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Can I Say That?

Can I Say That?

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They don’t call gossip “dirt” for nothing.

“Did you hear that Tony’s getting a divorce?” my coworker Stacie said in a hushed tone by the coffeemaker, interrupting an important deliberation between the chocolate hazelnut and the French roast. I had not heard this news about our boss, but having the intelligence foisted on me put me in a kosher pickle. On the one hand, I didn’t want to be an accomplice to dishing about Tony’s troubles. But on the other hand (since when you are Jewish there is always another hand), if I appeared to refuse to play this round of office gossip, an ancient and time-honored if less-than-honorable tradition, I might be branded as antisocial. Besides, I needed Stacie’s help on an upcoming project. I couldn’t afford to tick her off.

“That’s very sad,” I said, while still managing to enjoy the tantalizing aroma of my coffee and strategizing a quick getaway. “Uh oh, look at the time!” I glanced at my watch. “I’ve got a conference call in five minutes. See ya!” I spilled only a few drops of coffee while I skedaddled, but at least I hadn’t spilled any lashon hara, Hebrew for gossip.

Okay, the claim about the conference call was a little white lie, but I’m willing to bet my bubbe’s secret recipe for Hungarian stuffed cabbage that it was justified. After all, I was only trying to avert the far more serious offense of spreading the latest scuttlebutt about other people. Jewish tradition approves of gossip like it approves of shellfish or pork. In fact, we’re supposed to make sure that what comes out of our mouths is as kosher as what goes into our mouths. Yet, my guess is that the Major Gossiping Industrial Complex generates at least 75% of the American gross domestic product, through tell-all magazines and books, reality TV shows and social networking. This makes it almost impossible for us to avoid hearing, reading, or even participating in a bit of wicked wiggle-waggle in our daily lives.

Since everybody knows (don’t they?) that gossip is a highly contagious method of spreading hurt feelings, anger, jealousy, damaged reputations and fizzled relationships, why don’t we have warning labels on anyone or anything transmitting and transporting the stuff? After all, if we are mandated by law to have warning labels on things like coffee cups (“Contents hot!”) or batteries (“If you think acid reflux is a problem, wait till you swallow these!”), why aren’t there warning labels slapped on People magazine? The warning label could say simply, “You shmooze, you lose. You choose.”

It’s hard to be hopeful that these warning labels will appear anytime soon, so I’ve tried to develop an arsenal of methods to resist the lure of juicy gossip. However, all methods of gossip-avoidance are not created equal. For example, I once tried taking a vow of silence, but this is hard for most Jews, and I didn’t last for more than 10 minutes. Another time, when someone wanted me to agree that a coworker’s new hairstyle was plug-ugly, I said, “Sorry, I’m gossip-intolerant.” However, I was branded as a religious extremist for the next month, and was left out of the end-of-the-year holiday gift exchange.

Since then, I have refined my strategies. Sudden-Onset-Conference-Call Syndrome, which I used to brilliant effect with Stacie, is not only more subtle, but it has boosted my reputation, since I seem to be much in demand professionally. Switching the subject to avoid getting chewed up in the rumor mill is another excellent gambit, but requires more finesse and advance planning. I do not recommend using this tactic while under the influence of medications that don’t allow you to operate heavy machinery. I learned this the hard way, failing when I first tried it. A cousin at a family function started badmouthing our Uncle Harry as a skinflint. Eager to derail the gossip train, I said impulsively, “Hey, how about those Knicks this season?” The cousin stared at me and said, “You don’t even follow the Knicks,” which was undeniably true.

Now I’ve amassed a wide inventory of useful conversation switchers. These include asking if the informant has seen the new exhibit of Aboriginal art at the museum, heard about the exciting discovery of a new galaxy four hundred billion light years from Earth, or read the news about the latest medical thinking about whether dark chocolate really is good or you or not—as if that would change anything no matter what they decided.

But my favorite conversation switcheroo is offering a compliment to the rumormonger. “Say, I heard your kid was fourth grader of the month at her school!” can work, provided this is true. Don’t go overboard, since untrue flattery is also a form of lashon hara; but, just as a stopped clock is still right twice a day, there must be something nice you can find to say to a gossip. The beauty of this is that it’s a way of saying, “But enough about them, let’s talk about you!” I tell you, they’ll fall for it every time.

Even simple conversations may not be so simple when you’re a Jew, but hey, that’s the price for our special designation as the Chosen People. And besides, when our gossip-defense shields are alerted, we really can make the world a more peaceful place, one careful comment at a time.

Judy Gruen’s latest award-winning book is Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping. Read more of her work on her website.
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Sylvia Commerford Canada February 22, 2013

re gossip I always believed that when something is true, it isnt gossip to pass it along, as long as it does not harm anyone, Let us suppose someone's mother or sister died, then is this still gossip, or is this something passed along the grape vine.
I do believe malicious gossip is harmfull, but not when something is passed along which happens to be true, or in doubt to find out whether it is true or not. shalom Reply

Sarah Rivka :) Cincinnati, OH February 22, 2013

Re: Malca from Florida What a great line! It's humorous and then whoever was speaking badly realizes they did something not nice without a rebuke. And then you replace not nice words with Torah. Awesome! :) Reply

Malka Ft. Myers, Fl. February 18, 2013

my line is.......... At my Shabbos table, I just say, "oh, speaking of the parsha, I printed out such a great article/story from Chabad.org that I'd like to share with you all!" My "regulars" laugh, since they know that no one was really speaking of the parsha, but they know my shtick............And new guests? They just don't know what hit 'em! Try it sometime....couldn't hurt! Reply

Anonymess February 16, 2013

This commandment is about backbiting and speaking about others when not in their presence. It is intended to keep people pleasant and considerate and respectful even if we really feel that we must blurt out another's secret or talk about them behind their backs. the same commandment is also found in Christianity and Islam. Reply

June Mercersburg, PA February 14, 2013

Question Negative Commandment 301 says that you can't tell someone stuff about another person, even if it's good and true stuff you're saying. I presume that means not only are you not supposed to say, "Did you hear that so and so is getting a divorce?" but that you're also not supposed to say, "Did you hear that so and so is getting married/having a baby/receiving the Nobel Prize etc.?"
What gives? Is it really bad to pass on good things about someone else? Reply

Sylvia Commerford Canada February 14, 2013

gossip So I guess you didn tfind out if it were true or not, as you didnt ask stacy who had told her this? So you must have automatically thought it was true, gossip can also be untrue. Or did you think Stacy was the root of the gossip, hardly fair to her, if she had heard it from another source, could you have stopped it from going any further. by finding out if it was true or not? Reply

Anonymous St :Paul MN February 14, 2013

why don’t we have warning labels on anyone transmitting the stuff? A corollary question:
Why don’t we have a good news system for transmitting good stuff? Reply

Vicky Bautista Pahrump February 13, 2013

good switcheroos!! I love the one, enough about them, how about you. It is true that is very difficult when it comes gossip, before one can tell; words entangle even the most willful person. We need to really practice kosher talk.

Shalom Reply

anonymous ottawa February 13, 2013

I lie isn't bad when it's used to this effect. I've learned to refine my approach as well. We should be rewarded for good behavior, not punished!

Pass the Hungarian stuffed cabbage please. :) Reply

Anonymous USA February 12, 2013

Can I say That? Very funny. I really liked it. The gossip I mean. It is everywhere! Even when we do not want to participate. Believe it or not this article seems like a gossip too. Silence is more eloquent that words, as the saying goes. But then, we would all need to go to therapy to express our feelings about everything we encounter in everyday life. Lashon Hara, is when someone accuse falsely. No? Reply

Zayan Sechel Jerusalem February 12, 2013

Electronic bugs and surveillance Shalom.

You may have noticed that the recent technological advancement allowed sale of the various surveillance technological devices even to those that do not work for the government.

So why lie each other? Are we going to keep "quiet" and pretend that we are not just surrounded by the enemies that constantly hate us, but are now also spied upon as well!?

Who can tolerate this intrusion of privacy and for how long?

Shema Yisroel ...
Reply

Alan S. Long Island February 11, 2013

It all started with Tony... Cute article.
Tony, the boss, should not be speaking about his (or is it a her?) personal life with anyone in the office. I assume -- maybe I shouldn't in this day and age -- that Tony really did not want to be the subject of office gossip. The only way to insure this is if Tony did not tell a co-worker personal details. Reply

Anonymous Harlem February 10, 2013

Method Your intention is good, but your method is not. Over the time, people realize that you are fake, and even more, you start to invent things even you do not need to invent anything, simply becuse it became your second nature to act like that. Reply

Sarah Rivka :) Cincinnati, OH February 10, 2013

I love this! Awesome! :) Reply