Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Gossip, originally uploaded by Auntie P.

In a recent post, I mentioned my friend Gina. Gina is so pure of heart she is almost congenitally incapable of seeing darkness in anyone else. To her everyone is "really nice," and "incredibly good;" and if they do anything to demonstrate the contrary, she's absolutely certain it was unintentional.

When we worked together, we were something of a comic duo. I would enter the break room in an inflamed state, where I would perform a lively and irate reenactment of a co-workers transgression. After I was finished, Gina would laugh. Then she'd quickly interject that she was sure they hadn't meant to do it.

That's when I would give her "the look." No further explanation was necessary, but I pulled out my stock line anyway. "I hate to break it to you, Gina, but they did mean it. And you know why? Because they're mean, and if they get the chance, they'll do it again."

Then we would both crack up, because besides being a pure spirit, Gina also has a killer sense of humor.

But despite my occasional frustration with my friend's rosy vision, every January first when I composed my resolution list (a long and redundant list indeed), number one was always the same: Be more like Gina. It was a code for any number of personal flaws I hoped to eradicate in myself: the joy I took in gossip, my tendency to let petty things irritate me, my inability NOT to see the darkness in others. And to want to plumb it, to understand it, maybe even use it to enhance my fiction with some convincing and utterly hateworthy antagonists.

Some years I made more progress with my desire to live a more Gina-like life than others. But never have I questioned the rectitude of my resolution. Until yesterday.
That's when an article in the science section of the New York Times informed me that gossip was much more than a a bunch of people gathered around the water cooler in an orgy of nasty carping. It's actually a "mutually protective ritual evolved from early grooming behavior that defines group membership." Hmmm...That's fine for the in crowd, but what about the group members it excludes? I was not convinced.

But as I read on, the case for gossiping grew more compelling. Turns out that dishing the dirt on friends and enemies alike also provides a "rule enforcing dynamic." Through gossip, people communicate societal dos and don'ts to each other in a far more colorful and convincing manner than any Sunday school teacher ever could. Cross the line and you won't just burn in some distant and perhaps metaphorical hell. Vicious tongues will wag for weeks.

Now that had my attention. Maybe a little backstabbing actually served a purpose. Even with gossip running rampant (according to the article, it provides up to 2/3 to the content of every conversation)people are still lying, stealing and cheating with abandon. Imagine how bad it would be if all the gossipers stopped their 24 hour a day broadcasting! And just think how quiet the office would be? Two thirds of every conversation? If everyone in the work place, or the bar or the Tupperware party was magically cured of the gossiping virus, the earth would practically fall silent.

Yes, it's an interesting article, and I have to admit there's a certain validity to it. And yet, somehow, I don't quite buy it. It resembles some of the lame arguments that have surfaced in recent years in defense of personal greed or overeating. They're incredibly appealing for obvious reasons, and perhaps they even provide a balance to extremism. But as far as gossiping goes, I still want to be more like Gina.

Meanwhile, on my Waitress blog, I've written my humble version of a "Letter to a Young Writer."


Unknown said...

great blog...keep it up.

ShaanCho said...

"Cross the line and you won't just burn in some distant and perhaps metaphorical hell. Vicious tongues will wag for weeks." - Lovely lines! My wife is usually at the receiving end, so I know perfectly well what gossip is all about and fully endorse your desription / definition of it. :-)
Nice Post!

Bev Jackson said...

I'm afraid I got caught in some gossip this week, and it was really, really embarrassing, even though the gossip was gospel. Gina, I too wish I could be more like you.

But I've read that gossip is society's way of forming standards, morals, and without such judgmental intercourse between people, we would all likely be wild and utterly barbarian. I dunno. Great post!

Patry Francis said...

Jordi and Anthony: New visitors, especially those with kind words to say, are always welcome. Thank you and come again!

santanu: Nice to see your hard hat again. Thanks for sharing your insight.

Bev: You are so right about the standards and morals that are formed--and enforced--by gossip. So maybe if the gossipers are sure that what they're saying is true, and it's not said with malicious glee, it's not totally a bad thing.

Dale said...

I was taken aback when I first ran into the Buddhist strictures on gossip. They're pretty stern about it: it ranks up there with sins such as sloth & avarice. The longer I've lived with them, the more sense they've made to me, though. What gossip really is essentially, I think, is an imputation of malign motive, and what makes it so satisfying is that the gossibpers move together to solidify the imputation. "We're all the good kind of people who would never do X, not intentionally, anyway. But they're the kind of people who will do X whenever they can get away with it."

Even when it's not inaccurate -- as it usually is, for what do we ever really know of other people's motives, even if we get the story of their actions straight? -- it always has the effect of fencing someone out, and fencing ourselves in.

Patry Francis said...

And of course, if you really wanted to morally correct someone else's behavior, the more loving course would be to go to that person directly, not to talk behind their back.

The article really did remind me of a recent study (undoubtedly backed by big food) which said that overweight people live longer than their slender friends, and encouraging people to indulge themselves in the buffet line. It was soon proved fraudulent, but for a few days I allowed myself to eat key lime pie and all the cheese enchiladas my heart desired--which is a lot.

Similarly, the gossip study made me think that maybe I could give up my lifelong struggle with my "favorite"
vice. I wasn't really bad mouthing my "friends." I was performing a valuable service to society. It was fun while it lasted, but I'm already feeling the after effects.

Look like Gina had it right all along.

Perfect Virgo said...

Firstly I want to say how inspirational I found your open reply to the young Irish girl. You gave a very modest account of your own experience, which was in itself a worthy lesson to any aspiring writer. I can empathise fully with your youthful classroom reticence, I was equally bashful in a group of my peers. Fears of criticism and rejection kept me from blowing my metaphorical trumpet throughout my education.

I tested the ”gossip theory” today and can report that the estimate of two thirds may even be too cautious. Most conversations I heard today were digging the dirt on this colleague or that. So vigorous must have been some of the character assassinations that discussions fell silent as I approached. Surely the subject of those can’t have been me?!

I loved the way you cleverly built the case for this argument, convincing me (as you had initially been convinced) of its authenticity, only to send it ultimately tumbling along with others of its kind. I don’t buy it either but in a certain light and from a certain angle, it is rather attractive!

Patry Francis said...

p.v.: thanks for clicking over to my other blog.

And I think you're right. The 2/3 estimate is probably a conservative one.

Melly said...

I find gossip to be especially bad in the work place. It's usually almost the only form of conversation and it also tends to be particularly nasty too. There have been so many times I wished I hadn't heard what I had.

Great post.

Sharon Hurlbut said...

Give them a couple of years and they'll come out with a study saying the exact opposite! ; )

I stand by my mother's advice: if you can't say something good about someone, don't say anything at all. The world doesn't need any more hurt, hate, or even salacious rumor than it already has.

gulnaz said...

I want to be like Gina too and believe that people mean well at the end of the day!

the harmless and malicious gossip is the most vile...that should be refrained from all cost.

Patry Francis said...

Melly: You make an interesting point. Gossip may make the person who hears it feel included, but it hurts them in other ways.

sharon: Your mother had more wisdom than all the scientists and their surveys.

Gulnaz: I think Gina is getting a fan club!

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