There is a term in Halakhic Jewish tradition that was recently brought home to me in a painful way, but before I tell you about the experience itself, let me explain the concept of Halakha.
First of all, while it’s usually thought of as Jewish law, the word literally translates as “to walk” or “to go,” so one can think of Halakha as meaning “the way to walk.” It comprises not only the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), but also a variety of other materials that have been developed and pored over since before 500 BCE.
Within this ancient blueprint for living lies the term “lashon hara” or “evil tongue.” Considered a sin, lashon hara occurs when someone speaks ill of someone else for a wrongful purpose. It differs from libel in that the speaker believes that what they’re saying is true. Gossip is lashon hara. Whistle blowing is not.
I have a close friend whose humor, intelligence and companionship I greatly value. We’ve never had a fight in the six years we’ve known each other. Recently, we were supposed to get together, but a number of glitches occurred, causing annoyance on both sides. It didn’t seem to me to be a big deal. However, my friend abruptly stopped returning my calls and emails, and her husband has been noticeably cool to me on the phone.
I am a big committer of lashon hara and have battled it my whole adult life. I gossip to feel close to people, I gossip to vent frustration, I gossip to sound smart, I gossip to have something to say. My growing fear is that I accidently pocket-called my close friend while in the middle of complaining about her to my boyfriend. There is no other explanation for her sudden and complete silence. I’ve frantically tried to remember every time I’ve mentioned her in the past two weeks, weighing my words and tone against what clearly seems to be strong anger and hurt on her side. I can’t remember saying anything that would merit this, but the point isn’t what I did or did not say. The point is that without my bad habit of gossiping, I wouldn’t feel so anxious and guilty now. Instead, my conscience would be clear. Careless words hurt people, and sometimes it’s people we love.
The prohibition against lashon hara holds true in business as well. Not only is badmouthing competitors morally wrong, but it can actually have a deleterious effect. One study identified a phenomenon called spontaneous trait transference, where a person is perceived as having a quality they describe in others, whether positive or negative. So if you tell a client that another company is sleazy, that person is actually more likely to see you as sleazy.
On a personal note, I will renew my efforts to stop the lashon hara in my own life. On a professional note, I hope you join me.