The Secret Joy of Backbiting

I've been wondering lately about why we human beings --yes, even we Christians -- like to gossip so much. I'm referring here to that whole family of actions that go by such names as gossip, slander, backbite, whisper, talk behind someone's back, criticize and so on. I realize each term is slightly different from the other, but I'm concerned here with their over-arching commonality.

Please try to feel this with me for a moment. You're sitting across the table from one other person, perhaps a casual friend whom you're hoping will become a close friend. You're both laughing, actively listening, affirming each other in the dozens of subtle, non- verbal ways that friends do, consciously or not. In the midst of your enjoyable conversation (you can almost feel the strengthening bond that's growing between you), Jason Collins's name comes up. Your friend exclaims, "Oh, Jason Collins! He's kind of odd, isn't he? He's quite a talker. And you know he struggles a little with needing to be the center of attention. Now, I think the world of Jason. I really do like him. It's just that he seems so insecure at times. In fact, did you know . . ."

At that very moment, if you're at all human, a certain warm, delicious rush just shoots through your body. You lean closer. There's something inexplicably enjoyable about your new friend's having suddenly taken you into his confidence. You feel special somehow. A new, more intimate bond is developing between you two. It's not that you hate Jason -- it's just that you want to keep moving forward with your new friend. "Yeah, I know what you mean," you reply. "Have you ever noticed the way he feigns attention -- especially if he wants something from you? I was with him last week, and he said . . ." And away you go.


Why is it that we enjoy (come on, admit it) talking about others behind their backs -- and why do we enjoy listening to others who do it with us? Have you ever caught yourself telling Person A something slightly negative about Person B, and then very soon, when with Person B, found yourself talking ever-so-slightly negatively about Person A? In doing so, we make our bond with whomever we're with dependent on an absent person's negative traits.

I think we enjoy backbiting so much because it makes us feel superior. "You and I, friend, we're doing pretty well," we declare, "but Jason -- now he's got some problems in that department!" If you and I feel a bit insecure with our friendship to start with, a false intimacy can quickly arise when we both identify a common inferior. For a brief moment we feel better about ourselves as you and I look down together on someone else. In a rather perverse sense, it's one way we go about being affirmed by each other.

I had a friend (Mark) in college who had made a personal vow that he would never, ever say anything negative about someone else in their absence, unless he had first asked their permission. Mark and I frequently got together for coffee, and often the opportunity to talk about someone would arise. More than once, he had to say kindly, "Kevin, if you don't mind, I think it would be better if we didn't talk about ------ this way,'' and then he would gently change the subject. When Mark did bring up others in our conversation, he always mentioned them with respect.


I can't tell you how very, very secure this made me feel around Mark. How much respect I had for him! Often I'd see him chatting with a friend, huddling close together and laughing. And I knew, with one hundred percent certainty, that they were not talking negatively about me. Have you ever wondered to yourself, Gosh, if this person finds it so easy to drop little negative comments to me about others, I wonder what she's saying to others about me when I'm not around? I have. It takes a little bit of the zing out of enjoying a session of backbiting, knowing that this present momentary thrill of intimacy will most likely be eclipsed by a betrayal in the near future.

I think our great fear about not joining in when gossip starts is that our friend will like us less, will pull back, and will now refrain from sharing other intimate things with us. Here we have the opportunity to go deeper -- and in our refusing to join in on the gossip, we think we'll fail the secret test and our friendship will wane.

But that's wrong thinking. In the very short term, yes, that particular conversation may indeed not go deeper. But in the long run, if over time we have developed a reputation as people who keep confidences and never backbite, we will find our friendships increasing and deepening.

Think of all the friends you have right now. Who are the ones you feel quite certain do not gossip about you? Who are the ones who wouldn't surprise you if they did talk about you behind your back? Whom do you respect more?

Wouldn't it be great if Christians had the reputation (at work, at school, with neighbors) of not speaking negatively behind others' backs? I am renewing my pledge to be more like Mark. I want to have the courage to pass up going "deeper" with someone if all it really means is compromising my integrity. Such a pledge may mean gently changing the topic when I sense backbiting is coming on, or even confronting someone about his or her loose tongue. But most of all I want to develop the kind of character that takes a secret delight in saying positive things about another person -- someone who can trust me to guard my tongue.

--Kevin Offner

(from Student Leadership Journal, vol. 9:3)