We all do it: not just talk about other people, but talk about them in a derogatory way. Why? According to recent research, it may be because gossip “not only helps clarify and enforce the rules that keep people working well together, but it circulates crucial information about the behavior of others that cannot be published in an office manual.” Gossip also makes us feel connected to the people with whom we share it. Hearing (and speaking) about the failures of others also makes us feel better about ourselves. But gossiping about someone (that is, reporting an accurate version of their failings)—say, that a professor is having an affair with a student—is different from dismissing or even condemning that person’s humanity, which amounts, in my view, to slander.
Accurately reporting to others the unethical or immoral behavior of others may indeed be important. But if we aren’t careful to contain our judgment—to maintain a compassionate stance toward the person about whom we speak—we risk being slandered ourselves. Here are at least four reasons to tread carefully when criticizing someone to members of our group:
- It’s the nature of slander to be repeated. Never presume because you’ve sworn someone to secrecy that such a promise will be kept. It most likely won’t.
- Your criticism of someone may be valid, but mouthing it to someone other than the person whom you’re criticizing is never to help that person improve, and therefore has great power to harm. Wield that power responsibly. Harm dealt to another person’s reputation is a grievous harm indeed.
- Studies show that the criticism you level at others often becomes what others associate with you. If you criticize someone for being lazy, for example, the person to whom you say it will associate laziness with you.
- Slandering others—giving voice to your negative views about other people (as opposed to their actions)—prevents you from seeing them in a positive light. And that prevents you from feeling gratitude for them as well as from seeing them as full-fledged human beings with their own hopes, dreams, disappointments, and hurts. And as I wrote in an earlier post, this spirit of abstraction is not just the cause of conflict but of war.
Ultimately, when we denigrate others we denigrate ourselves. We may find it perversely attractive, not just to gossip but to slander. But to give in to the impulse to dismiss the humanity of others because of their crimes, large or small, is to argue that people can’t change or improve—in short, to argue that they can’t become their better selves. But if they can’t, then neither can we.
Next Week: Delivering Bad News, Redux