#20. Not gossiping

Russian WW2 poster: "Keep your mouth shut!"

Or, if you’re me, not talking. I guess what I’m trying to say – somewhat sheepishly, although I don’t see any way around a confession – I’m a gossip. I love to gossip. I love to talk. I love to share news. I love to compare notes. I love crappy magazines filled with gossip about famous people I’ve never met and should, frankly, have absolutely zero interest in.

Thus, it came to my attention – after feeling guilty about a particularly gossip-heavy week – that I should probably try to nip it in the bud. My first reaction? I don’t wanna. Which is usually a sign that I need to. Sigh. Another week’s change decided for me by the universe and my own reluctance.

It was easy enough to make the decision not to gossip. After all, I can make a decision about anything. I make 800 decisions a day. It’s the follow-through that poses the real problem for me. Not gossiping begged for some parameters, though. The first question I had was: what’s gossip?

At first glance, it seems an obvious question, but I found myself troubled by the nuances of the issue. At a dinner with friends, I threw the question out to the table and discovered that the reason a concrete definition of gossip is hard to settle on is because everyone has a different idea about what it means.

One friend insisted that any time you discuss a third party who isn’t present, it’s gossip.

“So,” I asked, “if I see you and ask how our mutual friend Maggie’s doing and you say she’s fine, that’s gossip?”

“Yes,” he said. I wasted no time telling him he was wrong, although I couldn’t exactly say why he was wrong. It just didn’t feel like gossip to me.

“Why do we even need to talk about people who aren’t present?” he asked. “Why can’t we just talk about you and me, or whoever’s present at the time.”

The women in the group stared at him. Who was this strange creature with his nutty ideas? I told him that, besides the brutally honest but none-too-admirable reason that it’s fun, mutual friends and acquaintances are part of our shared experience, our shared community. We ask each other all that time, “How’s your family?” and “Have you talked to Percival lately? Not since Wimbledon? How is the dear creature?”

Some at the table balked at our friend’s definition. They thought that everything boiled down to intent – that gossip is malicious or makes the gossiper feel better and more powerful for doing it. Another person thought intent didn’t matter at all – content did. It was fine to talk about other people if the information was factual and a matter of public record. Anything else – including rumor or sharing private news –  was gossip.

Someone whipped out their PDA and looked online for a dictionary definition of gossip, but it (from Wikipedia) didn’t exactly clarify matters:

Gossip is idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. It forms one of the oldest and most common means of sharing (unproven) facts and views, but also has a reputation for the introduction of errors and other variations into the information transmitted. The term also carries implications that the news so transmitted (usually) has a personal or trivial nature, as opposed to normal conversation.

I don’t even know where to start with that definition. First of all, how are you defining idle? Because if you love to gossip, you could certainly argue that it’s not idle, it’s absolutely necessary! And trivial? My god! What else is there in this world? “As opposed to normal conversation?” What if this is your normal conversation?

I posited at the time that rumor was always gossip but the reverse wasn’t necessarily true. And what if you were spreading a rumor about yourself? Didn’t we decide gossip was always a third-party affair? This could get confusing! I found the harder I tried to define gossip, the less certain I was of what I was trying to avoid that week. I decided to eschew definitions and just go with my gut instinct: I know gossip when I see it. Or, more likely, when I’m doing it.

However, I asked my friends, what if I was just a witness to gossip? What if others were gossiping in front of me and I listened? Did that make me an accessory to gossip? Some at the table said no, I’d be a passive consumer. Others said yes. After all, if a murder was committed in my presence and I did nothing to stop it, I’d be legally accountable. Stretching the point a tad, a bit, but there it was. So perplexing!

Then, a horrible thought dawned on me. If witnessing or merely absorbing gossip made me culpable, then did that also mean giving up another weakness for the weekness – gossip blogs and celebrity mags? My biggest guilty pleasure! My bath-time fodder! No People magazine? No The Superficial? No Gawker? Was Go Fug Yourself okay?

A friend at the table, who’s in recovery, said, “Well, my sponsor says that drinking near beer isn’t really that different from drinking beer. You’re still going through the motions.” (The worst part of that exchange – I’m her sponsor! I knew the crap I spew would come back to haunt me.) Curses!

My mind was reeling. What if I accidentally absorb some gossip second-hand? What if it’s on CNN or MSNBC, then is it news? What distinguishes journalism from gossip? If it’s a celebrity, is it gossip? So then it’s the subject that defines it? People versus events? If my head didn’t hurt before all this started, it sure did by the time I was through.

It turned out that, for the most part, defining gossip and thinking about what it meant was more complicated than just not doing it. Like I said, for the most part. But on Sunday, I fell off the wagon. The alcoholics and drug addicts I know who have relapsed often say they didn’t plan on using, that they don’t remember the exact moment they decided to use. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people and SHAZAM! They were out again.

That’s what happened to me, over donuts in Ypsilanti. I could blame the sugar, the exhaustion, the large cup of coffee. But I suspect the real culprit is just habit. I was with a friend with whom I have many other friends in common. At first, we stuck to the program and just talked about ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, we’re interesting people. Fascinating. But that only lasted so long.

Then she said, “Well, how about if I tell you something? You can just hear gossip, right?” I felt my stomach drop. I knew in my heart of hearts that this was a slippery slope and yet I grabbed my toboggan and rode it. “Go for it,” I declared, surprised at how excited I was to be in the presence of gossip.

I received the information she had to share about our mutual friend. I noticed that it wasn’t particularly scandalous, that it was borne out of real concern for someone going through a rough time. I paid attention to the fact that – and I truly believe this – that the motives of the friend sharing the news were pure. She wasn’t trying to hurt anyone or puff herself up. She wanted me to know that a mutual friend was going through a rough time. She knew that I’d want to know. And we both knew that said mutual friend wouldn’t have objected to her sharing the news.

But, people, I have to tell you, it was like a switch had been flipped. Like a seal had been broken. The gossip starter pistol had been fired. I couldn’t help myself and before I knew it, I was on a full gossip binge. I was sharing info right and left, even as I was aware that some of it was out of genuine concern and other bits were just to puff me up, make me seem in-the-know.

I would like to say that, after all was said and done, I felt terrible for what had happened. I would like to say I was filled with remorse and shame. But that would be a lie. And I may be a gossiper, but I’m not a liar. What did I feel, then? I felt exhilarated. I felt like I was back in the saddle, that I was no longer shut off from the world. Because, friends, that’s how not gossiping felt to me: like being cut off. Isolated.

Turns out there may be a valid reason for that. Turns out, even science is kinda on my side on this one. Gossip, apparently, serves an ancient and valid purpose in communities. It also turns out that researchers are fascinated by gossip, too, and have trouble defining it clearly. However, according to an article in the October 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind:

Most researchers agree that the practice involves talk about people who are not present and that this talk is relaxed, informal and entertaining. Typically the topic of conversation also concerns information that we can make moral judgments about.

Okay. Gulp. I don’t love that part about moral judgments, but in the interest of full disclosure, I agree it’s probably true. I prefer to focus on the part about it being entertaining! The article continues:

The aspect of gossip that is most troubling is that in its rawest form it is a strategy used by individuals to further their own reputations and selfish interests at the expense of others. This nasty side of gossip usually overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions in society. After all, sharing gossip with another person is a sign of deep trust because you are clearly signaling that you believe that this person will not use this sensitive information in a way that will have negative consequences for you; shared secrets also have a way of bonding people together.

Yes! I’m not gossiping! I’m trusting people! I'm bonding! Go on, article:

There is ample evidence that when it is controlled, gossip can indeed be a positive force in the life of a group. In a review of the literature published in 2004, Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University and his colleagues concluded that gossip can be a way of learning the unwritten rules of social groups and cultures by resolving ambiguity about group norms. Gossip is also an efficient way of reminding group members about the importance of the group’s norms and values; it can be a deterrent to deviance and a tool for punishing those who transgress.

Oh, bless you, Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University! Gossip is positive! You read it here first! I have irrefutable scientific permission to continue gossiping. And not that it really pertains to what I’ve been talking about here, but I found this bit interesting too – especially since most of the men I know claim they NEVER gossip:

We have also found that an interest in the affairs of same-sex others is especially strong among females and that women have somewhat different patterns of sharing gossip than men do. For example, our studies reveal that males report being far more likely to share gossip with their romantic partners than with anyone else, but females report that they would be just as likely to share gossip with their same-sex friends as with their romantic partners. And although males are usually more interested in news about other males, females are virtually obsessed with news about other females.

You could look at this like women are less discriminating than men. I prefer to think we’re just more generous with our information. And, finally:

Thus, gossip is a more complicated and socially important phenomenon than we think. When gossip is discussed seriously, the goal usually is to suppress the frequency with which it occurs in an attempt to avoid the undeniably harmful effects it often has in work groups and other social networks. This tendency, however, overlooks that gossip is part of who we are and an essential part of what makes groups function as well as they do. Perhaps it may become more productive to think of gossip as a social skill rather than as a character flaw, because it is only when we do not do it well that we get into trouble. Adopting the role of the self-righteous soul who refuses to participate in gossip at work or in other areas of your social life ultimately will be self-defeating. It will turn out to be nothing more than a ticket to social isolation. On the other hand, becoming that person who indiscriminately blabs everything you hear to anyone who will listen will quickly get you a reputation as an untrustworthy busybody. Successful gossiping is about being a good team player and sharing key information with others in a way that will not be perceived as self-serving and about understanding when to keep your mouth shut.

It’s a social skill! It turns out I’m just really skilled!

Okay, I’m not really naïve enough to think that this article – or any of the other research out there – actually validates my tendency to gossip. But it has given me food for thought. I think the real issue here, for me, is not so much that I need to stop gossiping -- I mean, I certainly don't want to -- but that I need to focus on what the article quoted above calls “successful gossiping.”

The day I fell off the wagon, I was perfectly aware, as I said, of when the gossiping was self-serving and when it was to share actual concern about mutual friends. I believe there’s a distinction, and it was with that belief in place that I went forward with the rest of my week. A week in which I successfully avoided gossiping.

For the most part. Mostly. Nearly. Much of the time.