Monday, 14 March 2011

Good and Bad Gossip

I love news. Sometimes I call a friend back home and demand, "What's the news?" One particularly juicy bit of news was that a good friend won a major academic prize.

"She didn't know she was going to get it. Everyone thought X was going to get it, but she got it. They only told her at the last minute."

This is, of course, hard cheese on X, but lovely for my good friend, so I rejoiced in this lovely bit of news.

Sometimes the news from home is less joyful and spectacular and rather more spicy, as in the perennial "A did B, and C is pretty mad about it."

"A did B, huh?"


"Oh, that naughty A. Well, A does that sort of thing all the time, so what did C expect?"

"Well, C really didn't think A would do B this time. I mean, A should have known how C would have felt about it."

"Well, it's a fallen world."

"Well, that is fo' shizzle."

I admit that I enjoy that kind of gossip, even though I suspect it is one of those "harmful pleasures" that the "Secret" for the (traditional) First Sunday of Lent hopes we will refrain from indulging in. It's the fascinating never-ending story of A and C, and the sad recurrence of B in A's life, and C's disapproval of B.

People love stories about people. It's why so many of us collapsed into puddles of tears when the ever-entertaining Princess Di died. Well, that and the realization that if she could die, we could too. And, in fact, will.

It is always ghastly to discover that not only do you enjoy gossip about other people, but that other people enjoy gossip about you. I keep this thought before me like the reminder that I will die, and it sobers me up a bit. I attribute to it two things: (1) patient forgiveness of my dearest friends in advance for all past and future gossip about me (2) a reticence unknown in my teens and twenties, when I told anyone almost anything.

Very often the person gossip hurts most is the person who gossiped. This is particularly true when you are gossiping about yourself. I know an unfortunate woman who casually told her colleagues that she slept with one-night stands. This, of course, became the number one thing the colleagues knew about her, and since she had no problem discussing it, her colleagues thought nothing of discussing it, too. I imagine that it hurt her matrimonial prospects; I don't know what it did for her career.

There is a charming naiviety about the person who gossips about her- or himself. It's as if, in his or her humility, he or she thinks the listener will listen, sympathize, forget immediately, and never think the story worth telling to anyone else. This is, of course, madness. If the story involves sex, death, crime, media or exotic pets, it will certainly make the rounds.

Very rarely, I think, do people gossip to do harm. Just about everything you read in the newspaper is gossip, and it is important to know the news. It may be none of your business that Japan has just suffered a terrible earthquake, and one of its nuclear reactions may melt down, but you ought to know. You might wonder why, since there's nothing you can do about it, but don't go there right now. That's a good question, but for now let's assume its good to know most news.

It's very good to know news when you are vulnerable. Thus, if your boss is going bankrupt, it's good to know in advance so that you can find another job. Your boss doesn't want you to know, but for your own sake you should know. Your boss may throw a fit and condemn the "gossip" in the office, but hey. Tough cheese, boss.

In social affairs, there is much more of a question mark about what one ought to know. I am sure there are all kinds of terrible things said about me that someone has thought, "She has the right to know" and then very charitably not told me anyway. I live in blissful ignorance that D said E about me, and I am glad.

(Incidentally, I am absolutely sure this happens because sometimes people do tell me such interesting tidbits as, "All the teachers in my staff room hated your column on Eckhart Tolle. They love him. They kind of hate you." And once someone sent me an email by mistake, an email that revealed that others had thought (wrongly) I had Something Going On with Someone. Oh, my screams of rage.)

I always read eagerly to see what all advice columnists have to say about this little conundrum:

Dear Ann/Abby/Ellie/Auntie,

I saw my friend's husband/wife in a restaurant with another woman/man, and when I went up to him/her to say "Hi", he/she looked at me with panic. Should I tell my friend's wife/husband? I think she/he has the right to know.

Righteous Indignation

The advice columnists always, always, always say "Keep your mouth shut and say nothing unless your friend asks you." I think this is excellent advice. And the numero uno reason why is that nobody feels grateful to the person who tells them potentially really bad news. For your own sake, shut up.

Personally, if I'm going to swan around town with a man not my husband, I get my husband's permission in advance. That way it would be funny, not embarrassing, if there should be gossip.

Meanwhile, when the thought "I should tell So-and-so of such-and-such; So-and-so has the right to know" crosses my mind, I think very carefully indeed about my motivations.


Irenaeus G. Saintonge said...

Seems like being gossiped about is the best way to cure one of the tendency to gossip about others.
It happened to me often enough, I'm just not interested anymore.

Jen said...

I try to keep it really simple for myself: don't talk about people if they're not there to clarify what you're talking about. Nope, not even the good stuff. That way, I don't have to remember who told what to whom, whether other people should know, etc. Two benefits to this, I've found: everyone trusts me with a secret, and it forces me to talk about thing (the weather, the arts, current events) or ideas, instead.