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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: When I was growing up, my mother and the other ladies in our church were extremely polite to each other. However, when one of them wasn't present, the others would talk behind her back. They would compliment a woman to her face, then criticize her as soon as she walked away.

Mother always defended this behavior as a "harmless" pastime. I don't know whether or not it hurt the people who were the butt of gossip, but I know it harmed me and the children who were listening.

Their behavior taught me not to trust anyone -- especially people who were nice to my face. Instead, I trusted abusive people because I thought they were being honest. I ended up running with a bad crowd and found myself dating abusive men because I couldn't trust polite guys.

When someone complimented me, I didn't believe it, so I never developed self-confidence. I was afraid people were laughing at me behind my back. I had trouble making friends with other girls because I was afraid to open up and reveal my feelings for fear that whatever I said would become grist for the gossip mill.

After a year of therapy, I have finally found the self-confidence I lacked. My sisters haven't been so lucky. Neither has friends. Both are married to abusive men.

Abby, please inform your readers that there is nothing "harmless" about gossip, especially to children who may overhear it. -- GAINING TRUST IN GEORGIA

DEAR GAINING TRUST: Your experience and that of your sisters has stated that fact more strongly than I could have. It brings to mind a piece that has appeared in my column before. Read on:

NOBODY's FRIEND

(Author Unknown)

My name is Gossip. I have no respect for justice.

I maim without killing. I break hearts and ruin lives.

I am cunning and malicious and gather strength with age.

The more I am quoted the more I am believed.

My victims are helpless. They cannot protect themselves against me because I have no name or face.

To track me down is impossible. The harder you try, the more elusive I become.

I am nobody's friend.

Once I tarnish a reputation, it is never the same.

I topple governments and wreck marriages.

I ruin careers and cause sleepless nights, heartaches and indigestion.

I make innocent people cry in their pillows.

Even my name hisses. I am called Gossip. I make headlines and headaches.

Readers, before you repeat a story, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it harmless? Is it necessary?

If it isn't, don't repeat it.

DEAR ABBY: I spent a chunk of money on my daughter's high school graduation announcements and senior pictures. She has yet to receive even one card of congratulations from any of the friends and relatives to whom we mailed announcements. I'm hurt and disappointed. -- MISSOURI MOM

DEAR MOM: Your feelings are valid. Your daughter's achievement was praiseworthy and deserved to be acknowledged, if only with a card or congratulatory phone call.

For an excellent guide to becoming a better conversationalist and a more attractive person, order "How to Be Popular." Send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $5 (U.S. funds only) to: Dear Abby Popularity Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600