“Her dad isn’t really her dad,” Mom told me. “And that’s a secret — don’t you dare say nothing to her.”
At nine years old, I didn’t know what a bomb Mom had just dropped about my best friend. I nodded and went back to my toys.
Our living room doubled as the gossip hub in our small town in Appalachia. If you got divorced, had a child out of wedlock, or died within fifty miles of our house, assume Mom would know by the top of the hour.
She had our whole holler bugged with human antennas. One neighbor called three to four times a day with updates about her in-laws.
My friends’ parents hated having me over.
“Don’t tell that girl nothing!” they’d warn their kids. “She’ll run right back home and tell her mom.”
I denied it, but they were right. I loved telling Mom about other people’s business. I felt as important as one of the grown-up ladies who always called the house.
Twenty years later, I’m still a diehard blabbermouth. At nearly 30 years old, if you tell me a secret, I’ll probably go home and call my mom.
Here’s why I’m not ashamed of that and you don’t have to be either.
Gossip is good?
Recently, I nearly sprained my wrist clicking on a headline that promised to excuse this bad behavior: Gossip is Good.
One of the first paragraphs didn't disappoint.
“Not only can gossip be quite fun, it’s actually very useful when it comes to forming bonds, encouraging good behavior in others, alleviating frustration, and feeling better about our lives.”
Exactly! Mom shared gossip with me because she wanted to bond! Sure, bonding with a third-grader over false paternity is a terrible idea, but Mom didn’t think about that.
I’d like to say no harm done, but my friend found out about her dad. Even though I didn’t tell her, I was responsible, and gossip played a role.
I felt conflicted again. Here was evidence of gossip’s destruction, but I had other memories of gossip bonding Mom and her friends. Ladies from the holler gathered in our living room to swap stories about anyone not in the room. These women took care of each other and entertained each other with stories.
They should’ve stuck to recipes?
I don’t think so. Gossip held our community together and at times ripped it apart. Gossip can’t be all good or all bad. It’s both. Gossip is a tool, and it’s our job to use it correctly.
The question is, how do we tell good gossip from the bad?
How dirty is your dirt?
Bad gossip is almost always negative and specific. Be extra careful who you share it with, if you share it at all.
Good gossip is trivial, entertaining information you can share with almost anyone.
Recently, a coworker told me her boss — one of our very serious-looking executives — brushes a fluffy cat every morning before he comes to work. That is some bitchin’ gossip: an amusing secret that humanizes an otherwise gruff person.
Had she told me she saw him at the clubs last weekend snorting coke off a hooker’s ass, I’d have a very different opinion.
You aren’t always going to be qualified to make the call as to whether the gossip is “clean” enough to risk sharing. Spreading gossip, like channeling dark magic, can enhance your relationships or blow up in your face. Be aware.
Check your sources.
In fourth grade, I sneaked into the restricted section of the library. I found a book called The Miracle of Creation. Inside, the pages detailed reproduction from your first date to episiotomy, with helpful drawings for those of us who didn’t yet know what a scrotum was.
Wanting to know more, I smuggled the book out in my backpack.
After I got home, I left it there while I went to have dinner and play with blocks. I’d save my pornographic reading for later.
Before I got the chance, Mom went through my backpack looking for homework and permission slips.
She pulled out the book. “What the hell’s this?”
My cheeks reddened. An idea came. “Mrs. Joyce gave it to me!” I told her.
Mrs. Joyce was the school librarian. Mom already hated her for some slight from years earlier.
The next day, Mom confronted her. Mrs. Joyce denied giving me the book but generously admitted she should’ve noticed me in the restricted section.
Mom said she was a pervert.
There is a thin line between lighthearted, meaningless gossip and something more sinister. Dr. Levine points out that when gossip is false, it can become harmful: “Gossip can become slander, and then the story can become more powerful than the facts.” — Gossip is Good
Before you spread the latest tale, remember to check your sources.
Is one of them a fourth-grader in trouble?
Are they a person with some other motivation to lie?
These are obvious checks we throw out the window when the gossip is juicy enough.
Don’t be a coward.
The biggest mistake you can make if you’re a gossip is to pretend you aren’t one. That’ll get you labeled a phony which is way worse than a gossip.
Everyone knows I’m a gossip. “I gossip because I love stories,” I say.
That’s half the truth. The other half is that gossip is a currency I trade for other people’s time and affection.
That’s too real for lunchtime chitchat though, so usually I stick to the line about the love of stories.
Find out why you gossip, the real reason, and then be open about it: I gossip because I believe true stories are worth exchanging (and so that you’ll like me.)
You might hear fewer secrets by broadcasting you’re a blabbermouth. (Though you’d be surprised what people still tell me — come sit by me and I’ll tell you). The tradeoff is they’ll be way less pissed when they find out you’ve been running your motormouth again.
Gossip is a tool, and if you use it wrong, so are you.
Gossip is a tool, like magic, or a blowtorch, or that one dude who tries way too hard at the gym.
Gossip isn’t all good or all bad, just like a hammer doesn’t have any moral value without a nail to hit, or glass to smash.
Learn to gossip the right way: Check your facts. Don’t ruin reputations for shits and giggles. Be upfront. Spread good stories.
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