On my 13th birthday, my mother told me that men talk about sex in locker rooms. Then she handed me a piece of cake. I ate, thinking of naked men, their bare feet against the tiled floors, their hair wet from the shower, as they snapped towels at one another and talked about breasts. I was horrified, and even though my breasts were not large enough to be the subject of locker room talk, I decided that if they could talk about me, then I could talk about them.
That day, I became a gossip, and I have never since reformed.
If I had nothing nice to say, I repeated it at every opportunity. At college, I decided to major in history because it would allow me to read other people’s mail. I took great pleasure in knowing other people’s business, and I was unrepentant. Gossip concerned itself with decisions made in public, or in the company of another person, and in the words of the Lebanese-American author, Kahil Gibran, “If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.”
No one admits to liking gossip, but no one steps away from the water cooler, either. So let me come to its defense. Kierkegaard disdained gossip for always consisting of “some trivial fact such as that Mr. Marsden is engaged and has given his fiancée a Persian shawl.” Gossip, like literature, exposes human motives and makes us reconsider our own. Who has been offered what job, who is sleeping with whom, who has betrayed a friend? The answers ask us to examine how we would act under similar circumstances.
Gossip comes from a Saxon root: God’s sib — of one kindred under God. It brings us to account, and most importantly, protects us. I knew nothing about Sam, when he asked me out to dinner, except that he was a year older and a consummate liberal. On the first date, he told me about his family; on the second, he took me for tapas at Barcelona and by the third, I found out that he had been sleeping with a freshman all along. Why did he think I wouldn’t find out? Current undergraduate enrollment is 5,247. Bumpass, Vir. (Population: 6,351) is more inhabited. But instead of ending things, I let him pay for my dinner and played it Puritanical — and I had always regretted it.
Two weeks ago, I went on a date with a Republican. He drove a pick-up. It had such a high bed, and I was wearing such a short skirt, that it was impossible not to see my underwear as I stepped into the front seat. Otherwise, I thought it went well — until I heard, over the course of the following day, that he was involved with two other women. One date does not monogamy make, but my friends wanted to protect me; to protect myself, I told him that between Caroline and Anna (not their real names), I didn’t want to get involved.
But afterwards, I realized that I had not even given him a chance to explain himself. In an e-mail later that week, I learned that the situation was more complicated than it first appeared.
I found myself thinking about a time in high school when a friend copied an e-mail left open on a school computer, and forwarded it to me. It was from my best friend, Caroline, to her friend, Hillary, “omg u have to look at alice’s pictures from saturday nite… i’ve realized alice and patrick … lov[e] when people take pictures of themselves.” Hillary responded, “they r all soooo egotistical!” I did like taking pictures of myself. I had just bought a new camera. I liked taking pictures of everything.
Gossip does not have to be false to be unkind. As Heidegger noted, with aristocratic disdain, “Idle talk is something which anyone can rake up; it not only releases one from the task of genuinely understanding, but develops an undifferentiated kind of intelligibility.”
But though we know that he-said-she-said is innocent at heart, but not so in practice, we seem all too willing to speak before genuinely understanding. Perhaps it is because gossip defends as often as it libels, protects as often as it humiliates. It is a mechanism to say that which we would prefer to leave unsaid but still need to hear.
Last year, my friend was interested in a senior, who had taken a semester off. No one thought anything of it: Yale students burn out or break down as often as electrical equipment on factory recall. But the senior had not taken the semester off to recover his mental or physical health. He was serving his Executive Committee sentence for sexual assault. She wouldn’t have known if a concerned friend hadn’t told her. She tried to understand, but in the end it was that information, which kept her from getting hurt.
Alice Baumgartner is a senior in Berkeley College.