Growing up, we’re taught that gossip is cruel and that secrets are no fun. Talking about people behind their backs is rude and hurtful. It is catty, shallow. It’s bad.
And all of this is true, right? We owe it to each other and ourselves to be honest and forthcoming, right?
Wrong. Juicy secrets and anecdotes about people we know are essential to understanding each other and getting along socially.
Obviously, we teach children that secrets are bad so that they learn to be considerate of other people’s feelings. A 5-year-old may be upset if he is excluded from a secret. At that tender age, even the absurd reassurance, “Don’t worry, it’s not about you,” isn’t enough to assuage the immature soul.
What we sometimes fail to recognize is that, when we grow up, human relationships become more complex. For adults, exclusion comes with the territory. We compete with each other for jobs and spots at universities, we fall in love with the objects of others’ admiration. We have to learn to deal with disappointment, because without it there is no gain.
Exclusion and hurt feelings, though, are the least of it. We get over them. Even hyper-sensitive adults who are horrified by the very idea of gossip relish the occasional secret. We don’t just tolerate gossip; we thrive on it. For one thing, talking about other people is an unavoidable aspect of friendship. We think of gossips and we think of housewives making things up about their fat neighbor and the milkman but, really, gossip appeals to everyone. I have heard my nicest, most modest classmates clap their hands together and exclaim that someone they know is “sooo annoying!” I have seen my most humble, pious friends jump at the very words, “Can you keep a secret?”
Perhaps it is human nature — even a sort of social survival instinct — that interests us in knowing other people’s secrets and keeping our own. Never mind the obvious importance of secret agents, anonymous sources and the Fifth; you have only to look around to see that knowing other people’s business is important. In any social configuration, an insider’s knowledge of group politics is key to interactions, and is usually best learned when someone whispers to you that You-Know-Who and What’s-His-Name are sleeping together, or that So-And-So’s grandmother just died.
So, to all you touchy folk: Get over yourselves! Whoever came up with that insufferable chant, “Secrets, secrets are no fun / Secrets, secrets hurt someone” had obviously never known the joy of keeping a secret all one’s own, or of confiding one to a friend. They may never have seen the outcome of a good surprise party. Call me shallow, but knowing, keeping and, let’s be honest, telling secrets really is fun.
When by gossip we mean the spreading of interesting information about other people, let’s agree that, even if someone is a little sensitive, it is relatively harmless. What is harmful is gossip in the form of nasty, untrue rumors: of lies. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a gossip as “A person, mostly a woman, of light and trifling character, esp. one who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler.” And here, I think, is the real reason for gossip’s bad rap: it is associated with catty women. Even though we don’t hear it in so many words, the supposedly harmful social conventions of gossip and lies are usually feminized. “Catty,” “shallow,” even “petty” — these words describe gossip, and women, at their most terrible.
In fact, according to an Aug. 16 New York Times article, when it comes to gossip, “men appear to be just as eager for the skinny as women.” The stereotype of the gossipy woman — the nosy neighbor, the rumor-spreader — is damaging both to women and to gossip. Neither, in reality, is necessarily bad.
The truth is, gossip is part of what it means to be a person. We live among each other, and we relate to each other in all kinds of different ways: We bond over similar interests, we dislike people who say things with which we disagree. We — sometimes — make friends because we share feelings of frustration (or worse!) toward mutual acquaintances. We are gossipy beasts by nature.
At the heart of it, gossip is more true to our nature than most things that occupy our lives.
Helen Vera is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.