You are here

Would You Say That if They Were Here Right Now?

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 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.


Join more than 80,000 readers worldwide who receive Dr. Ben Kim's free newsletter

Receive simple suggestions to measurably improve your health and mobility, plus alerts on specials and giveaways at our catalogue

Please Rate This

Your rating: None Average: 4.7 (119 votes)
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.


I have been the subject of cruel gossip recently and really resent it. I will not, and cannot forgive the relative who has made the disparaging remarks.

By the same token, I would not hesitate to alert this same relative of impending danger, such as the possibility that her dog might be shot from an overhead airplane. The truth can hurt, but it usually has a good basis which cannot and should not be refuted. Thank you for giving thought to the "danger that lies ahead" (and that's not gossip, it's fear).

I found this to be an interesting article. I don't like gossip, and I don't like to gossip. Having said that, there are times where I find myself wanting to say something and not always having the opportunity for a face-to-face interaction. This can be a good thing, especially if I'm very angry. If I can work out the anger, then approach the person, the person has more opportunity to hear what I have to say rather than see a thundercloud coming her way.

I suppose others view me as a "safe haven" where they can say things, because I don't repeat what they say to others. I have a few close friends who are like that, too, and i know i've used them as a dumping ground. Sometimes they agree with me, and other times they point out something i don't know--such as when you pointed out to the librarian that if you're an associate, you can't let patients know you're moving on. They've also let me know when i'm in the wrong, which i appreciate.

when i hear gossip along the lines of that ladies gossip. I try to point out the good parts of the happenings ,whatever they may be. If the gossip is about 2 people not getting along,, I try to point out the many underlying reasons that could be present.
This approach seems best to stop gossip im it's tracks.
Other peoples little idiosyncracies should not stop us from being friendly and helpful.. Alex

Thanks again for reminding me of the basic rules of healthy living both in mind and in body!

I don't get it. I thought the library worker said nice things about Drs. Lee and Smith. I don't think that mentioning the latter's divorce and still working in the same building as her ex is gossip. It seems like an opinion about public knowledge--and it seems to me, that the library worker talking to you, another doctor, about her favorite medical people takes it out of the gossip arena.

I Do Get It & I Don't Get It

I do get your intent to spread the word on not practising mean spirited behavior or 'malicious gossip' resulting in healthier emotional well-being.

I Don't Get It that relaying the loss of your physician & the fact that your chiropractor & his or her spouse have divorced & how much you appreciate their expertise is concluded by you to be gossip. Why do some people get so hung-up on gossip? I suppose that we have all been, at some point, the subject of gossip & very likely it has not been accurate or misinterpreted at least. Life's journey has bumps in the road as we all know ..... we can take these experiences with gossip as learning tools, ie; the difference between mean spirited & not. Relaying information (as we know it) about others in conversation & not in a malicious way is just conversation ..... communication.

Thanking You for the opportunity.

I think it's fine for someone to relay the loss of a person's healthcare provider and how much they appreciated their doctor's/chiropractor's/whatever's expertise. I don't think that qualifies as gossip.

However, this communication starts to look like gossip when they start talking about the doctor's personal life (e.g. that he or she got divorced). There is no relevance to the patient what their healthcare provider's personal life is like.

It especially starts to look like gossip when they start labeling the doctor's personal life (e.g. saying that it's *weird* for two previously-married-to-one-another doctors to continue working together after divorcing).

It also starts to look like gossip when they speak disparagingly about another person's character. For instance, the library worker just LOVED the associate doctor (implying that was a wonderful person) but stated that the head doctor was *different* from the associate (implying that he was NOT a wonderful person).

What the library worker did went beyond simply expressing her disappointment and communicating that the community had lost a good doctor.

I think the key distinction between gossip and everything else is this: Would we say it if the people being spoken about were right here, right now? In the case of the friendly library worker, it was clear to me that she wouldn't have said what she did about the <em>different</em> doctor and her chiropractor's marital status if those folks were standing right beside us.

I don't believe that she meant to harm them, and I think that this is the case for most of us when we gossip about others. I created this post mainly as a way to remind myself that even though I may not have horrible intentions when I gossip, it just isn't the right thing to do, given that I know I wouldn't do it if the person being spoken about were in the room.

Sorry if this point wasn't clear - writing isn't an easy task for me, and sometimes, I don't describe things as accurately as I'd like. Thanks to everyone for their comments on this one. :)

Actually Dr. Kim you are a great writer, you make it look easy. I have been following your writings for awhile now, and I want to commend you on a job well done.

When a person goes to another and talks about a third party in a negative way, the person talking is damaging the listener and theirself far more than the person being talked about, yet all three people are affected.

I read this statement awhile back, and I probably need to post it on the wall, for I fall victim to this self destructing behavior quite often. Afterwards it does leave you wondering "Why did I say that?".

What do we do after we do something we are not proud of? Forgive and forget, rememb er take life one step at a time. Take care.

Gossip is like a leak in a car. After a while the car does not work because the integrity has leaked out. I pray all the time for the strength to hold back on things that I said and regretted a lot/ We all have the ability to fight the instinct. People with nothing better to do should get a hobby. MY

I think we could all learn a lesson here. Personally, I am not a person of great skills or talents, but about 25 years go, I made a vow to keep people's secrets and not repeat gossip, no matter what, in lieu of not having a great deal else to offer the world. I have kept that vow. Sometimes that feeling rises up in me to tell someone, and God sends his angel to tap me on the shoulder & remind me of my vow to myself.

Sometimes, tho, it is helpful to know & pass along things that we would definitely not repeat if the person were standing there. It could save embarrassment for all parties in the future. This situation, though, is highly debatable and maybe every event should be judged on its own merits.

If my sister tells me something juicy about a close relative, should I have just told her to shut up, that I don't want to hear it? I think that if I were to make a meretricious show of "Oh, look at me! I REFUSE to listen to YOUR gossip! I am so much more moral than you!" - then that also is to my view pretty self-righteous. Maybe it is just best to say, on hearing gossip, oh, isn't that interesting, listen politely, and forget about it forever. But do not make the gossiper feel bad with your own self-assumed "morality". What do you think, friends?

Thank you! I needed that!

Brenda Padilla
Málaga, Spain

All of my life I've been a very trustworthy person when it came to keeping personal information my friends didn't want made public; however, being a very soft-spoken, a good listener, and genuinely caring person in everyday life, people I don't know as well tend to open up to me and reveal a little more about themselves than I feel comfortable hearing.

I had this one co-worker who never really got along with many of her other workers, but she really took a liking to me. She was 40 and I was about 23 at the time. I noticed that she was very bossy and rude with the other people I worked with, and I often wondered why she had such a bad disposition around everyone else, especially the men.

One night both took a smoke break (back when I smoked), and we began talking. She was particularly upset that night, and I asked her if there was anything I could do. I don't like to pry into people's personal lives because people who usually do are fishing for juicy information on someone they don't really know.

Then she started crying and pouring her heart out, and there were so many things that I could relate to and the things I couldn't, I tried my best to understand. We talked for about 10 minutes and went back to finish closing the shop.

She asked me after work if I wanted to ride with her just to talk, and even though I was extremely tired I didn't want her to feel like no one cared to listen.

Well we ended up having a really deep discussion, and she revealed some horrible things about her life that shocked me. She even showed me the bullet wounds from where her ex-husband shot her several times.

After tears and a few hugs, she said that she had never told anyone except family about this. I told her that what we talked about is no one else's business. I kept that promise, until one night a couple of my friends were angry with her and started the usual gossip. Usually I would just giggle or nod because I never really knew her that well, but this time was different.

I had revealed a little bit of why she seemed like such an angry person all the time, which of course broke the good mood, but made them understand her a little better.

Even though I never went into detail about it, I felt sick to my stomach knowing that I had told these people something that was told to me in strict confidence. I don't know if what I did was good because it helped ease some of the tension around the store, or if what I did was unethical because I broke a promise to someone who opened up to me.

I'm not sure if she ever found out that I had told anyone. I quit that job about 4 months after this, and that was about three years ago. It still makes me feel bad to this day.

THANK YOU. I'd give you 5 million twinkly stars if I could for this article. I totally get the conflicting feelings - excitement (I suppose it's a social bonding kind of thing?) but also lots of guilt afterwards. And every single time I find out that someone close to me has gossiped about me, whether intentionally or unintentionally (for example when they thought that the information was completely shareable), I feel immense surprise, shock, and hurt. It hurts to know that your good friends would do this to you, it really does. And that's how I keep my own propensity to gossip in check - by reminding myself of how terrible it feels.

But when I try to explain how bad gossiping is to others, they either don't get it or think that I'm chiding them. Which, alright, I might be, to a certain extent. I think I'd just show them this article in future. It makes up for all the fluency I lack. Thank you!