This holiday season, I’m going to parties and dinners for the gossip.
I grew up in a southwest Colorado town with 799 other souls, 18 miles from a town big enough to have produce at the grocery story. The newspaper editor called the weekend I was graduating from high school to ask about the two cars parked outside my mom’s trailer in addition to her ’71 Dodge Van. She wanted to know who was visiting.
"My uncle's here from Arizona and my grandfather's visiting from Minnesota," I told her. "Are you really going to print that in the newspaper?"
“People want to know,” she said. “We’re a close-knit, caring community.”
I knew she just wanted to find out if my long-lost father no one in that town had ever seen was making an appearance.
I live in a city now. I don't notice unfamiliar cars parked in my neighbor's driveways. I don't need to. I know which celebrity is having a mental breakdown, which woman in a Facebook group raised money to leave her abusive husband and then didn't, and which one of my husband's co-workers got in over his head with medical bills and needs help with Christmas presents.
Gossip has been maligned as the mere trifling activity of women -- and even the word gossip sets many women’s teeth on edge. It seems that men don’t suffer the same degrading treatment in this area. While women “gossip,” men “network” -- so let me start by offering that up as a phrase that shows the power of the word and the women who wield it. We could continue to call it networking, but that doesn’t capture the historical and social importance of gossip. It could be called social and cultural information exchange, social control, social empowerment, situation control, micro-event management, authentic human communication. Power is exchanged through salon politics, moms-in-the-hallway intelligence gathering and exchange, and in soccer mom social observation studies.
Many people believe there is a difference between gossip and information sharing -- they believe that gossip is negative. The usual rule is that if it’s done with bad intentions, then it’s gossip. If it’s out of care and concern for the person being spoken about, then it’s information exchange.
Whatever we want to call this phenomenon, gossip has played a part in saving or harming human beings since human beings turned around and other people talked about them behind their backs. Learning personal details about other humans gives us insight and information that helps us in our dealings with them. In fact, gossip can keep women safe from abusive men and can keep children safe from bullies at school. There are communities in which gossip about HIV status can save lives.
In my hometown, much of the gossip was about maligning the characters of teenaged girls and women, keeping the conservative sexual practices under strict social control, but from time to time, gossip was about taking care of people who were suffering difficulties. When Vern lost his job, everyone knew it, and people did their best to discreetly offer some help -- some folks dropped off hand-me-down clothing for the kids. Many of the children in our town wore many of the same clothes, but we never talked about it. It was just a fact of our lives. A certain kind of poverty connected us to each other and gossip helped us knit our needs together.
Social media communities are a tough place to gossip because not only are people’s personalities flattened, the gossip is, too. Hurting people is so much easier online.
One of the Facebook groups I belong to suffers waves of gossip sickness, and the latest one resulted in us wrestling with a metaphorical, and virtual, nest of snakes. One young woman’s behavior set in motion a she said/she said/she said event. Many people left the group. The young woman, the subject of the gossip, left the group and was unavailable for comment when another round of she said/she said/she said made another pass through the group after a collection had been taken up to help her out financially as she’d been struggling, in part, due to the event that set the whole gossip circuit in motion.
I’m still not sure what happened for sure. Wanting to know what happened is important, but more important to me is the knitting together of a caring community. I guess I’d like to think we can carve out small towns -- little utopian villages online -- without, of course, the patriarchal sexual repression, among other things.
The volume and variety of gossip available via social media is overwhelming. Creating online communities takes energy, time, and know-how. Knowing how to share information and which information to share where and when are important skills for the 21st century. Take some advice from a former small-town girl -- gossip, like country music, can be done properly, but hardly ever is. Here are some rules:
- Reclaim gossip. It’s not a bad thing to care about people behind their backs.
- If you've been a victim of gossip, remember what Truman Capote said, "I don't care what anybody says about me as long as it isn't true."
- Beware anyone who says, "That bitch!" right off the bat.
- Remember that it takes a long time to get to know people.
- Never pass up a chance to gossip face-to-face.
This holiday season, I have plans to meet some of my social media friends. I can’t wait to see how their IRL personalities match up with their virtual personalities. Do they look like their profile pictures? What filters do they use for their photos? How can I best use those filters, too?
I don’t know what I’ll find out at parties and dinners this holiday season, but you better be sure I’ll be listening.