A few months back, Goldie Hawn told me she created her own safe haven by declaring her home a gossip-free zone. As part of her work for Words Can Heal, a national campaign to eliminate verbal violence, she and her family pledged to replace words that belittle and do damage with those that encourage and rebuild. Her choice to use language that uplifts is in line with a truth Maya Angelou passed on to me: "I'm convinced that the negative has power—and if you allow it to perch in your house, in your mind, in your life, it can take you over," she said. "Those negative words climb into the woodwork, into the furniture, and the next thing you know, they're on your skin. A negative statement is poison."
I know firsthand just how hurtful negative words can be. Early in my career, when the tabloids began printing so many untruthful things about me, I was devastated. I felt misunderstood. And I wasted a lot of energy worrying about whether people would believe the falsehoods. How could they get away with printing outright slander? I had to fight the urge to call up anyone who'd maligned me and defend myself. That was before I understood what I now know for sure: When someone spreads lies about you, you're not in it. Never. Gossip—be it in the form of a rumor that's sweeping the nation or a gripe session between friends—reflects the insecurity of those who initiate it. When we make negative statements about others behind their backs, we often do so because we want to feel powerful—and that's usually because we in some way feel powerless, unworthy, not courageous enough to be forthright. Hurtful words also send the message—both to ourselves and to those with whom we share them—that we can't be trusted. If someone is willing to tear down one "friend," why wouldn't she be willing to disparage another? Gossip means we haven't emboldened ourselves to talk directly to the people we take issue with, so we belittle them—playwright Jules Feiffer calls it "committing little murders." In short, gossip is an assassination attempt by a coward.
We live in a culture obsessed with gossip—who's wearing what, who's dating whom, who's entangled in the latest sex scandal. What would happen if we declared our homes, our relationships or our lives gossip-free zones? We'd probably be surprised at how much time we'd free up to do the work that's most significant—building our dreams rather than tearing down others'. We'd fill our homes with a spirit of truth that would make visitors want to kick off their shoes and stay awhile. And we'd remember that while words have the power to destroy, they also have the power to heal.