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Would You Say That if They Were Here Right Now?
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Apr 27, 2009
Originally published on September 21, 2009
On an evening trip to the public library a few days ago, I was greeted by a friendly worker as I checked our family's books in. Though we had said hello many times before, on this particular evening, I could tell from the way that she was looking at me that she had something to say.
"You're friends with Dr. Lee, right?"
"Yes, I know Dr. Lee from when we were kids," I replied.
Dr. Lee is a physician who is about my age, and who I knew from my days playing little league baseball - he had recently left our city to move out west.
"Did you know that he moved out west?" she asked with bated breath. "My family was so devastated when we found out from the secretary - it's just so hard to find a doctor who's good with children, and my daughter just loved Dr. Lee. I mean, Dr. Jones is still here, but...well, you know, he's different - he's a bit loud, and my daughter just isn't as comfortable around him as she was around Dr. Lee. We are so disappointed that Dr. Lee is gone."
I felt her genuine angst and wholeheartedly agreed that it's tough to lose a doctor that you really trust and like.
"But just so you don't feel bad toward Dr. Lee, because he was an associate and not the owner of the practice, he likely wasn't allowed to tell his patients that he was leaving," I said to provide some comfort. "I know this because I'm a chiropractor, and back when I started out as an associate, I had to sign a no-competition agreement that said that when I left the practice, I wasn't allowed to practice within a certain radius of that location, and I certainly wasn't allowed to tell patients that I was leaving - it would have been unfair to the owner, even though it was tough not to say good bye to my patients."
"Really? You're a chiropractor? I have a chiropractor and I just don't know what I would do without her. Her name is Dr. Smith, and she practices with her husband, who's also a chiropractor, and by the way, (in a lowered voice) they recently got divorced, but they continued to practice in the same building, which is kind of...you know, weird. But she just moved out to her own office now. Anyway, I just don't know what I would do without her."
This encounter reminded me of a principle that I learned many years ago from Dr. Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
Don't say anything about someone else that you wouldn't say if that someone else were in the room.
After my brief conversation with the library worker, the feeling that I walked away with was that I wouldn't dare share anything personal with her. Maybe she was just feeling a little saucy that evening, but what she taught me is that she has no problems cracking other people behind their backs, even in the presence of a stranger.
I know full well how good it feels to share a juicy secret, to be the one to open another person's eyes to something that isn't widely known. Actually, some sociologists believe that the need to gossip may actually be wired within us, as gossiping serves the purpose of helping us feel emotionally connected to others.
The big problem with saying things about people that we wouldn't say if they were in the room is that we show ourselves to be untrustworthy. Not only to others, but to ourselves as well.
When I say things about people that I wouldn't say if they were present, shortly afterward, or even as the words are leaving my mouth, I feel a twinge of shame. I know that in that moment, I am showing that I am not to be trusted - that when you're not here, I may just tell others about some part of your life that you felt safe enough to share with or show me.
Leading up to the moment before I let gossip fly out of my mouth, there's a sense of excitement, a sense of thrill - wait 'til you hear this! But after that rush is gone and I realize that I've been petty, I feel that my character has been weakened.
On the flip side, I also know what it feels like to have that urge to gossip build up in my chest, to remember why it's not smart to give in to that urge, and to not engage in gossip until the urge subsides on its own. Whenever I do this, I feel like I just strengthened my character, that I showed myself to be a trustworthy person.
I feel fortunate to have family members and close friends who inspire me to work at removing ill-intentioned gossip from my life. One such person is my younger sister, Sarah, who often amazes me with her self control. I'm very close with Sarah, so with almost no mental guard in place, there have been times when I've flippantly disparaged someone we both know, knowing that the target has recently been rude to Sarah, and that I'm likely to enjoy a feeling of comradeship as she joins me in ripping the object of my contempt.
Without exception, Sarah has deflated me by not joining the party. And most annoyingly, she's been very good at responding in a way where I feel like she's genuinely wondering why the person behaved in a way that makes one pause and look and maybe want to gossip about him or her. By seeking to figure out the cause of behavior that looks odd on the surface, Sarah shows me that if someone were to come to her and talk poorly about something I did, she would refrain from cracking on me, even if she and I were going through a rough patch.
Getting back to the friendly library worker, it's still true that I don't feel comfortable sharing personal matters with her. But because there are times when I behave just like she did that evening, I'd like to think that she was having a bad day, and that I'm no better than her as human being. I didn't know enough about the people she gossiped about to join her party, and even if I did know those people, I would like to think that I wouldn't have entered gossip mode.
The bottom line is that I am renewed in my resolve to not say anything about someone that I wouldn't say if he or she were right here beside me. This feels like a worthy cause.
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