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Can I Say That?

May 23, 2010 | by Judy Gruen

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 anti-social. Besides, I needed Stacie’s help on an upcoming project. I couldn’t afford to tick her off.

They should put a warning label on gossip that reads, “You shmooze, you lose.”

“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 only spilled 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 shellfish or pork. In fact, we're supposed to make sure that what comes out of our mouths is as kosher as what goes in to our mouths. Yet my guess is that the Major Industrial Gossiping 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 the law can mandate warning labels on coffee cups ("Contents hot!") or batteries ("If you think acid reflux is a problem, wait till you swallow these!") why not on copies of 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 developed 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 only lasted for seven minutes. Another time, when someone wanted me to agree that a co-worker'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 my co-worker 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. (Do not try this while under the influence of medications that warn against operating heavy machinery at the same time.) I learned this the hard way, when 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 loads of conversation switchers at the ready. These include asking if the informant if she 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 for my eating habits no matter what they decided.

But my favorite conversation switcheroo is complimenting the rumormonger. "Say, I heard your kid was 4th-grader of the Month at her school!" is a good one, provided it's true (fact-checking may be required on this stratagem). Don't go overboard, since insincere 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 no one can resist having a flattering light shone on them. It's a way of saying, "But enough about them, let's talk about YOU!" I guarantee it: they'll fall for it every time.

Even simple conversations are not always so simple when you're Jewish, but hey, we’re The Chosen People – we can handle it. Besides, when our gossip-defense shields are alerted, we really can make the world a more peaceful place, one carefully phrased comment at a time.


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