For more than three decades, I didn’t spend much time in the company of women. I didn’t plan it, it just sort of worked out that way. My life mate/soul mate and I did most things together, including work — trying to build our business. He was also my best friend, the person I most wanted to be with. We had wide-ranging interests, and we talked about life, books, movies, history, philosophy, ideas.
I knew some women, of course, but not well, and I never participated in any group activities. After his death, though, I got involved with many people. I joined a grief support group, and we had plenty to talk about — our deceased loved ones, our many losses (we lost not just the person, but the life we shared, our hopes, plans, and a feeling of “home”), our pain, our slow rewakening to life, and ourselves.
It wasn’t until recently, when I started taking exercise classes and came in close regular contact with a group of women that I ended up in a situation I wasn’t prepared to deal with. Idle chitchat. Gossip. Talking about each other, especially about those who weren’t present.
At first, I didn’t think anything of it since the remarks weren’t malicious, but when I found myself making comments (nothing bad, just things another person had done or said to me) I began to feel uneasy. I’m no paragon, but I do like to do the right thing. Eventually I came to the conclusion that we’re women. We talk about people. It’s who we are. (Though studies have shown that men gossip just as much as women do.) I have no delusions of being exempt as a topic of gossip — I always figured that in my absence they talked about me, but it didn’t matter. It’s not my business what other people think of me. (Strange. I just realized that once I took the opposite tack, that it is my business.) In fact, after one lunch — yep, we often exercised then went to lunch afterward to replace more than the calories we burned — I had to leave before everyone else, and when I got up to go, I gave them a big smile and said, “Now you can talk about me.”
To be honest, we talk mostly about ourselves (though food is a strong second topic). The comments about others were quite remarkably sparse, perhaps because we spent most of our time togther concentrating on our movements. Talking about our families and absent friends was simply a way of passing inactive moments.
But the truth is, even if I thought there was anything wrong with the remarks, I would not have walked away. I found such talk compelling. Intriguing. Connecting. Privileged.
After coming to an accommodation with gossiping, I didn’t think anything more about it until a few days ago when one of the women called to let off steam about a reprimand she’d gotten that day, which she felt was uncalled for. Since I too was upset about something that happened in that class, we commiserated with each other at great length. I thought it was over and done with until today when she called to ask if I’d repeated a specific, totally innocuous remark she’d made during our commiseration. I hadn’t repeated her remark, but she was so upset, the call ended on a bad note.
As a result, I am rethinking my position. I want to try to stay away from any remarks about others, which sort of leaves a void in the conversation. Most people after or even during exercise have no interest in deep discussions of important ideas or significant events, (not even me, though at other times I’m all for such discussions), but I’m used to being quiet, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
The idea of not being privy to insider remarks, however, has left me feeling bereft. Such conversations were so compelling, I can still feel the pull — a sort of magnetism — when I think of the exchanges (though to be honest, I can’t remember many of the actual remarks. They truly were innocuous and not at all malicious.)
I’ve spent the past few hours doing what I always do when faced with a conundrum — research, in this case, researching why gossip is so fascinating. (Not celebrity gossip — I have zero interest in such unimportant folk. Unimportant to me, anyway.)
According to an article in Psychologies Magazine, Gossip builds social bonds because shared dislikes create stronger bonds than shared positives. Two people who don’t know each other will feel closer if they share something mean about a third person than if they say nice things about them. It’s a way of demonstrating their shared values and sense of humour. Add to that the thrill of transgression, since we’re supposed to be nice and positive.
However much we may disapprove of gossip in theory, it’s very common behavior, says social psychologist Laurent Bègue. “About 60 per cent of conversations between adults are about someone who isn’t present, and most of these are passing judgement.”
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has suggested that gossip is a vital evolutionary factor in the development of our brains; language came about because of the need to spread gossip, and not the other way round.
Participants in a one study were asked “to gossip with a friend about a mutual acquaintance, as the researcher filmed the exchanges. Those who rated their self-esteem highly showed a clear pattern: they spread good gossip when they felt accepted and a more derogatory brand when they felt marginalized. The gossip may involve putting someone else down to feel better by comparison. Or it may simply be a way to connect with someone else and share insecurities. But the end result is often a healthy relief of social and professional anxiety.”
Other studies show that gossip is a way of defining group behavior and keeping the group intact, which is a survival skill left from our tribal days. Even today, talking about what others have done is a way of defining group values. If you talk about someone who disrupted a class or who slacked off at work, it’s an object lesson, showing the rest of the group what actions are acceptable. (Do what the teacher says, don’t play around in class, make sure you shoulder your share of the burden.) Talking also helps prevent problems from getting out of hand by letting members of the group vent their frustrations with other members.
So, according to an article in C. Health “We shouldn’t think about gossip as just a time-wasting, tacky habit. It can actually be a valuable social tool to help us understand and get along better with those around us.”
Whether gossip has a healthy role or merely a destructive one, we are infinitely fascinated by other human beings, and gossip tells us not only about the gossipee but also the gossiper.
Still, I think I’d feel better if I stop making comments about what other people said or did to me. At least most of the time. Anne Lamott said of writing, and the same might be true of talking: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.