Call me old-fashioned (Is that still a phrase?), but I was taught not to gossip. My mother used to warn me not to talk to my friend Jamie about anything important. Apparently his mother -as well as wearing outrageous dresses from a nearby used-clothing outlet and always buying left-over vegetables just as the local corner store was about to close for the day- was also a gossip. My mother did not want to be the subject of any of that kind of talk. It’s not that she was above looking for the occasional treasure on bargain tables, or haggling over lettuce that had spots on it -she just didn’t want it spread around the neighbourhood. Winnipeg was like that in the fifties: innuendo was seldom a force for good; you had to be careful what and to whom you whispered about people in those days.
So I have learned to listen for stray words whenever I happen upon them. My mother never said anything about overhearing information, just about passing it on willy-nilly to people you hadn’t decided you could trust. Stuff about strangers always passed her smell test, though.
Over the years, I have developed a special expertise in piecing together fragments of conversations -especially if it’s coming from the seat in front of me on the bus -I can accidentally lean forward if it becomes more interesting.
The other day, for example, two elderly ladies were whispering loudly into each other’s hearing aids -something about a woman in the next apartment always fighting with her husband, I think.
“I suspect he must be having an affair, Ethel,” the woman sitting beside the window in a frumpled-up blue coat confided to her friend. “It was that kind of yelling.”
Ethel leaned her ear closer to the blue coat and shivered expectantly. “Isn’t she the one that never puts her garbage bags in the can properly?”
Blue coat nodded vigorously. “Figures, doesn’t it?”
They were both quiet for a moment, each no doubt mulling over the significant coincidence between the arguments and the improper disposal of garbage. Finally, Ethel straightened her own version of her friend’s coat, leaned over to her ear, and hissed something that sounded like “Who’d marry garbage like that though, Joyce?”
Joyce shrugged and leaned over to the waiting ear. “I haven’t heard her yelling for a few days now…” She sat back to adjust her hat that kept catching on Ethel’s hairdo. “Maybe she’s solved the issue…”
Back went Ethel’s lips to the slightly humming earpiece beside her. “Do you think maybe she…?”
Joyce made certain they locked eyes, nodded sombrely and then headed for the closest ear. “I wouldn’t put it past her.” She made sure to blink noisily -quite a feat, I thought- and then whispered, something about there being a suspicious smell to the woman’s garbage yesterday.
“You don’t think…?” Ethel seemed shocked.
But Joyce crossed her arms over her chest and nodded triumphantly. Then, glancing out of the window she suddenly reached for the cord and yanked it. “Almost missed my stop, Ethel,” she said quite loudly as she got to her feet and bumbled awkwardly around her friend. “I’ll phone you tonight and tell you whether or not there’s any more shouting… Or garbage,” she added, conspiratorially, and a subtle change in her wrinkles silently hinted that there would be more to the story -so stay tuned…
Ethel just sat there shaking her head after Joyce got off the bus. The problem with gossip is not knowing how it will turn out -and maybe how much to believe.
It got me thinking about the subject though, and I came across an interesting treatment of the issue in BBC Future by Christine Ro. I learned that gossip and rumour are probably different. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181210-do-we-have-gossip-all-wrong ‘There’s an important distinction to make here about how most of us define gossip – as a way of trash-talking someone not present – and how scientists do. In social science, gossip usually is defined as communication about a person who isn’t present in a way that involves evaluation of that person, good or bad. This kind of informal communication is crucial for sharing information. Gossip is necessary for social cooperation; it’s largely this kind of talk that cements social bonds and clarifies social norms … And as explained by Jennifer Cole, a social psychology lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, “gossip isn’t about things that are happening in an environment. It’s about people.”
‘This has implications for credibility. “Gossip is typically true,” says Sally Farley, a psychology professor at the University of Baltimore. “So, if it’s misinformation, it would be better characterised as rumour.”’
Gossip was once a way of protecting groups from harm by alerting them to possible dangers. Indeed, one might well ‘reflect on the role of gossip-based whisper networks in informally protecting women from well-known assaulters, in the absence of formal mechanisms that took their complaints seriously.
‘“People failed to appreciate that the #MeToo movement does fit the definition of gossip,” Farley says. “I believe that this movement was a way for women to fight back and reassert power.”’
And not just women: ‘despite the longstanding perception that women gossip more than men, there’s no evidence that this is the case. What’s clear is that men and women gossip differently. Male gossip is more likely to be self-promoting, and men are more likely to call it ‘exchanging information’ or ‘keeping in touch’. Women also tend to make gossip more entertaining, with lots of details and an animated tone.’ Uhmm, I’m just quoting here…
Anyway, I gather from the article that gossip is pretty universal; it survives because it can be useful. ‘And despite common assumption, gossip tends not to be negative – instead, the majority is positive or neutral. One influential study of British conversation found that only 3–4% of the gossip sample was malicious.’
I have to admit that I’m still trying to figure out in what category to put the news that Joyce was passing along, though -who it helped. Okay, okay… I really want to know what was in the garbage, eh?