Monday, October 15, 2007

Indiscretion: A Defense

I'm a big fan of gossip. Or, as I like to call it, community building. I like hearing it, I like spreading it, I like the meta-analysis (Why did X tell me Z about Y? What does it all mean? Where are we going? The end is upon us. Etc. etc. etc.). I like it all.

Except for a couple of things. First off, it's not exactly one of the dignified human passions. You don't hear a lot of people going around talking about how great it is that other people are gossips. Somewhere in my collection of Nancy Mitford letters is this letter where she talks about how she's a fundamentally disloyal person, and she says it without apology, and it was one of the more shocking confessions I'd read, because while a lot of dissolute behavior has a certain cachet to it, gossip doesn't. I think that's because the gossip underlines a fact that we all secretly and deeply resent: that we are, like it or not, part of a broader human community that watches and judges us, ascribes motives and grades to our behavior that contradict and confuse our own assessments, and that we will never be rid of. A good thing, a bad thing, it is what it is.

A short digression about loyalty: I was, for a time, a tutor at a literacy center. And I had to explain to my tutee what the word "loyalty" meant. So I'm talking about it, and she's like, "Oh, so a loyal person is a good person." And I had to say that that wasn't necessarily so, that it depended on what you were loyal to.

By the way, that's an anecdote, and therefore could be classed as gossip. Just to alert you. Actually, while we're here, let's talk about the difficulties of classifying gossip. Is it gossip anytime I say something about somebody else? What if it also involves me and I want to talk about that? What if I'm upset by something somebody did? Is it gossip to pass that along? If I don't use names or other identifying factors is it still gossip? Does it depend on traceability? Can I be said to have gossiped about myself? What if I'm trying to make an abstract point and use somebody as an example? I myself find it hard to take in abstract points without concrete examples.

Does it depend on whether it's a good story or not?

So one of the downsides of gossip is that it's not socially well-regarded. (I am reminded of a David Sedaris essay where he talks about his daydreams and how in one of them he's famously discrete.) But obviously there's more to it than that.

Because, as mentioned above, it has this necessary quality of disrupting other people's lives. Or not so much disrupting, as taking bits and pieces of those lives out and looking at them somewhat out of context. And sometimes that's just bad because it causes trouble, causes fights and hurt feelings. But it might also be bad because it has this way of blithely ignoring the whole person, of simplifying that person down to a collection of tics and anecdotes. It makes them less real.

Also gossip is not always just a utopic free exchange of information. Sometimes, when I've said something about somebody to somebody else, I realize there was a certain kind of posturing involved: look how much I know, look how connected I am. That's more than a little bit creepy. Or it can be a way of getting close to the person you're gossiping with. Which is also creepy.

On the other hand, I love it. I love the sense of all of us, going about our lives, getting ourselves into stupid situations with our tics and our neuroses and our dancing on tables. It makes it less lonely, this human existence. I kind of wish I were more discrete; I kind of wish other people were less so.


Noko Marie said...

Ooh Yeah. A toast to gossip! I'm with you all the way.

There's a Roz Chast cartoon called The Seven Deadly Virtues. "Gossip prudery" is one of them. I have it on my door. The picture shows a smug woman saying to a worried woman, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say it at all."

Another good one is "'uncalled for thrift': dented cans of peas, only thirty-nine cents!"

There's a great thing in my favorite book Amazons where Cleo explains that you can only ever feel comfortable telling your secrets to indiscreet people. Sure, you could tell them to discreet people, but there's something about those people that will make you feel bad about having shared your secret in the first place.

Noko Marie said...

Today's NYT has a science story on gossip. News flash: people trust gossip!