Former American Scholar editor and author, Joseph Epstein writes about gossip, that much-excoriated yet apparently unstoppable human activity that knows neither historical nor cultural bounds. Educated fleas may not do it, but all human beings seem to enjoy that conspiratorial atmosphere of intimacy in which two or three people talk about another person who isn’t in the room. Usually, they say things about this person that he would prefer not to have said. They might talk about his misbehavior in any number of realms (sexual, financial, domestic, hygienic, or any other that allows for moral disapprobation) or about his frailties (his hypocrisy, tastelessness, immodesty, neuroses, etc.). Or they might just wish to analyze his character, attempting to get at why has been a life of such extraordinary undeserved success or such unequivocally merited failure.
“gossip, make no mistake, always implies a judgment.”
Gossip may well have spread in the way it has because so few among us are any longer trained in the skill of ascertaining truthful statements. Or have most of us lost our belief in truth itself; found that truth is simply unavailable in contemporary journalism, print or electronic; think truth no longer a precise but a proximate, relative thing, and so, as in the game of horseshoes, close to the truth is good enough?
Like astrology, psychoanalysis, and other pseudoscientific endeavors, gossip promises to provide significant secrets. Sometimes it does, but often it comes up empty.
Listening to gossip
Listening to gossip can be likened to receiving stolen goods; it puts you in immediate collusion with the person conveying the gossip to you. Sometimes the person who initiates the gossip asks the person to whom he is telling it to keep it to himself. Sometimes secrecy is implied, sometimes not. If the gossip has an element of real excitement to it, the request that the item go no further is unlikely to be honored. Some of the best gossip is intramural, taking place within a smallish group: an office, a school, a neighborhood, a village or small town.
Gossip is hearing something you like about someone you don’t. – Earl Wilson
Rumours vs Gossip
All gossip starts out as people talking about other people. The distinction between gossip and rumors is that the latter are more often about incidents, events, supposed happenings, or things that are about to happen to people, and generally not about the current or past conduct of people; rumor tends to be unsubstantiated, events or incidents whose truth is still in the realm of speculation.
Compared to gossip, rumors are also less specific, more general, more diffuse, less personal in content and in the manner in which they are disseminated. Rumors can lead to gossip, and gossip can reinforce rumors. But gossip is particular, told to a carefully chosen audience, and is specifically information about other people.
Other people is the world’s most fascinating subject. Apart from other people, there can only be shoptalk, or gab about sports, politics, clothes, food, books, music, or some similar general item. Talk is possible about the great issues and events and questions, both of the day and of eternity, about which most of us operate in the realm of mere opinion and often don’t have all that much—or anything all that interesting—to say. How long, really, does one wish to talk, at least with friends, about the conditions for peace in the Middle East, the probable direction of the economy, the existence of God? For most of us, truth to tell, not very long.
Gossip is “bits of news about the personal affairs of others.“
Not all gossip is engaged in for the purpose of hurting people. Gossip can be wildly entertaining. Sometimes analyzing the problems, flaws, and weaknesses of friends, even dear friends, sweeps one up and carries one away in sheer exuberance for the game.
If people really knew what others said about them, there would not be two friends left in the world. – BLAISE PASCAL
Private and Exclusive
The best gossip also has a private, an exclusive, feeling about it. “You mustn’t tell anyone about this, but…” or “Just between us…” or “This must go no farther…” are phrases that, for people who enjoy gossip, carry the equivalent magic of the fairy-tale opening of “Once upon a time.” The most enticing gossip is that which is highly feasible, often uncheckable, and deeply damning of the person who is its subject.
The most delicious gossip penetrates privacy; the assumption behind all gossip is that secret behavior is being uncovered. When it spreads in a way that gets out of control, gossip can result in the loss of income for the person gossiped about, the destruction of a marriage or an important friendship, public humiliation, jail, even suicide. Gossip can be dangerous.
Journalism is organized gossip. – Oscar Wilde
Assertion of Superiority
Along with showing one is in the know, another motive for passing along gossip is the assertion of superiority it sometimes allows. If someone tells you about the alcoholism of another man, isn’t he also implying that he is himself without such a problem?
Behind much gossip, in other words, is often to be found, implicit though it may be, the claim of the superior virtuousness of its propagator. To seem both in the know and morally superior, all through the agency of gossip.
The Gossip Transaction
A good joke, they say, requires three people: one person to tell it, another to appreciate it, and a third who doesn’t get it. Gossip, too, needs three people: one person to initiate it, another to hear it and (perhaps) pass it on, and a third who is its subject or victim. But gossip also needs a setting, a basic understanding among the gossipers, an agreement about what is of interest in the vast array of the world’s information.
One does not gossip with just anybody. A person purveying gossip has to show some discrimination in choosing an audience for his gossip. That person—or persons—must be someone who roughly shares one’s view of the importance or the amusement of the information being passed along to him. He must inhabit the same general realm of interest, of temperament, of taste.
“The person conveying the gossip also has to be reasonably certain that the person he is telling it to is ready to receive it.”
Curiosity and Gossip
At any sophisticated level, curiosity operates under the assumption that appearances and reality are usually very different, and gossip, often with the aid of daring speculation, sets out to fill in the discrepancy between the two. Sometimes it does so accurately, sometimes mistakenly yet charmingly, and sometimes meanly and disastrously. But whatever its intention, whatever its subtlety or want of subtlety, whatever its effect, whether it issues out of envy or voyeurism, revenge or the desire to entertain friends, gossip will not be suppressed.
Politicians are subject to gossip because they have power and, having power, are likely to abuse it by stealing, sexual excess, intemperance, or egregiously jolly hypocrisy. Much political gossip, like celebrity gossip, is about someone, because of his or her fortunate or favored position, going too far. Part of the pleasure in reading it—of seeing the miscreant nailed—is in viewing the mighty fallen. But part of the pleasure, too, is reading or hearing about people with more power than we possess using it to live in outrageous ways that the rest of us are for the most part restricted to dreaming about.
A large part of the pleasure of contemporary gossip about celebrities has to do with that ugly little emotion that goes by the German word Schadenfreude, or pleasure in another’s fall. Nice to think, is it not, that people gifted with good looks or acting ability or musical talent, rewarded for them with vast quantities of money, also have many of the problems that the rest of us might have, and often a few extra thrown in: children who didn’t work out, struggles with diet, marital discord dragged out in public, bankruptcy, and so much more.
“Schadenfreude, the pleasure taken from the misfortune of others, is one off which gossips, professional and amateur, have ever fed.”
Evening the Score
If in some sense the cult of celebrity is about common people worshiping people luckier than themselves, owing to the good offices of gossip, a way has been found of evening the score, at least a little, by showing that in the end the very lucky often have it no better than we, and sometimes, thanks to the gods of fate and the merchants of gossip, it turns out that they have it even worse.
“The Internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.” -MOLLY HASKELL
The Internet has quickened, and much intensified, the harm that gossip can do to its victims. Sometimes this harm is impersonal, or nearly so. The Internet, it turns out, also has a vigilante, or posse, function that is an arm of gossip. People will say on the Internet things they would never say to another person face to face or over a phone. The blog, with its absence of face-to-face contact, provides something very like whiskey courage—cyber courage, let us call it—and it cannot be a good thing.
“Unedited information serves as the hors d’oeuvre for grazing for the not deeply interested but merely curious generations brought up with computer information. This same culture, our culture, has become one of distractions, and gossip is nothing if not distracting.”
In its destructive aspect, gossip is about two things: the ruination of reputation and the invasion of privacy. No institution does these two things more efficiently than the Internet, where it can be menacing, and will remain menacing until the time when laws come into being to guard against its many excesses.
In its destructive aspect, gossip is about two things: the ruination of reputation and the invasion of privacy.
Leaks vs Gossip
One of the differences between leaks and much gossip is that gossip can be merely for entertainment; leaks are always made with a purpose—to bring down or raise up someone in politics or to foil or advance some political plan or party. The relationship between the person providing the leak and the person disseminating it, the journalist, is usually corrupt on both sides; unlike the case of standard gossip, with leaks there are no innocent bystanders or a merely mildly amused audience.
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.