In the family I grew up in we never gossiped. Not that we kids didn't try, it just wasn't tolerated by either of our parents.
I never thought much about this until I tried to explain to a child why she shouldn't gossip.
"But can't I even talk about people?" she finally complained.
Well, of course she could. But what was the difference, then, between talking about someone and gossiping about someone?
It all has to do with intent.
When we gossip, our intent can be twofold. First, we are often just trying to add a little interest, a little spice, a little excitement to our conversation. "Did you hear about ..." certainly gets other people's attention, whether our information is true, false, or somewhere in between. And we all like attention.
Second, our gossiping may be intended to harm another person. We share information that does damage to that person's standing or reputation. And sometimes in putting another person down we seek to raise our own status in comparison.
Talking about someone else has a different intent. Life is more about relationships than anything else. When we share our lives with others, we are bound to talk about the people in them. We may want help in understanding someone or our interactions with them. We may want to let family or friends know about the important -- or even not-so-important -- events of our day. Or we may just be filling empty space in a conversation.
The distinction is that what we say is true (or at least as accurate as we can make it), balanced, fair, and not intended to harm or put down the other person.
There may be more to it, but most of us seem to know when we are gossiping and when we are not. Maybe that's because, if we are honest with ourselves, we can usually tell what our real intent is when we talk about someone else.
One final point. There is a real, pragmatic reason for not gossiping. Ultimately our gossip does more damage to us than to anyone else.
When people hear us gossiping about someone, sooner or later they will conclude that we probably gossip about them as well. To protect themselves, they will inevitably become more guarded or closed about what they share with us. Similarly, since most of us do recognize the negative motives behind gossiping, we eventually lose respect for those who gossip.