I am a social person employed in a job where I need to be social. It’s a wonderful gift from God. However, the temptation for me—as I spend my days connecting lots of different people—is to engage in gossip. Sometimes I’m genuinely unsure if I’m sharing necessary information or if I’m being untrustworthy with confidences given to me. (This is especially difficult when someone tells me something that seems private but doesn’t explicitly ask me to keep quiet about it.) How can I be warm and open and at the same time a trustworthy listener? And how can I know when I’ve crossed the line from legitimate information-sharing to gossip?
The first thing I’d say is that it’s healthy that you recognize your propensity and temptation toward gossip. You are certainly not alone in this temptation, especially if you’re a social person around social people. Praise God for shining the light of conviction on what can be dangerous and hurtful behavior.
Gossip is deconstruction. By nature it tears down the party being talked about. Sometimes it’s blatant, such as a group of office workers snickering about the irritating colleague or out-of-touch boss. Other times—and this is more sinister—gossip is surreptitious, such as a person bringing up a concern about someone else so they can bring their fault to light.
Gossip at work is especially tempting, since our minds equate putting others down with pulling ourselves up—and pulling ourselves up seems like it could lead to status and goodwill and maybe even a promotion or raise.
So what do we do about it? In the first part of Ephesians 4, Paul says this:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Two imperatives from these verses apply to office gossip:
1. Speak the truth. Only say what is true. This may seem obvious, but in our flesh we’re prone to alter the truth for self-glorification or people-pleasing—in other words, building our little kingdoms.
Sometimes, we are tempted to share too much truth—conversations had, failures witnessed, or motives suspected. Just because something is true does not mean we need to speak about it, at least broadly. Sometimes we may be able to cover over a colleague’s failure in love, never speaking of it again. Other times we may need to bring it to the attention of a boss; but even in those cases, there are still other people who don’t need to know.
We also run into problems when we share too little truth. If we can fill in a larger context that may give better understanding to a situation, or help people better sympathize with one another—and we can do so with permission—we should consider it. An office where no stories were told and no news shared would be lonely and isolating; in many ways, openly sharing information with each other fosters community.
2. Speak in love. Again, just because something is true doesn’t mean you should say it. There is certainly a time for a sharp rebuke or for calling a spade a spade, but the underlying motive must be love.
Before you pass on information about someone, consider honestly both your own motivation and the potential result of your sharing. Will this lead to greater understanding and empathy between people, or will it separate them unnecessarily? If it’s a funny story, will it bring shared laugher or just embarrassment? If you’re concerned about someone, will sharing their situation enable someone to help them, or will it simply spread the knowledge of their struggles?
Finally, if someone tells you something that should be private, even if they didn’t specifically mention confidentiality, protect their dignity by keeping it private. When in doubt, the Golden Rule can be your guide: would you want someone to share it if it were your story?
I sense from the way you phrased your question that you love the people you work with and that you care about them enough to consider how you use your gift of conversation and sociability.
We know that because we have sin remaining in our hearts, we will be tempted to tear others down so we can stand taller. This is especially true at work when we think appearing taller could result in more respect or more money. Thus we must be vigilant with ourselves to guard our words. Not only that, we must be vigilant to guard our motives in what we say and approve.
Just because something is true does not mean you should say it.
Thankfully, we have the gift of the Spirit in us. We can recognize him because he illuminates the glory of Christ, building up his body in unity and holiness. We can rely on him because the Spirit never tears down, mocks, or condescends.
Finally, remember that whatever you learn about others, you can bring every piece of it to God. Praying for those you work with is a wonderful way to use the information they give you.