“Oh, The Joy of Gossip”. By Henry Regehr
It was such a thrill, chattering about a former acquaintance. You remember the tingling, don’t you, in the abdomen, when you, too, passed on juicy stories about your colleague? I certainly had a feeling of power over him, knowing that he could not respond, defend himself. I was now in charge of his story and of his reputation and that would serve him right for treating me so unfairly. He deserved even worse, but this was all I could do to pay him back. I knew that my listeners would pass on the colorful stories, adding their own relish.
This was gossip at its most delicious. I was excitedly damaging my exfriend’s public image, murdering it, with no consequence for me, no punishment, no life sentence. He would have to live with the results of his behaviour, I believed.
But…so would I. To my embarrassment, I discovered, my malicious gossip was giving clues to my own secrets. Any listener could clearly see my own feelings of inadequacy and failure in my stories. Gossip broadcasts the storyteller’s own frailties, and how well I understand that now.
So, yes, there is punishment after all. I know what it feels like to be the subject of gossip and the hurt that comes from knowing that the rumor mill has been churning my reputation into the mud of public opinion. To my horror I found that gossip is not a benign hobby or pastime that I thought it was while I participated. It is a malignant disease that catches everyone in a tangle of deadly contagion. No one comes out of it undamaged. Like Covid 19 it spreads its effects to story-tellers and the listeners, and its results can be traced, like that plague, from subject to story-teller to story-teller. Like Covid 19, there are lasting effects on everyone contaminated with the narrative. Like the plague, the story evolves with each telling, becomes more contagious and is colored by each new teller’s interpretation.
Thankfully, gossip has a useful purpose: it teaches the next generation what the official beliefs of the community are, at least what they are purported to be. These formal beliefs, encoded in the mores and repeated as “should” behaviours, are planted deep in the stated and unstated rules. Holding offenders up as bad examples, scapegoating them, in the colorful language of gossip, ensures that the rules are followed by the new generation. Gossip is an effective teaching device. It induces guilt just at the thought of offending.
Gossip is better entertainment than television, any day. It is more engaging, more personal, and more emotionally charged. What better way is there of spending an afternoon or evening with friends telling juicy stories about people who are not present. It ties the group together in an exciting common cause. Everyone can feel superior to the subject of the stories and the storyteller sees himself as morally pure. “I would never do such a thing myself”, he is saying. And he becomes the moral arbiter, the decision-maker about who is good and who is bad. He becomes king for the day. Bully for him.
Gossip is the opposite of respect, kindness, love. It degrades the moral fiber of the teller and the listeners. I have come to see it as odious.
I, hereby, give up the habit of gossip. I will see other people and their behaviour with compassion and understanding. I commit myself to loving my neighbor as I love myself.