Tiffany Jenkins: Gossip is good

Gossiping: a favoured pastime with a bad reputation. Picture: Getty
Gossiping: a favoured pastime with a bad reputation. Picture: Getty
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WHY did so-and-so get that promotion? And did you see you-know-who with her in the pub? Tiffany Jenkins wants to know everything

Most weekends I find it pleasurable to catch up with friends and dish the dirt. Actually, the same goes for getting together with colleagues on weekdays, on a coffee break or in between tasks.

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We don’t discuss our annual targets or review the work schedule, but instead speculate on who is sleeping with whom; what so-and-so said about someone else; and why one of the team left to go to another job. In short, to gossip. To talk about other people, those elsewhere, delighting in morsels of information about them that may be of a scandalous nature.

But boy, does gossip get a bad press. And it has done so for some time.

George Eliot compared it to smoke from dirty pipes: “Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it. It proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker.”

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy described the salons of rich, frivolous and powerful people who partake in malicious and dangerous talk. Rife with “ill-natured gossip… the conversation crackled merrily like a burning faggot-stack.”

This can mean, as you lean in to listen to what is being said, or start to whisper something about someone else, that it’s hard not to think of oneself as a bad person. One who my old teacher Mrs Burns would have given a severe telling-off. One who is shallow. Someone who should be concentrating on more serious matters. Small talk of this sort, after all, is something to be frowned upon. Respectable people don’t go there.

Gossip didn’t start out with negative associations. The word is derived from godsibb and meant godparent. It was in the 16th century that it came to be mean a person who indulged in idle talk. And by the 18th century Dr Johnson offered three definitions in his magnificent dictionary: “one who answers for the child in baptism”; “a tippling companion”; and “one who runs about like women at a lying-in”. The last one says it all in regard to how gossip came to be seen – as something done by women and about trivia.

Then the philosophers got in on the act. Many of them dismiss the garrulous among us. Kierkegaard hated gossip. He argued its subject matter was non-existent and that it was destructive. Gossip and chatter “obliterate the vital distinction between what is private and public” he wrote. It trivialised that which is inward and inexpressible. His own age, that of the early 19th century, was lambasted as one in which the press offered snide gossip to a public greedy for superficiality.

Equally critical, Heidegger argued that idle talk was something that distorted genuine efforts at understanding by making people feel like they know everything. He saw it as a barrier to real communication.

Gossip has its inane and sinister side, of course. It can cause damage. Secrets can be betrayed, privacy invaded, and reputations destroyed. Untruths can become fixed and understood as the true story.

What’s more, gossiping can be an unpleasant display of power, a way of showing “I know something you don’t know”. The act includes some, but it excludes others. And it would be a problem if all we did was gossip, if we only read Heat magazine and avoided perusing the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

A balance is required.

But we cannot be quiet and solemn all the time. If we didn’t talk about other people, on occasion, about their foibles and mistakes, it would be boring. Life would be no fun. And rightly, there are rules when it comes to tittle-tattle: never gossip about a good friend; never reveal a true secret; and don’t risk harm to others or to one’s own reputation.

But gossip doesn’t warrant all the opprobrium so often attached to it. Because it can be valuable. It can have value to the individual, but also social value. It can promote social solidarity, affirm alliances and reinforce bonds between friends and colleagues. It can spread information that turns out to be important.

Gossip is one way to question official accounts: what you have been told by people who want to keep something from you, such as acquaintances, those in charge, or the management team. Say you want to understand why Peter in accounts was fired, or why Jane was promoted. The official announcement, the office e-mail from above, will not reveal much. The gossip may have some relevant information. And gossiping can be a way to let off steam if not.

Being interested in the minutiae of other people’s lives is not always invasive, it is human. When we gossip we forge intimacy. We share our worries, we seek and give reassurance and support.

And as we learn about the lives of others we learn about our own.

Indeed, as we talk to someone about the latest celebrity scandal, for example, we are often talking about our own lives. We are really, in the process, comparing our life to the life of, say, Catherine Zeta-Jones who has broken up with her bloke, Michael Douglas. And in so doing we reassure ourselves that she is like us – she suffers the same trials and tribulations as most other people. If anything, this helps us feel better about ourselves. Things go wrong for the famous as they do for us. Certainly, you would never wear that dress: what on Earth was she thinking?

History owes a debt to diarists and to the gossips who recorded intimate liaisons, what was said off-the-record and the rivalries. These writings aren’t historical facts like dates or sources, like official documents, but they give us a real flavour of a period and shed light on it. They can also be a lead to a story that is yet to be uncovered and verified.

So come a little closer and spill the beans. Tell me: what’s going on between so-and-so, and with whom did you see you know who?

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