The internet is full of gossip from Facebook, trolling and even much of our alleged news.
How we think about the notion of gossip determines the actions we take online. Towards a more civil online conversation, please consider these thoughts. – Jinx Davis
We all gossip. Now that the obvious has been stated, what does this mean and why do we do it? Asides from the fretful nights we have, wherein we toss and turn in an endless cycle of self-recrimination or gossiping about someone in a fashion that we recognize as malicious or hurtful, we continue to do it. Sometimes it is not mal-intended. Sometimes it is. Sometimes we hang our head in shame with self-awareness. Other times we chuckle and feel quite satisfied with ourselves. Either way, the gossip does not cease.
The idle (and sometimes evil) talk about the affairs of others is erroneously associated with women, who in fact do it no more or less than men. Devaluation of women’s gossip represents a clear attempt by men to protect them from the power of gossip, all the while fine-tuning their own gossip in the form of networking, business, politics, radio talk shows, fraternity machinations, Rotary Clubs, bar conversations and pulpit preaching. These gossipers are acutely aware that in our present age of inter-racial and international prejudice that gossip is a gleeful activity, sowing discord and misconstruction and revealing the need for a boring world to be entertained at any price. Consequently, we have politics, TV, talk radio, religion, and Hollywood. Dare I mention Twitter and Facebook?
Gossip is informational or evaluative talk about someone who is not present. Inherently it is neither good nor bad and only by examining our participation in it can we begin to understand why we are such masters at it.
We are masters at gossip for some very good reasons. Gossip allows us to extract meaning from our environment. We take our cues from others, especially when they are trusted, to learn how to behave in a society whose values and norms are constantly changing. Gossip boosts conversation as all ears perk up when a piece of gossip is repeated and we satisfy our need to feel more interesting as the center of attention.
We can feel vindicated and alleviate guilt feelings through gossip. If our family taught us that being gay is a sin and we begin to question our hereditary assumptions, it is heartening to hear by way of gossip that a well-known or respected figure has come out of the closet or has a change of heart about their prejudices. Likewise, all of us have things in which we are profoundly ashamed. A delicious piece of gossip reveals that others are just as human as we allow us to alleviate some of the humiliation and blame which we have been feeling. We feel lighter.
Gossip can also be a life-line and a means of facing and overcoming our fears. If we hear of someone who survived abuse, surgery, disease, death of a loved one or any of the other wounds life offers us, we feel a measure of relief learning that someone else has undergone and outlasted ordeals. We no longer feel so alone and isolated with our challenges.
Studies tell us that gossip may have evolved as a mechanism for controlling the activities of free-riders and social cheats. By exchanging information on their activities, humans are able to use gossip to gain advanced warnings of such characters and thereby protect themselves from their mischief. Linguists even imply that all the tongue-wagging we do can simply be a matter of keeping the machinery of speech oiled and ready for the unpredictable moment when it suddenly becomes essential. Jörg R. Bergmann, author of
Discreet Indiscretions: The Social Organization of Gossip, reminds us that gossip “is a genre of moral communication in a twofold sense: it moralizes and it is moralized about”. The study of gossip reveals much about the moral order of society and even more about the communicative construction and maintenance of that order.
We do not gossip about the weather. Heavens, no- we gossip about unacceptable behavior, inappropriate dress, inopportune timing, and offensive ideologies and manners. It is the tally sheet of our public opinion polls.
Children get this and use gossip quite effectively to promote a closeness to others and a sense of belonging. Through gossip, they learn to socialize, evaluate and develop competency. Decades ago I taught kindergarten at a university laboratory school. I arranged my classroom with a number of imaginative play areas where children could explore role-playing. One corner of the room was a space station complete with screens and technical panels ablaze with gears, lights, buttons and gauges. Another corner consisted of a drugstore soda fountain with bar stools and ice cream cones aplenty. A third corner was created as an art gallery, complete with framed paintings and sculpture, wherein children could learn to evaluate, sell, purchase and appreciate visual art. The final corner was constructed as a barbershop and beauty parlor, complete with a “Walk-ins Welcome” sign, mirrors, sinks, chairs and grooming paraphernalia. This was the most popular area in the room. Boys and girls would stand in line to get their hair cut or have a chance at being a hairdresser or barber. While the trappings of hairdressing skills were entirely enacted by the children it was their social behavior that was striking and telling. They gossiped like crazy, just as their elders do. It was uncanny to listen to them as they told stories about real and imaginative people, all the while cajoling each other and offering support, warnings, and admonishments. By age 4 and 5, these children knew exactly why we tittle-tattle.
While gossip has a malevolent, debasing and destructive side that is literally an inflammatory form of aggression, it also serves as a way of managing and expressing our emotions. Gossip and emotions are marriage partners and together they serve families, communities, businesses, and nations as early warning signs of systemic failures. Listening to gossip may very well avert business failure or human suffering and costly public inquiries. Gossip should demand our attention.
I confess I gossip. And yes, I frequently feel the sting of regret in doing so. Nonetheless, I am rather fond of it, for it is an efficient and powerful tool as both listener and teller.
Through gossip, I learn rapidly who can be trusted, what world views are held, to what extent ignorance or hatred is at play and what hidden intentions people hold. Listening to and offering tidbits of gossip, with or without individual names revealed, is an instrument for self-assessment and ultimately self-awareness. Strangely, this is accentuated when I offer observations that reflect admirably upon those that I wag my tongue. “No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.” wrote Bertrand Russell. People do, actually. It is just that they have fewer listeners.
So, go ahead and gossip. The trick is to let the Angels of our Better Selves alight on our shoulders as our tongues click about this or that. They will question our intentions and help us decipher the truths of our stories. Who knows, perhaps even the angels wag their tongues.