See No Evil. Judge people favorably, the way you would want them to judge you.
- Beware of Speaking Evil Without Saying an Evil Word. Body language and even positive speech can bring tremendous destruction.
- Be Humble; Avoid Arrogance. These will be your greatest weapons against destructive speech.
- Beware of Repeating Information. Loose lips sink ships. Even positive information needs permission before being repeated.
- Honesty Really Is the Best Policy – Most of the Time. Be careful to always tell the truth, unless it will hurt others, break your own privacy or publicize your accomplishments.
- Learn to Say "I'm Sorry." Everyone makes mistakes. If you've spoken badly about someone, clear it up immediately.
- Forgive. If you have been wronged, let it go.
Excerpted from "Gossip – Ten Pathways to Eliminate It From Your Life and Transform Your Soul," by Lori Palatnik and Bob Burg Simcha Press). Available at Amazon.com.