No one likes a good story more than me. I made a career of my fascination with human behavior, relationships and all things psyche. I was curious and labeled “nosey” when I was growing up, so I learned to ask fewer questions and keep quiet with my theories on why people do and say the things they do. Still, I became the entrusted confidant. Go figure.
As I became more comfortable in my own skin, I learned to embrace my curiosity. At Hampshire College, where the foundation of their pedagogy is built on mode of inquiry, I was finally free to ask as many questions as I wanted (except from my housemates, who still thought I was nosey). Damn. Here’s the truth – I was never a mean-spirited person. Curiosity, fascination and genuine concern are not the same as gossip. I tell this story because it illustrates an important distinction.
You’ve probably heard this theory: “People gossip about others to make them feel better about themselves.” What does that really mean? Gossip is a way of turning the focus away from our own pain and better yet, away from the possibility that we’ll be found out as having pain, flaws and foibles. When we derive some level of pleasure from discussing the misfortunes of others, or when we grab the bag of chips and US Magazine to numb-out our own issues, it has little to do with “them”.
Look at the tabloids and our culture’s focus on celebrity misfortune: divorce, weight gain, addiction, rehab, financial disaster, etc. We are a culture that is overweight, in-debt and dependent on pills. Isn’t it easier to shame a public figure than take a good hard look at our own lives? The media knows we love Oprah’s struggle with weight and Lindsay Lohan’s drinking binges. Why? Because we see our selves in their struggles. It doesn’t even matter if the information is true; we want to connect with their stories and we want to know that we’re not alone. The media sells magazines by appealing to our feelings of shame around these very same issues. We have strong reaction (good & bad) to someone else’s struggle when there is something resonant about their story. We want to know more.
Of course, tabloids are an extreme and generalized example. To bring it closer to home, imagine hearing about the success of someone in an area with which you are struggling: your best friend is engaged and you’ve just broken up with your boyfriend, a less qualified colleague was promoted, everyone around you is pregnant and you’re having trouble conceiving… That niggley, icky feeling or the underlining wish for their failure really has nothing to do with them, does it? Oh, and by the way, we’ve ALL had those thoughts (along with the satisfaction of finding People Magazine at the hairdresser or doctor’s office).
I haven’t even touched on the pain that gossip causes another. In my eyes, it’s really just the grown-up version of bullying. I have a challenge for you: The next time you find yourself getting a slight charge from hearing of someone else’s misfortune, take a look and acknowledge if that’s an area in your own life that needs attention. Then look deeper.
What’s been your experience with gossip?