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No Harm in a Little Gossip, Right?

When something DARLENE COHEN said about a friend comes back to bite her, she reluctantly begins rethinking the value of right speech.

An avid gossiper since age twelve, I’d always thought of gossip as innocuous chatter about a third person. For me, gossip was less about describing an absent person’s faults than it was about indulging my ability to come up with some adroit summary of them. My focus was always on my own cleverness, on kicking up shit to aggrandize myself.

My teachers had been advocating right speech for years, but I just couldn’t get into it. You know, you might try to be a better person, but until you actually understand how you’re hurting people, it’s very hard to practice the precepts. I still remember the incident that finally made me consider right speech in a new light.

I said something hilariously funny about a friend to another friend who knew us both, and he repeated it to her. What I said is something I believed, and I’d actually mentioned it to her before, but I’d been more brutally direct with my gossip buddy, instead of instructive and careful as I’d been with her. So the language was totally different.

I was very embarrassed and chastened when she called me, deeply wounded by my words. I remember thinking, oh, I wish I hadn’t done this. I was just twisting and squirming like an insect run through with a pin. I wished that I could protest that our mutual friend had distorted my words, but there was no possibility of an escape route there. He’d repeated exactly what I had said to him.

I apologized profusely and at length. I had done her a grievous wrong, and I was grateful that she cared enough about our relationship to call and give me the chance to acknowledge my unkindness and atone for it. Many relationships, after all, would just be over at this point, but she was the wise one here. The tremendous shame that I felt about my remarks to my gossip buddy centered on the fact that I’d been willing to sacrifice my friend’s standing with him for something as trivial as an opportunity to turn a phrase. I also became aware, for the first time, that I had always felt shame when I spoke badly of someone, a little ka-chung in my heart, but because the shame seemed tiny compared with the reward of being thought clever, I’d always kept on talking.


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