Guest Post: She Said

by Corktree

Corktree is an emerging feminist struggling to find peace as she seeks truth.  She has three strong headed daughters, an infant son and a patiently supportive husband.   Aside from her family, she is passionate about science and natural health practices and hopes to merge those with her feminist vision by going into practice as a midwife when her children are all in school.

I’m sure we’ve all had experiences where we either needed to know something or needed to tell.  For legitimate reasons.  But then, there are also times where the need to know and the need to share can be misplaced or misused or misinterpreted.  Is there truly a difference?  How do we know?

For example; I recently attended a book group.  The collection of women is from before my previous ward split and I don’t see half of them on a regular basis anymore.  And in this group is a woman that I am used to feeling concern for.  I used to be her visiting teacher.  We’ll call her Sister A.

But even though I haven’t been officially assigned to care for her for some time now, I still wonder how she’s doing and I worry about her.  I know things that no one else knows and I am acquainted with her struggles.  But so is someone else in the book group.  My old visiting teacher (we’ll call her Sister B) is now Sister A’s visiting teacher, and in the past, we have had conversations in private about how Sister A is doing and how she is managing her issues.

So when I noticed the withdrawn attitude and dejected posture of Sister A at our recent meeting, I became concerned.  She had been so much more positive in the last few months and I worried about what would have happened to cause a return to her negativity.  I didn’t get a chance to talk to her during book group (and she didn’t say a word to anyone the whole evening), so in an email to discuss a different matter to my old visiting teacher (Sister B), I casually asked if she knew how Sister A was doing and mentioned that I had noticed how she distanced herself.

When I didn’t get a response to the email, I worried that I had overstepped in my inquiry.  Of course, I was overreacting to not getting a response (it turned out to be nothing) but it got me thinking.  Was my concern for this sister bordering on gossip?  Was my level of interest justified because I used to be her visiting teacher?  Was talking about her behind her back harmless because we cared about her?

My intentions were pure.  I care about Sister A and I want to continue to be her friend and help her with her trials.  I can hear the advice already that I should just go directly to the source when I want to know something sensitive.  But in some cases, that just isn’t possible or helpful without causing extra stress for the person in need.  So what do you do in these types of cases?

We are admonished, and some would say even commanded to take our callings as visiting teachers seriously.  It is God’s divinely appointed method of using us to bless the lives of those around us and make certain that no one gets left unnoticed.  It can be viewed as one of the most important things we do as members of this church.  To support and serve our fellow men and women whole-heartedly and without judgment or reservation is, in my opinion, the best way for us to show our gratitude and commitment to God.  Indeed, to learn how to love those we serve can be the greatest lesson we learn in this life and can also be one of our greatest blessings and achievements.

But does that sense of responsibility and love just end when we get new assignments?  Do we have only enough room in our hearts for so many?   Can we justify sharing necessary information even if we’ve never been officially assigned to someone that we know needs help?  Supporting those in great need can be hard.  It is a burden that we can gladly accept, but it’s often not one that we can manage alone.  So is it acceptable to share the burdens with others that may be in a position to provide support?

It seems safe to say that talking about any third party outside of a visiting teaching partnership is gossip.  From this and other experiences, I’ve concluded that I disagree.  If we are to become a Zion people, we need to start showing more concern for those around us, not less.   I know gossip is a real and damaging thing.  A whole post could be written on the dangers of hurting our fellow sisters with words.  So I’m aware of what a problem it can be for some people – and that only God can know our hearts and intentions.  But I think we also can’t hide behind our fear of appearing as a gossip to avoid getting and giving people the real help and support that they may need.  Sometimes we just need to circle the wagons, and we can’t do that if we’re afraid to open our mouths and call out to others.

What do you think?  Is it ever acceptable to share our concerns about individuals with others that may also be able to help them or care for them?  How do you draw the line between a genuine need to share and gossip?  How would you feel if people that you knew cared about you, were talking about you, even if you knew it was out of love and a desire to help?  Does this apply to neighbors and anyone outside of our church relationships?

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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22 Responses

  1. aerin says:

    This is simply my opinion, this is an interesting topic and a question I have struggled with before.

    What do you think?

    I may be the odd person out, but I believe in talking with people directly where possible. If I do talk about someone – a mutual friend has their house on the market, for example, I will either excuse myself (I don’t feel comfortable talking about that) or to let the person know. Even as a visiting teacher, I don’t know how comfortable I would feel without the person there.

    Is it ever acceptable to share our concerns about individuals with others that may also be able to help them or care for them?

    Yes, again I think if you let the person know at some point in the future. A great example is when a mutual friend or relative is in the hospital, or a friend’s relative passes away.

    But other than that, what is a concern, exactly? Even if it comes from a place of love, is the concern that you (or anyone) knows better than someone else about how to live their life? One person may be “concerned” that someone is reading too much, getting an education, addressing their issues, raising their children in a way I disagree with, etc.

    How would you feel if people that you knew cared about you, were talking about you, even if you knew it was out of love and a desire to help?

    I’ve known about some of this, from third hand. I know it happens. I admit, to some extent, with some of the people and incidents, I have distanced myself simply because I felt they were judging me without talking with me first. Without asking me to explain myself, sometimes assuming I felt a certain way.

    Does that make sense? Some people will assume and judge, and some amount of news sharing is okay. A friend of a friend has a young daughter fighting cancer, and I ask for updates on a regular basis. I know that it must be overwhelming for my friend’s friend to have all sorts of questions. Amazingly, with the internet, the daughter has a website, which makes things even more open.

    So, usually I would only bring up things I know I’m cleared to talk about, and that the person has been fairly open about. It’s not really news sharing (about me) if someone brings up that I have twins. I’m pretty open about that. But it might be gossip if someone starts speculating on circumstances surronding their birth, whether or not my husband and I were married (we were), etc.

    I don’t know, once I figured out (for me personally) that I was spending a lot of time concerned about other people’s business instead of minding my own…life became much simpler. Now I try to focus on myself first and the things I’m directly concerned with. If I have a friend whom I’m concerned with, I talk with them and share my concern – but not necessarily an exact path that *I* think they need to follow. So far, it’s worked pretty well. I’ve been able to get rid of the triangulation games that I played into so much before. I will admit, I have many fewer topics of conversation.

  2. Bones says:

    I think the instances in which it would be OK to share your concerns about a friend are extremely, extremely limited, if not non-existent. Even among my closest friends and I (there are three of us), we wouldn’t share concerns or secrets without permission. I’m very guarded about my personal information including health, family concerns, mental health, etc. I’ve only had one Visiting Teacher in the past 30 years with whom I have felt comfortable enough to share such things–and only because she was my friend first. If someone talked about me with my current VT, I’d be devastated and very angry.

    Having said that, it is very comforting to know that if I DO opt to share information with one of my two closest friends, it is going to be held in the strictest of confidence–and they can count on the same respect from me.

    I think that choosing to share information about another is a huge sign of disrespect–as if you know better what’s good for her.

  3. Corktree says:

    I agree that it’s not really a good idea to share private information about someone else without asking their permission. As a general rule, I’m not advocating that. I guess what I’m asking is whether keeping to ourselves *too* much out of fear of crossing those lines (which are drawn in different places for everyone) is a good thing or not. Yes, it’s simpler. But I’ve seen real cases where everyone was so afraid to just ask about what was going on with someone that the person didn’t get any of the support they needed.

    In a case like that, would it be gossip to tell the RS Pres of an individual’s need, even if we are not that person’s visiting teacher? This is a different example from the OP. Do we always need to get permission for rallying the circle of support?

  4. Corktree says:

    I’m actually really not very social lately and hardly have a clue what is going on with most people in my ward. So lest anyone think I’m trying to justify a need to gossip, here’s another example.

    You’re driving down your street. You notice 3 squad cars parked in front of a neighbor’s house. You know the woman from this home and you know that she is having troubles at home because she has confided in you on nightly walks around the neighborhood. She is pregnant and her husband is divorcing her.

    You see that it looks like her husband is being arrested. You try to call and send emails to see how she is doing without butting your nose in, but you want to make sure she is alright. She doesn’t have many people she knows or is friends with in the area.

    What do you do? You know she needs help and support right now, and more than you can give alone. Do you call the Bishop? The RS pres? Her VT’s? Where is the line between gossip and neglect of needs?

    • aerin says:

      How I usually handle these types of situations is different than how I used to.

      First, I ask myself if the situation were reversed, what would I want. And I try to be honest about what I would want, not just what I think someone else would want. If my daughter had cancer, or I was getting a divorce and three squad cars showed up in front of my home, would I want a neighbor to call the relief society president (or spiritual leader or mutual friend)? Would I prefer to ask for help myself or would I want someone to ask for that help for me? Why would I not be able to ask for help myself (why would this person not want to?)

      Second, there is a grace in helping another person out, but there is also a grace in figuring out what is best for you on your own. Helping another person out is great, particularly if there are no strings attached. A gift is given freely without any expectation of return. I have to ask myself, do I expect this person will say thank you? Or pay me back? Or bring me dinner if I need someone to bring me dinner?

      I’ve found that sometimes the best help is letting someone learn something for themselves, instead of me “rescuing” them. Or, at least, letting someone know that I’m thinking of them and here for them if they need me. And then stepping back and waiting for them to ask for help – which may or may not happen.

      I’m not saying anyone here is talking about that (rescuing someone), it’s just a different dynamic than what I was used to.

      • Corktree says:

        That is a very good point about allowing those in need the learning and growth that can come from asking for help (while letting them know you’re there when they do). Thanks for sharing.

  5. EmilyCC says:

    I wish it were as simple as, “yes, spread the word,” or “no, butt out.” But, as you’ve shown, there are nuances to each case–would Sister A be ok with you discussing this with Sister B? Is Sister B sure to understand your motives (and share them)? And, the list goes on…

    FWIW, when I find myself in these situations (which I rarely do–thankfully!), I’ve come to rely on prayer after one particularly difficult situation. Even though I don’t often get a specific answer, I find the act of prayer helps me determine how pure my motives are and think about the situation in a more focused way than I might otherwise.

    Still, I think this is a topic that requires constant vigilance and thought. Thank you for reminding me.

    • Corktree says:

      Good reminder to pray about it Emily. I usually keep a line open ;), but sometimes it’s best to make more of an effort like you said to see what the situation on your own end really is.

  6. spunky says:

    Forgive me for saying this, but are you in Utah- or at least the west coast?

    RE: Was my concern for this sister bordering on gossip? Was my level of interest justified because I used to be her visiting teacher? Was talking about her behind her back harmless because we cared about her?

    Okay- so I am one of those “back-east” Mormons. And for me, unless you are talking to my face, it is gossip. Period. That is, IMHO, east coast vs. west coast culture. For example, like a good Mormon girl, I went to Utah for college, and the first term I was there, my father died of lung cancer. (It wasn’t a surprise, he was a chain smoker before joining the church). The Relief Society presidency stopped by my University dorm and asked to speak to my roommate. So, I excused myself. They asked her how I was. That’s all they talked about—ME. I was there, buy left because they asked me to- then they asked my roommate about me. I was livid when I came back and heard this! In NY, this would have meant that I was supposed to challenge them to a fight for taking about me. Obviously, I didn’t do that…. And it was a powerful lesson to me (after I calmed down)… I think they were trying to be respectful. But my cultural upbringing was very different.

    So now, if I hear something about someone, especially since I no longer live in the United States, I try to say something to the effect of, “Hi, I am a real dummy and have no idea what you want or need or how I can support you, so would you let me know what I can do to help you? Otherwise I will be forced to just show up and vacuum or bake cookies for you and you may really hate my cookies!”

    But Corktree, for your situation, perhaps you were inspired to notice this sister? I still contact sisters whom I was formerly assigned to visit teach, very frankly because I feel inspired to do so. I am not sure you are second guessing your own inspiration to check on this sister—maybe she responds to YOU better than she does to her visiting teachers. Maybe she trusts you better than another for whatever she is going through. Maybe that is why YOU noticed her. I think your inaccuracy in protocol (if there was an inaccuracy)—is in speaking to her “new” visiting teachers. They are bound to confidentiality and it could be considered that you were asking them to gossip back to you about her (though I know your intentions were pure). I know we are all busy, but I can honestly say that I have never regretted following inspiration even when I was concerned with my time.

    You sound like you are a great visiting teacher. But maybe what this sister needs is a friend who isn’t assigned to care for her—and who she knows is a friend because of love rather than assignment.

    But that may just be me– I trust inspiration a million times more than I trust administration.

    • Corktree says:

      I grew up in CA, lived in Boston and New Hampshire for 5 years and now we’re in Idaho, and yes, I think it makes a difference in how different things are viewed as gossip or not and reactions to such.

      It’s true that Sister A would probably respond better to someone if she didn’t feel she was an assignment. But in all honesty I guess I was just testing the waters before I jumped in to see what was up with her. I didn’t want to invade if it wasn’t needed, but now I see that maybe just the act of asking would have been a positive thing for her.

      In the end, it turns out that the issue was actually *caused* by Sister B, the new VT, and she had unwittingly offended Sister A. I’m not sure what would have happened if I had said something to Sister A directly about it or not, but like Emily said, every situation is nuanced and can’t always be treated with the same set of rules.

    • Corktree says:

      Oh, and I would have been so POed if someone did what your university ward RS president did. Not cool – like using status to justify something that would be outrageous otherwise – and I’ve seen stuff like that done to people before.

  7. O says:

    I’ve had private, personal issues aired during ward committee meetings under the guise “just so you know, so you know, that we know…” when really, there wasn’t anything anyone could do to ‘help’ the situation, and certainly, even if there was, none of the men in that room would have been in a position to do so. And then, they passed on this information to the RS Presidency, who passed it on to my Visiting Teachers. It was extremely upsetting to me.

    So I think there is definitely a line, one that tends to be abused too much under the guise of ‘service’ and ‘helping’. IMO, you should first ask the person you are trying to ‘help’ and see what THEY want. Don’t just assume that what you are doing is actually helpful.

    I don’t think it was too horrible that you asked Sister B, but in the future, just go to Sister A and ask her yourself.

    • Corktree says:

      I would be mad about that too. Thank you for sharing your perspective. It helps me to see that it’s almost *always* better to be direct and cut out the middle men and women if possible, even if it’s awkward. Better for me to feel weird than for the person in need to feel angry or hurt or distrustful.

      Thanks for the great comments everyone. I guess it’s easier than I thought to justify something that can seem harmless but in practice is not helpful – regardless of intentions. Better to use intention properly and put it to good use rather than use it as an excuse.

  8. Deborah says:

    While it’s important to be both kind and reflective, gossip serves a useful purpose in our communities. Here’s an article you might enjoy:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/16/science/16goss.html

  9. Anon says:

    I don’t think there is an absolute right or wrong way because different situations call for careful considerations individually.
    But….. I think that we really have to get past ourselves and not worry so much about whether we are being pushy or nosy when we go directly to the person. There are too many wounded women that just need us to be there and kindly ask if there is anything we can do to help.

  10. Caroline says:

    Very interesting, Corktree.

    I have such conflicted feelings. On the one hand, I was pretty annoyed when a former RS pres called up my VT and asked her what was up with Caroline and her women’s issues. Geez, I thought. Just call and ask me! I’d be happy to talk about it.

    On the other hand, I am now VTing someone with serious, serious, terrible problems. It’s taking an army of people to help her out, and we do communicate about how she’s doing and what she needs. Is that going too far? It doesn’t feel like it to me, particularly since I think this person would be happy to share this info with anyone. It’s just efficiency for us all to communicate with each other.

    But I don’t know, it’s a subtle line. I don’t think I’ve got it figured out yet.

    • Corktree says:

      Exactly. The woman from my second example (she just had a third baby and her husband was arrested) is in dire need of help and support, but it was clear to me that she wasn’t getting enough of it. I also knew that her back neighbor was clued in as well (by the woman herself) and that she was shouldering most of the support to this newly single mom. Instead of doubling up, I communicated directly with this other neighbor to coordinate help for her and to share the load. If I had asked permission, I think it would have unnecessarily made her feel like she was accepting too much help and that she was a burden, when she *really* needs the help. But she knows that we both know the details, so I don’t see it as gossip.
      And I did ask her before I set up to have people come help with her yard through my husband and the Elder’s quorum.

      Which also begs the question, is it gossip if we share with our spouse?

  11. Melissa says:

    I was thinking about this after we talked it about it the other day, and mostly I think it depends on where your heart is. Because we should probably never be afraid to help others when we care about them. Letting people deal with their own problems just because they haven’t verbally voiced them to the masses just leads to…..bad stuff.

    • Corktree says:

      I agree. I guess the trick is being honest with yourself in assessing where your heart really is and considering how it affects others more than yourself. But yeah, my concern for people getting overlooked makes me think we need to be more communicative in the right way as a community. We need to rely on each other more in order to form better bonds (at least where we live 😉 )

  12. SilverRain says:

    If your motives come from genuine concern and charity, you are being a friend, not a gossip.

    When I was in an emotionally abusive marriage, a small part of me longed for someone to notice that I was in pain. When one person came up to me, I lied and covered up the pain. If, however, a group of women with genuine love approached me, I probably would have at first lashed out defensively, and then if they continued to approach me in sincerity and love, I would have probably finally trusted their motives enough to get the support from them I so desperately needed.

    So if your end goal is to approach and help and serve, it is not gossip. Even if the person in question doesn’t appreciate it at first.

    • SilverRain says:

      To contrast, if your end goal is just to share some information, then it is gossip. That is no different with your spouse. You may share everything about yourself with your spouse, but it is not appropriate that you share everything about other people with them. Only if it passes the same “end goal” test it would with anyone else.

  13. Angela says:

    Wonderful conversation. Without being repetitive, I agree that the motive of and prayer for the helper are key. they must be sensitive to the subject. One can say “she needs a friend. she could use some meals. she could use a babysitter.” whatever she may need, without saying WHY another sister needs those things. “She just needs our help.”
    On the other side, we Mormons are taught to be self-reliant. And so often we might see (in others or ourselves) that if we are not self-reliant we are failing and ultimately “sinning” in some way. (managing resources, food storage, being frugal…so on) And so we must be aware of pride. It can take a lot of humility to admit we need help, to ask for it, and accept it.
    Sometimes our best intentions, that we proceeded with prayerfully and in a spirit of love will be met with contempt ,and one might be labeled a “gossip” or “busy body” for sticking their nose where it “doesn’t belong”.
    So, no. I don’t think we can let so many false boundaries keep us from helping. And we do not necessarily need to know “what” the problem is. just HOW we can help.

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