At Work

When Is Water-Cooler Chit Chat Gossip? (And How to Avoid It.)

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An article in The Wall Street Journal explored the dilemma of gossip in the workplace. Entitled They’re Gossiping About You: Strategies to Silence the Office Rumor Mill; the Talk Can Even Work in Your Favor, the article chronicles just that. Complete with winsome pictures and flow charts, Sue Shellenbarger’s column gives the following advice to frustrated nine-to-fivers:

Not all gossip is bad. Some workplace talk can help ease stress or frustration over perceived injustices, research shows. It can pressure selfish or low-performing co-workers to shape up. Knowing and sharing gossip are ways for employees who lack power to gain informal influence among their peers.

Is buying into the office buzz really as benign as the article would have readers think?

The Pervasive Nature of Gossip

Gossip goes beyond the office and can be disguised in a church setting as “sharing information in love.” Erik Raymund at The Gospel Coalition defines gossip as:

…speaking about someone in a way that defames, dishonors or otherwise hurts their character. Sometimes it is subtle, like grumbling about someone, and other times it is loud, like ranting about someone. Further, sometimes the content of what is said is true, other times it is not. Either way, the person hearing does not need to know the information, they don’t benefit from it. And, most times it is not actionable; they are not going to go and help the person, instead they are just going to tuck away the information for selfish use.

Ultimately, Raymund says that the issue isn’t so much figuring out what gossip is and isn’t; it is recognizing gossip’s destructive impact.

The Problem with Gossip

Paul minces no words in his letter to the Ephesians—Christians must turn from gossip:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph. 4:29-32).

In opposition to the argument that gossip is merely a tool for self-advancement, Paul contends for all speech to be used to love others and glorify God. The gospel fuels this relational paradigm shift from self to others. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, our conversations become what Paul describes in Colossians as “gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6). We also become better able to discern what is helpful for building others up, and what is merely sharing insider information that could end up hurting others.

Diagnosing Gossip

And yet, we still gossip. What makes the idle chatter so alluring?

I spoke with James Forsyth, senior pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church, about this question. He offered a compelling explanation through the picture of an erupting volcano.

Imagine Vesuvius or Mount St. Helens spewing hot lava and ash from deep within the earth’s core. Sin, gossip in this case, is like that lava, utterly destructive and yet only a foretaste of what is hiding below. What hides below our sins? Is it not the idols we worship?

Tim Keller defines the power of idols in his book, Counterfeit Gods:

An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought.

Thus gossip stems from our idols’ control over our hearts. Perhaps your gossip feeds the god of power or placates the idol of human approval, both major categories Keller expounds upon in his book. Suddenly that snide remark whispered between cubicles takes on a more insidious tone.

Replacing the Idols Driving Gossip with the Love of God

What is the solution to stopping gossip? Must we simply muster the self-control to resist contributing to the conversation? Quoting Thomas Chalmers from his famous sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Keller explains that idols must not be simply destroyed but replaced:

The only way to dispossess [the heart] of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.…try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts for the love of Him who is greater than the world.

Gossip, workplace or otherwise, indicates what St. Augustine called disordered loves. Keller and Chalmers attest that only the supremacy of Christ’s compelling love can heal our hearts at the deepest level. His perfect love can transform even our talk at the water cooler.

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