Many of us have a well-practiced habit of talking about the faults of others. In fact, sometimes doing this is so habitual that we don't realize we've done it until afterward. Yet, when we examine its effect in our lives, we quickly realize that this habit isn't conducive to either our own or others' happiness.
The Motivation for Gossip and Criticism
What lies behind this tendency to criticize others? One of my teachers said, "You get together with a friend and talk about the faults of this person and the misdeeds of that one. Then you go on to discuss others' mistakes and negative qualities. In the end, the two of you feel good because you've agreed you're the two best people in the world."
If we look inside, we may have to acknowledge he's right. Fueled by insecurity, many of us mistakenly think that if others are wrong, bad, or fault-ridden, then in comparison we must be right, good, and capable. Does the strategy of putting others down to build up our own self-esteem work? Not at all.
Anger or Jealousy Can Lead to Gossip
Another situation in which we speak about others' faults is when we're angry with them. Here we may talk about their faults for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's to win other people over to our side. "If I tell other people about the argument Bob and I had and convince them that he is wrong and I'm right before Bob can tell them about the argument, then they'll side with me." Underlying that is the thought, "If others think I'm right, then I must be." It's a weak attempt to convince ourselves we're okay when we haven't honestly evaluated our own motivations and actions.
At other times, we may talk about others' faults because we're jealous of them. We want to be respected and appreciated as much as they are. In the back of our minds, there's the thought, "If others see the bad qualities of the people I think are better than me, then instead of honoring and helping them, they'll praise and assist me." Or we may think, "If the boss thinks that person is unqualified, she'll promote me instead." Does this strategy win others' respect and appreciation? Again the answer is no.
Gossip and Derogatory Labels
Some people "psychoanalyze" others, using their limited knowledge of pop psychology to give someone a derogatory label. Comments such as "He's borderline" or "She's paranoid" make it sound as if we have authoritative insight into someone's internal workings, when in reality we disdain certain traits of theirs because our ego is affronted. Casually psychoanalyzing others can be especially harmful, for it may unfairly cause a third party to be biased or suspicious.
Speaking of others' faults can also be a way to distract ourselves from acknowledging our own painful emotions. For example, if we feel hurt or rejected because a dear one hasn't called us in a long time, rather than feel the suffering nature of our attachment, we criticize our loved one for being unreliable and inconsiderate.
Results of Gossip & Speaking of Others' Faults
What are the results of speaking of others' faults? First, we become known as a busybody. Others won't want to confide in us because they will be afraid we'll tell others, adding our own judgments to make them look bad. I am cautious of people who chronically complain about others. I figure that if they speak that way about one person, they will probably speak that way about me too, given the right conditions. In other words, it's hard to trust people who continuously criticize others.
Second, we have to deal with the person whose mistakes we publicized when she finds out what we said, which, by the time she hears it, has been amplified. She may tell others our faults in order to retaliate — not an exceptionally mature action, but one in keeping with our own actions.
Third, some people get stirred up when they hear about others' faults. For example, if one person at an office talks behind the back of another, everyone in the work place may get angry and gang up on the person who has been criticized. This can set off backbiting throughout the workplace and cause factions to form. Is this conducive for a harmonious work environment? Not at all.
Fourth, are we happy when our mind picks faults in others? When we focus on negativities or mistakes, our own mind isn't very happy. Thoughts such as, "Sue has a hot temper. Joe bungled the job. Liz is incompetent. Sam is unreliable," aren't conducive for our own mental happiness.
Finally, by speaking badly of others, we create the cause for others to speak badly about us. This result may occur in this life if the person we have criticized puts us down, or it may happen in future lives when we find ourselves unjustly blamed. When we are the recipients of others' harsh speech, we need to recall that this is a result of our own actions: We created the cause; now the result has come. We put negativity in the universe and in our own mind stream; now it is coming back to us. There's no sense being angry and blaming anyone else if we are the ones who created the principal cause of our problem.
Taming the Mind
by Thubten Chodron.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Snow Lion Publications. ©2004. www.snowlionpub.com.
About the Author
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron, an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun, has studied and practiced Buddhism in India and Nepal since 1975. Ven. Chodron travels worldwide teaching and leading meditation retreats and is known for her clear and practical explanations of the Buddha's teachings. She is the author of Buddhism for Beginners, Working with Anger, and Open Heart, Clear Mind. Visit her website at www.thubtenchodron.org.