I love gossip. I love hearing it, I love sharing it and I love the prickle of anticipation I get when someone says ‘oh you’ll never guess what I just heard’. You have only to whisper ‘did you hear about so-and-so’ in my vicinity and I can give myself whiplash. In many of these respects I doubt I’m alone, particularly considering I work with an office full of journos, who are notoriously and professionally interested in the subject.
The allure of gossip is obvious: we get to feel like we’re in the know, to bitch about or laugh at others and, when you get down to it, it’s interesting - that’s the whole point, after all. Oxford University Professor Nicholas Emler, who wrote Serpent's Tongue – a book about why we gossip – also believes there’s an element of self-presentation in all gossip and he’s probably right. I think we gossip more about so-and-so shagging someone from distribution or about why whats-her-name has not a chance in hell of getting that job more than we gossip about how lovely so-and-so’s new haircut looks or what good work whats-her-name has been doing lately.
Before I go on I should qualify, lest nobody ever speak to me again, that I don’t mean I have an arbitrarily big mouth and can’t keep a secret: where a secret has been confided to me, concerns a friend of mine or is potentially hurtful I can and do keep them safe and sound. (I mean I’ve never told anyone that Ali once killed a man have I? Oh wait…) But gossip of the harmless and trivial kind, ideally involving people I have no loyalty to, is like some kind of delicious icing-covered donut: not exactly good for me but delicious fun.
So to conclude: yay gossip, right? Well yes and no.
I saw the dark side of gossip recently when a very good friend of mine was the victim of the bad kind of gossip. Someone she knows spread a rumour about her - the insulting and very much not true kind - and someone else. The rumour was not only embarrassing but potentially hugely destructive to the people involved. It was also, as I say, not true.
But what do you do in this situation? Deny it and you’ll probably just ensure more people hear about it. The old no-smoke-without-fire idea will likely mean the rumour-spreading douchebag will just reach a bigger audience. On the other hand ignore it and people might interpret your silence as confirmation. Confront said douchebag and he’ll just get more determined to blacken your name. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation.
Fortunately for all parties concerned, in this case, my very good friend is more calm and sensible about these sort of things than I could be. She took the high road - alerted the people involved about what the douchebag was saying even as she put her nose up in the air and recognised the rumour as too pathetic to comment on. And kudos to her for handling it so well.
But what if I hadn’t known her and had heard the rumour from someone else? Would I have listened? Would I have believed it? Would I have passed it on? These are the things I’ve been thinking about lately and it’s not pretty. I’m not saying the whole experience has turned me off gossip - it would take a long time to break a lifetime habit - but it has reminded me of the fact that there most definitely can be smoke without fire, that not all rumours are true and that the person telling you about so-and-so and whats-her-name could well have heard it from a douchebag.