If there is one thing human beings like to do it is talk. We talk about ideas, we talk about facts, we talk about ourselves and we talk about others. But arguably, many of us seem most interested in talking about others. Listen to a casual conversation around the office or your favourite pub and it doesn’t take long before it transforms from chit chat to gossip about the personal affairs of others. Gossip is much bigger than that though. The New York Times claimed recently that the celebrity gossip industry tops more than $3 billion per year; covering internationally important news, such as that of Justin Bieber throwing eggs at a neighbour’s house, right through to your everyday celebrity gossip about who is dating/ marrying/ divorcing who.
There is plenty of speculative commentary available claiming that gossip is part of the human condition and that far from being a negative, it can be good for people in that gossip creates group solidarity and shows that people accept one another as they are able to have a laugh at the expense of someone considered an outsider. It is considered valuable currency to know about the inner news of our superiors or when the next transfer, promotion or dismissal is about to take place. All of us have likely gossiped at some time or another, and most of us have probably been the subject of gossip. Of course not every conversation about another person behind their back is severely problematic, but as a society we have far too much interest in observing and commenting on the faults of others (as we perceive them anyway).
The ability to talk freely between individuals who share a particular identity is certainly a positive sign of some level of familiarity or friendship, but while gossip may bond people it can also rapidly tear down and poison a person’s good name. Take an example from Arthur Miller’s renowned play The Crucible which dramatises the story of the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts during 1692 and 1693. In the play there is a scene in which the main character John Proctor is being pressured to falsely sign a document so as to save his own life. Asked why he will not put his name to paper he cries out, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!” The moment is a particularly poignant reminder of the value of a person’s name, a value that is often compromised by gossip. Whether it is be the true or alleged faults of a co-worker, politician or celebrity, it is rarely needed for us to disclose them to a wider audience.
Besides tainting a person’s name, gossip goes against the natural human pursuit towards truth, and truth is where we thrive. Most gossip is akin to a game of Chinese Whispers, even if there was some truth somewhere it is usually embellished (often to make us seem more highly regarded). But even if we know certain information about someone to be completely true the reason it becomes gossip is because it is not our information to share. In that way we are acting against the most truthful way to live out that situation, which would be to keep quiet. More often than we may realise, our gossip about the problems of another, actually does little more than cheapen our own reputation. And we shouldn’t forget that the one who is known to gossip, is likely to become the one eventually gossiped about.
What is most sad about gossip is that many of us seem more interested in who is about to win the latest Oscar or what sports star has a broken leg, rather than paying attention to a family members marriage that is in need of help, or that friend who has been suffering bouts of depression. How many of us know more about the lives of Lady Gaga or Queen Elizabeth II than our own loved ones? Reading about other people in Woman’s Day can rarely be described as entertainment or relaxation. In its true form entertainment is a joy of life, but if we are allowing ourselves to be absorbed in the lives of people we don’t know, we’d be much better off closing the magazine and instead surprising a relative or friend by dropping in to share a coffee and some genuine conversation. In summary, the old adage really does ring true; if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.