In Praise of Gossip
A Personal Perspective: A defense of the wicked art.
Posted March 17, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
“Wait,” I ask my friend Raven, “so the ex-wife is living with Steve and the new wife? They’re all in one house together?”
“Yeah, ever since quarantine.”
Raven and I are having a delightful Sunday morning, sipping our lattes and sharing a sticky bun at our local coffee shop. Raven has been my friend since college. She is tall and dark and lean, with wit as sharp as her cheekbones and an ability to cast a spell on most anyone.
Raven leans in. “And, are you ready for this?”
“Yes. Tell me.”
“The ex-wife and the new wife are former lovers.”
I think that gossip gets a worse rap than it deserves and I would like to do my part to redeem its sullied reputation. Let’s start at the beginning. The word gossip itself comes to us from the Old English word “godsibb,” which referred to godmothers talking with other women around the birth of the child, a sacred time where they could speak freely about the goings-on in the community apart from the menfolk.
This is my imagining of the conversation at the birth of a child in some ye olde English town many an indeterminate number of ye olde years ago.
Godmother #1: I heard Liam has been conducting intimate relations with a woman.
Godmother #2: Let us rejoice. It is good Liam please Hannah.
Godmother #1: I think you miss my sentiment. The woman Liam is having relations with is not Hannah.
Godmother #2: Not his wife Hannah? Then who?
Godmother #1: Liam is having relations with Lily, the young woman who arrived in last May’s storm.
Godmother #1: I’ve never trusted Lily. Lily said she was from the land past the dunes but I’m not sure I believe her because she seemed to know nothing about the sea.
Godmother #2: Also she didn’t respond to the name Lily.
These two ye godmothers are doing important work here, work that goes beyond facilitating the arrival of a new life into the world. They’re deciding on and reinforcing their community’s values and mores. They’re connecting over the shared belief that Liam should be having sexual relations with his wife Hannah and not Lily, the stranger who got blown in by the storm. They are taking a stand together: People should not sleep with those who are not their mate, particularly with suspicious people who arrive from mysterious parts.
I’m sure these women from my imagined ye olde town relished these times with their lady friends, these days of labor where they were set apart, days which could stretch on and on, into the night, into the morning, and into the night once again. I imagine they relish these times just like I relish my time with Raven. And when I am with Raven, hallowed time in which we get to talk about the goings-on and comings and goings of our friends, acquaintances, former classmates, teachers, and lovers.
Other People Are the Most Interesting Thing to Talk About
What else is there to talk about that is really of any interest?
A new restaurant in town? Yawn.
A windy weekend? Terrible traffic? Difficulty parking? Donuts? Diamonds? The Dodgers?
They all get a great and mighty yawn from me.
Dear God, before each of our brief appearances on the human stage is up, are we not going to talk about the only thing that has ever been of any interest to anybody really to talk about: other people?
I have given up many things, but I will not give up talking about other people. To be sure, there are types of gossip that are indeed reprehensible, which I would never seek to defend. Slander of course, and its written correspondent, libel, do not deserve any sort of apologetics. Sharing untrue information is obviously a bad move, one that degrades both the gossiper and the gossiped-about.
Also, gossip engaged in for the purpose of starting and spreading damaging rumors beyond the bounds of a discussion between intimates, I certainly cannot endorse. As Terry Pratchett says, “A lie can run around the world before the truth gets its boots on.”
Venomous gossip, wishing for and celebrating another’s demise or humiliation, I’ve partaken in, but that sort of malignant gossip leaves me with an emotional hangover. Mutually rejoicing in another’s failure can give a nice high in the moment, but I find I inevitably end up feeling a little sickened afterward.
But, let’s not damn all forms of the grand and subtle art of gossip because of the many and varied accounts of its abuses.
Gossip Is an Art
Gossip, I believe, is a sacred, much-maligned art that offers a deep intimacy, a collusion between friends of shared sensibilities, a cabal of two or more dedicated to discussing the nature of what it is like to be human through a case-in-point example of a mutual friend, acquaintance, or celebrity.
“OK, so it’s Steve, new wife, and ex-wife. The question I have to ask and I think you would justifiably be disappointed in me if I didn’t, are we talking ... a mé·nage situation here?”
Raven pulls off a piece of shared sticky bun, puts it in her mouth, and considers as she chews. I am silent, reverent, in front of this virtuoso in the craft vulgarly known as gossip.
Raven picks up her napkin and wipes the corners of her mouth. “Well, OK, yes, of course I thought the same thing."
I laugh. I love Raven and miss the days when we could gossip and gab late into the night of our dorm room.
“But no, I don’t think Steve has a menage in him. Threesomes are a lot of pressure. And somebody needs to curate … or host … I’m not sure the word, but whatever the word is, Steve is not up to it.”
“Yeah, Steve was never good under pressure.”
“Remember in the dining hall, the day he saw that other people got larger servings of teriyaki chicken in the lunch line? And he told us he was going back to get the chicken he deserved?”
We laugh with relish over the phrase “chicken he deserved.” In fact, I would say, the sound that came out of both of our mouths could rightfully be called nothing but a cackle.
Gossip's Sweetspot Is the Gap Between Appearance and Reality
Now, this may seem simply like two catty ladies tittering about a former classmate. But let’s look a little deeper, which is the nature of good gossip itself: looking beneath the surface, suspecting propped-up appearances, and probing at the truth.
Raven and I are discussing character here. We’re doing a little character analysis, deciding and reaffirming what we think is a good way for a person to live their lives, what kinds of conversation we think are essentially good to have with the world, and which fall short. Now, I’m not saying we’re brilliant in this discussion. We’re not social scientists. Or anthropologists. Or Truman Capote.
But we are just as serious in our pursuit.
Raven pushes her cup aside, clears the sugar caddy, and leans in. “I actually hope it’s a mé·nage situation.”
“Yeah, that could be really nice for him."
“Agreed. I hope he finally gets the threesome he deserves.”
Rather than hurt or poison anyone, even our own perspective, I think Raven and I’s little interaction offered us a chance for intimacy. We got to be co-conspirators in the plot to get to the bottom of the case of Steve. We remembered old times, invoked our shared past, voiced affection for a mutual friend, and perhaps most importantly, cackled like crones.
And so I will proudly, with discretion and discernment, gossip on.