If someone was to ask me if I gossip, I would vehemently deny. After all, I despise this practice. Yet, to be perfectly honest, on occasion, mindlessly, I participate. It bothers me. It bothers me that I do, and it bothers me even more that I do it mindlessly.
Considering the question of why we tend to spread gossip, especially these days, with the immediacy of social media, my initial thought was that it is because we want to harm another, laugh at their behalf. After all, gossip is mostly, although not always, negative. Yet there is more to it. It occurred to me that we may chat about someone we don’t even personally know, and hardly care about, but the fact that the person at hand failed (which is what gives rise to most wicked chatter) makes us feel, at least perceptually, better. “Have you heard George is getting a divorce? Turns out his wife cheated on him all these years.” “I hear that Jane has a drinking problem. Yeah, she is now in rehab. Her poor children…” “Someone told me the Smiths are going through a foreclosure. Who would have guessed with the mansion they have?”
Notice that a typical gossip line is made out of a rumor and then an opinion. What the opinion really stands to show is how much better we are than the person who is the subject-matter of the talk. The fact George is getting a divorce means that my flailing marriage is still much better – thus I am a better spouse. And as to Jane – I have a lot of stress in my life too, but I don’t turn to the bottle to drawn my issues – I face it like a real man! What a loser. Not to mention the Smiths – they were such a showoff – serves them right for not knowing how to handle their financials as good as I do. I am such an amazing person! Ha!
So, turns out that gossip is nothing more than a cover-up for our own small insecurities. After all, if I was really convinced I am so great I would not have a need to belittle others.
But there’s more. Gossip also answers our need to feel important. If we don’t make the news, at least we can enjoy the little attention of being the messenger, and for a few precious moments get everyone’s attention. How pitiful is that?
I’ll end this post with an interesting observation by Walter Block, an American Austrian School economist and anarcho-libertarian theorist, who suggested that when comparing gossip and blackmail, both involving the disclosure of unflattering information, blackmailers would ethically come on top as superior to the gossip spreaders. Block writes, “In a sense, the gossip is much worse than the blackmailer, for the blackmailer has given the blackmailee a chance to silence him. The gossip exposes the secret without warning.” Block further adds, “It is indeed difficult, then, to account for the vilification suffered by the blackmailer, at least compared to the gossip, who is usually dismissed with slight contempt and smugness.”
Something to think about next time we mindlessly discuss other people’s lives.
Learned from: observing a response to gossip on Facebook.