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Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill?
He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.
He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbor, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor. – Psalms 15:1-3.
Backbiting and gossip often destroy reputations and dis-unify relationships.
There are times, however, when it can seem easy to justify doing gossiping and backbiting about others, particularly within the closeness of a marriage. But is it right? Is it wise? Does it help or harm your relationship? When is talking about someone else appropriate?
As you share information with others, consider some boundaries to assist you in being respectful. Avoid backbiting, gossiping, or slandering other people, all of which indicate character weaknesses. Those behaviors often demonstrate a lack of respect, acceptance, compassion, loyalty, friendliness, justice, kindness, truthfulness, and unity. These types of communications can harm you and others as well, so let’s define them:
Backbiting refers to speaking in a negative, spiteful, derogatory, or defamatory way about a person who is not present. Even when the words are true, the intent and effect are destructive, creating disunity, whether or not the person spoken of finds out what you said. The Qur’an says, “Woe to the backbiter, even if his tale is true, for the taint is in his motive.” – Surah 104.
Gossip involves spreading personal or sensational information that may or may not have some basis in truth, but which is often inaccurate or incomplete. The intent and outcome are often harmful. When you know something interesting about another person, it is very tempting to share it with others in order to draw attention to yourself and feel important.
Slander, also known as calumny, occurs when you spread clearly false information. This illegal action, in particular, can damage trust very severely, and can cause irreparable harm to relationships.
When you tell someone about your experiences, do your best to avoid backbiting, gossip, or slander about others. Avoid unreasonably prejudicing others against people in your life.
Part of what keeps my husband and I careful in our marriage is realizing how often I can encounter people my husband works with. We try to avoid backbiting and gossip, which can happen when you discuss private details about someone or something with friends, family members, neighbors, or coworkers. Whatever private information you know should be considered confidential. You may also be tempted to communicate a complaint about others to someone else to earn sympathy. Talking negatively about other’s behavior or character even in a casual way is backbiting. If the people you speak to then spread what you said to others, it becomes gossip, and you become the source of that gossip. As gossip moves from one person to the next, the information often becomes distorted and embellished, which may cause harm or embarrassment to you and others. Backbiting negatively affects both the speaker and the listener, as well as the person who is talked about. The Baha’i teachings say:
…the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century. …regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep… aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 264-265.
At times, a spouse or friend may share something negative about others with you. Unless this involves important facts you might not otherwise learn, especially if related to your safety or well-being, consider it backbiting, and avoid it. The people of Ghana share this wisdom: “Those who speak to you about others will speak to others about you.”
You may have to be very firm with others to stop them from backbiting. My husband and I find we often grapple with how to address people backbiting about him in the office, something that makes us both upset. We regularly pray for his protection from harm and the strengthening of his ability to foster unity with those he works with. It can also be helpful to begin sharing something positive about the person under discussion instead.
Avoiding backbiting can be difficult, since you may be used to talking through issues and expressing frustrations with close friends, family members, and coworkers. Before you speak, ask yourself whether you will diminish or make “smaller” the person you are speaking about. If present, would the person spoken about dislike and become unhappy about what you are saying? If so, then consider staying quiet. It is better to communicate about issues directly with someone than to speak about others behind their backs. The goal in any communication is constructive action, not idle or destructive talk.
So, this now brings us back to how this topic applies within a marriage. You may struggle with an issue or relationship that does not involve your spouse. You may need to talk the matter through with your spouse, or even with a close friend, and consult about solutions, with the goal of building understanding and devising constructive actions to take. Can you do this without backbiting about someone? Can you speak in generalities and not specifics? Are you trying to build intimacy with your partner, and think sharing this information will help? Remember that backbiting will destroy intimacy, not strengthen it. Instead, couples can talk about and agree on how they will communicate respectfully about others when they talk privately together.
Spouses often naturally share information about mutual friends and family members. This could include such topics as marriages, divorces, pregnancies, and births. The intent in this case is not harmful—but it is still wise to determine whether the person talked about would want the information shared, and whether any harm could come from passing it on.
We have the gift of speech, which we should use with wisdom and appropriate restraint. Wisdom often means pausing before speaking, and silently deciding whether your words will cause benefit or harm. In the midst of that silent pause, ask yourself the question, “Will this create or destroy love and unity?”
Respect for others means that your speech focuses on appreciation, praise, and tactful but truthful direct communications.