Gossip(ed) Girl

[Previous Suburban Farmgirl, October 2009 – October 2010]

It’s the social grease of back fences, front porches, and stitching bees. Or, more locally, of book clubs, school parking lots, walking routes, and wherever else two or more women gather. Gossip: Automatic sin? Or one of the great grey zones of female communication, that dicey – but navigable — intersection of entertainment, information, and, sometimes, just plain mean injustice?

I ask as someone who’s passed along her fair share of tidbittery about her fellow man (and, er, woman). And yet, now that I’ve recently been on the subject-matter end of some very snarky gossip of the worst kind – fiction – I’m feeling a little less cavalier about the topic.

(How do you illustrate gossip? By posing your grown-up toys!)

Ugh, where to start? I certainly don’t want to repeat the particulars starring yours truly, considering how hurtfully unfair and untrue they are. (And all the more hurtful because the buzz was started by the one person in the world who most should’ve known better.) But a kind neighbor who’d heard it third- or fourth-hand cued me in this week because, as she says, she’d have wanted to know if it were her. And, because the dirt dished on my fitness as a mother – mothering being a subject I’ve written about since my newly-minted 18-year-old was in utero – she was worried for me professionally. (Not that I can control what people think or say about me; but there’s a difference between savaging my ideas about parenting, which readers routinely do, and which I accept with a wince because it goes with the territory of being a journalist / columnist, and savaging me as a parent with a distorted version of my life story.)

But what raised this neighbor’s hackles most was the tone of the conversation. “Nobody should go into awful, horrible tirades about someone she doesn’t even know, not in my house,” she said indignantly. (The gossiper didn’t know my neighbor knew me.) “It’s just not something you do!”

Agreed. But is gossip ever okay? You might be surprised that I still think it is. Women who never ever gossip seem to me like unicorns, or like moms who say they’ve never ever raised either hand or voice to their kids – I’ve heard they exist, but I’ve never come across one yet.

Why there I was, just the other day, blithely informing an old friend about a mutual acquaintance’s arrest. I was shocked and I knew she’d be concerned for him, but it was news I’d learned in the local paper, not idle speculation. Fact is fair game. Fact, after all, can be useful to survival. Women sharing info is a way we shape life, and help one another: So-and-so eloped, had a preemie, lost 30 pounds, is worried about her mom with Alzheimer’s, sent her son to war, scored at a sale, discovered the secret to growing dream tomatoes. Not made-up lies, but well-informed truths — emphasis on the well-informed, which is why instead of believing fourth- and fifth-hand gossip you may as well buy a tabloid, same distance from reality.

The intention helps color whether it’s “bad” gossip or “good,” too. Haven’t we all (well, I have) talked about someone behind her back with envy or amazement: “What do you think Lulabelle puts in her pie crust that makes the men swoon?” “Is that her real hair color?” Not malicious, just curious. (What can I say? I’m a curious person!)

As Barbara Walters herself says, “Show me someone who never gossips, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t interested in people.”

It’s even on the fair side of the grey zone, I think, to speculate about somebody in order to try to make sense of behavior: “Why do you think AnnieMay stopped talking to us so abruptly back in 1992?” “Why do you think X stays married to Z?”

Talking about those out of earshot may be preached against in some Sunday Schools but I can’t picture myself quitting the business. Done the nice way, it’s a form of bonding. It’s human. A book club where you just talked about the book? Sounds like a wine tasting without the wine!

But to lean in closer for the sotto-voiced whispers that titillate because they’re so Brangelina-in-the-‘burbs far-fetched? To assassinate a perfect stranger’s character based on an angry, illogical rant someone overheard? Please. Promise me that before you pass the deep dish, you’ll imagine how you’d feel if you were the main ingredient. Then imagine if your kids were to taste a morsel of it.

Ick.

If you can be certain your tasty dish contains what’s purely innocuous, true, and available for general consumption, please pass it my way! But if you’re not sure, I know we can find plenty enough other stuff to blab about: the weather, food, weight, bargain hunting, personal insecurities, favorite vacations, our very own life stories….

Here’s one more thing we can talk about: My take on gossip. Hypocritical or realistic? What do you do when somebody’s girl talk goes risky right in your kitchen? Or when you yourself are hankering to share a tantalizing crumb you’ve heard? It can be so tempting to  share….

Leave a comment 21 Comments

  1. Mary says:

    I am so sorry this happened to you.

    It is extremely hurtful when the attitude behind the information passing/gossip is intended to hurt , defame or slander someone below the belt.

    That isn’t curiosity or information sharing but, a shark attack. Most people can tell the diffence when conversation like that happens.

    Saying something good about the person and trying to refocus the conversation by asking a question on an other topic not person can help. But, if they persist I’ll say , "hey, we all have bad days and we don’t know all the details; so lets believe the best."

    When I’m tempted to gossip, I sometimes refrain if I know I would go towards the "hurt the person" mode.

    I try to keep it informationally versus personal. I don’t always succeed.;(.

  2. Martha Jaquith says:

    What a great discussion, I have lived in rural Montana most of my life and the bonding, sharing and love that is created through the caring and yes gossiping of neighbors is what holds lives and communities together,

  3. Penny Ward says:

    Enjoyed your article on gossip. A friend shared a "THINK" acrostic with me that I try to run through before I "share" (work in progress!)-
    Is it True?
    Is it Helpful?
    Is it Inspiring? (encouraging, uplifting)
    Is it Necessary?
    Is it Kind?
    If I still have the urge to share I ask myself "What is my motivation for repeating this?" and finally,
    repeat Ephesians 4:29….
    Thank you so much for your insightful article.
    Blessings,
    Penny

  4. Janice K. says:

    I have been the subject of many gossips. I am old enough where I kind of like to make people wonder…Did she? Didn’t she? Sometimes I like to drop things into conversations that probably creates more gossip by the ‘gossipees’.
    I would also like to confront the gossip in your story (especially since she includes your children) and just plain ask her why she said what she did. You will scare the *!?** out of her and maybe next time she will think twice! You know that jealousy is the most common thread among this type of thinking.

  5. Robin says:

    I live in a tiny town where gossip runs rampant. I’ve taught my neighbors that I will listen to their stories, but if something is said that is harmful,or mean spirited, I will speak up and let folks know that unless the person is there to defend themselves, I cannot continue the conversation. I have developed the reputation of not being a gossiper.
    Having been on the other end of the gossip, as will happen in a small town, I have always met it head on. If someone is saying something bad about me, I will approach that person with an open heart and ask them to tell me what they are saying or where it originated. I will speak up for myself in that situation. What I have found is that by taking this action, it opens up a discussion so that whatever is truly the issue can be raised, opened and cleared up. It also trains folks to come directly to me with issues, so things don’t become hurtful.

    Community is way to important to have it torn down by gossip. Only by moving into the conflict in a clear, heart felt way, can things be resolved, emotions expressed, and healing begins for all.

  6. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    love these ideas —
    in response to a Whisper comment about where the grey-faced doll came from — the Museum of American Folk Art store in New York City. I had such a strong response to that lady, she just "spoke" to me and I had to bring her home! I love the crewel embroidery of her face!

  7. emily says:

    "If they are talking behind your back, they are in the right position to kiss your a**!"
    Sorry if that offends but really, don’t let the nasty tales of one busy body colour all the other woman who share news, good or sad, about friends and family. We need to know what is going on around us but that doesn’t mean we need or should spread lies. Check for facts before repeating!
    And what a good neighour you have to let you know what was going on and to stand up for you when she heard it. I’m thinking she may well deserve a step up in title to ‘Friend’!
    Oh and btw, I really like Penny’s rules! Thanks for sharing! :o)

  8. Joanna says:

    Great topic and very interesting views. My take is this, Gossip is just that, Gossip. There is one thing to inform someone of something going on that would be useful information that is fact based, it is entirely different when it is speculation and not fact based.

    I will be the first in a group to stop gossip dead in it’s tracks, as well as defending a friend who’s reputation is about to be tainted by falsehoods of gossip.

    I have few "close friends" for this very reason and anyone who shares " interesting tidbits" with me, well, it stays with me. . period. I have known "secrets" that once the information is out ( by the person who’s secret it was) and the "Gossip Girls" show up to share, they are always shocked to know I was aware quite some time ago as I set there gossip straight ( remove the fiction and tell the facts)

    For some, gossip is a way of life and okay, for me, it is destructive on many levels. . . since it is not fact based in 90% of the cases. . . the other 10%? Well it usually is embellished and twisted. . so for me, gossip is not accepted. I would rather decline from taking part in any event that meant taking part in the gossip circle. Just my two cents. 😀

  9. Claudia says:

    Ya know….this kind of thing is always going to happen….Take everything with a grain of salt and let it go.

  10. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    I’ve received so many great comments in Whisper mode, thank you. Want to share a great Irish proverb someone passed along so you all can hear it: "We live under the shelter of each other."

  11. Tina says:

    Crumby! When I went through a divorce, the same type of thing happened. People just can’t get enough gossip. I think people gossip out of fear that it could be them. It’s a way to affirm that they are just fine while so-and-so is the one falling apart.

    As far as if it’s sometimes okay, my knee-jerk reaction is to say NO! Never. It hurts. But, when I really stop to think about it, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it IS okay to tell a friend that I heard so-and-so might need some encouragment about such-and-such, but only if I know it’s 1) true and 2) okay with the person I’m mentioning it about it. Usually I don’t know both at once, so… I try not to gossip.

  12. kay says:

    Similar quotes…….

    Is it true
    Is it kind
    Is it necessary

  13. Tammie says:

    Paula,
    You’ve heard the saying "life is too short to sweat the small stuff… and it’s all small stuff"? Anyone that actually knows you will know whether or not to believe what is said. The thing about hurtful and malicious comments that are made is that they make the person telling them look bad, not the person being talked about. We all tend to fight for the victim right?
    I have a sister in law whom I love to talk to. We can talk for hours on the phone and none of it is gossip. (really!) That’s why I love talking to her. We share an interest in our geneology, we both have grandkids that we adore and keep us in stitches. We share recipes and what’s going on in our life… and we share our faith. Every time I talk to her I feel good about life. I feel the same way when I read the farmgirl blogs. They are so inspiring that I look forward to them, all of them.
    The way your neighbor responded is more than likely the way most people will respond when this person shares their views of your life so don’t let it get to you.
    Besides, the people that matter the most know the truth right? (I’m talking about your kids.)
    I heard the saying when I was a teenager that when a person points their finger at someone else, they have three fingers pointing back at themself. Just a thought. :)

  14. Denise of Oz says:

    Wow! There’s no end to the nastiest of women in this corner!
    Unfortunately I also was on the end of malicious gossip – which is just what this is – and the barbs went deep.
    This woman is so jealous of you is all I can say when gossip in a nasty vein like this.
    I was privy to a situation of vindictive gossip a few months back and was absolutely appalled by these women I was around and the things they were saying – all comments that would be left unsaid if the person(s) were present.
    I eventually took myself home very upset about this situation and a whole lot wiser. Put the walls up and never comment on anyone when they are not around

    When comments are made in my work situation about others, I try very hard to turn it into a positive line of conversation, so at least my consience is clear and I would not be embarrased if that person walked into the room whilst I was talking about them.
    That is probably my line – I admit I too used to gossip and sometimes not in the nicest way, but after having been the brunt of nasty gossip I had to change my ways. I try very hard to look for the positive in everyone.

    From what I have read in your book and columns you are a wonderful mother with the best interests of your family paramount.
    Next time you see this woman, say "Hi, heard on the grapevine you have an issue with my parenting." with a big smile on your face…. bet her jaw will hit the ground and she won’t know where to look… – she’ll never say anything nasty about you again, since you’ll meet her head on about it. Have fun with it lol.

  15. carol branum says:

    Hi,I figure thats what Spirit made Bueaty shops for,read about my salon "Razzmatazz"in a small farm town,have a great day,I am going to the Lamar Free Fair tonight,so I am working on my hair today sometime if I get a chance,I am really booked today getting all these ole gals ready for the fair,I need a small tape recorder bad,like real bad,and I swear next pay day,I am driveing to Joplin to go purchase myself one,you ought to hear this stuff,it is fantastic!love ya carol Branum Lamar Mo.Hey its a dot,not and @,I,ve been writeing @,and its a dot,themofarmersdaughter.blogspot.com

  16. joy says:

    If we are busy about OUR lives, we will probably not have time for gossip. Being the last to know or to share is not always a bad thing. Be involved in the lives of others with hard working hands and an open heart, not an open mouth. :) The net result is far better–connection without complications from trying to keep up with what you have said and who heard it. :)

  17. cyno says:

    I grew up a free spirit in a small town, and I know first-hand how gossip can fly without the smallest basis in fact. I still express my opinions of others to a few trusted confidantes, but never if it would hurt an innocent bystander, and not until I’ve said it to their faces first. I just don’t like peeps who dish it up indiscriminately to all & sundry, and if an acquaintance is inclined to scurrilous hurtful gossip, she NEVER will become a friend.

  18. Kris says:

    Mom always would say "life is too short to waste your time on that". Her mother repeated things. She told her father, sister, and brother what her husband thought about them. She told her husband what they had said. The results were not pleasant. Unfortunately, my grandmother developed a blood clot during her pregnancy with Mom. Her family all tried to help. Her mother in law took the toddler. Her sister and niece helped take of her. Her brother’s wife also helped. Grandmother was only 24 when she died, a month after Mom was born. Her husband spent all he had on her final hospitalization. He had to ask his wife’s father to pay for the funeral. He also had to move in with his parents. His older daughter was already living there with his mother, but his mother only wanted the child she already had. Mom was put up for adoption. Grandfather never contacted his in-laws again. Wills were messed up because heirs could not be found (the family farm had to be sold). (We would know nothing at all about this situation if the adoption had not had to be unsealed for Mom’s security clearance in WWII.)

    "Life is too short". There may not be time to straighten things out. We need to share information to be helpful, but not out of malice.

  19. Joyce says:

    I’ve found a great way to put a stop to vicious gossip. I ask the person who’s spreading the gossip to pray with me for the person she’s gossiping about. It abruptly shows them how mean it is to gossip, & how un-God-like it is

  20. Paula,
    I am so sorry you had to experience this type of thing, but I think at some point or other we all have been there … and it is always devastating. Jealousy is often the culprit, as well as other people’s insecurity. Two years ago it happened to my family and me here in a very little NE town, and it spread like wildfire. The gossip amounted to character assasination and was propagated by an unscrupulous relative no less, with whom we had gone into a business venture on a gentlemen’s handshake. Big mistake … esp. when one of the parties turns out not to be a gentleman!! When false accusations and rumors were spread that included my children, however, it was beyond devastating to me. I was livid. (I actually had to go out and buy a punching bag to get my anger and frustration out in a healthy way to release it). But the truth of the matter is that people can say anything they want (and they might actually talk themselves into believing it themselves) but all that REALLY matters is the truth, and you know what THAT is. So do the people who know you. What ended up happening to us was that the unscrupulous family member in question was the one who actually looked like a jerk. It hurt him immensely more than it did us in the long run (even though it hurt us emotionally at the time). People who are your friends and know your true character will judge for themselves, and not be swayed by viscious propaganda. In our case, our relative’s business declined drastically along with his reputation. You WILL come through this, but it’s hell when you’re still in either the midst or the aftermath. Believe me, you will get beyond it, but in the meantime, I am right there with you; I know how you feel! Hang in there.

  21. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    wow, thanks. My favorite advice of late came from my pastor (not about this subject but it applies well): The truth will out.

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