In which Wade discusses his dislike for gossiping. And manages to do
so without talking about anyone behind their back.
[Warning: This entry could be somewhat offensive to some,
even though this is not my intent.]
I dislike gossip. That is, I dislike people talking negatively about others when the person being talked about is not available to clarify and provide perspective.
Why do I dislike it so much? Strangely enough, it has nothing to do with any negative personal experiences with gossip. I have no recollection of ever finding out about malicious/inaccurate gossip being spread about me. In fact, when I discover that others have talked about me when I'm not present, I'm usually pleasantly surprised; I just don't assume people talk about me at all if I'm not present, and when I find out they did, it usually gives me warm fuzzies (but admittedly this probably wouldn't happen if what they were saying was negative). Also, the above is not meant to imply that noone has said negative things about me (I'm sure many people have). I just haven't learned about it. So, actually experiencing the negative consequences of gossip is not the reason I dislike it so much.
I can, however, identify quite a few reasons why I do dislike the whole idea of talking behind someone's back. First, it is incredibly prevalent (in a very unpleasant way) in the tiny rural environment I grew up in. It quite literally is the most common hobby for everyone to engage in, and for many people (especially people who for whatever reason are not busy all day long with farm work) it is their primary means of interacting with other adults. Even though I grew up in this same tiny rural community, I knew very early that I didn't think the same way everyone else did. As a child, I read incessantly, and my understanding of the world came more from books than from the tiny culture in which I lived. From books, I learned that there are profoundly different ways of thinking, and that they are equally (or more) valid than the one being exhibited in my real-life community. I am so very frustrated with the close-mindedness and intolerance that rural communities exhibit. The amount of acceptable deviation in behavior from the "norm" (and there really is a "norm", in these rural communities) is incredibly tiny compared to in larger communities. And is completely foreign to truly large urban communities in which there simply is no "norm" to force people towards.
As an aside, the above might give you the impression that I experienced persecution for being "different", or felt that I had to pretend to fit in in order to avoid such persecution. But I don't remember that being the case. In fact, when I was a teen, I don't know if I even realized how differently I thought from most of the people in the hamlet I grew up in. My mother and I were very close when I was a teen, and I had no reservations about telling her anything. But in hindsight, that was simply because I hadn't ever done anything that she disapproved of (I really was close to a perfect child, if I do say so myself :-) But when I went away to university, I started realizing that my mom and I thought quite differently about many things. About cultural diversity, about sexual orientation, about political philosophies, about sex itself, etc. Nowadays, conversations with mom are rather amusing, because we quite literally are on opposite ends of almost every spectrum you can imagine.
Although I don't remember suffering negative consequences personally from gossip, I am a fairly empathetic person in some ways, and can easily imagine how hurtful it would be if someone were to find out about negative things being said about them behind their back, so it always makes me very uncomfortable when I am involved in a conversation that turns towards gossip. For one, the perceptions of the individual doing the gossiping are influenced by their own biases and flaws. It is highly unlikely that the gossiper has made any real effort to understand where the other person was coming from. After all, it is easier to pigeon-hole and assume people are "bad" than it is to try to really understand them.
Furthermore, why talk negatively about someone else behind their back? It doesn't help them improve themselves, and instead just makes their life more difficult because others now have a more negative opinion of them (justified or not). And if personal improvement isn't the motivation, why is the person gossiping?
Having said that, I *do* understand that gossiping can be a psychologically *enjoyable* act. Often, such negative comments stem from internal unresolved anger/irritation/frustration directed towards the victim of the gossip. Being able to vent ones negative emotions can be therapeutic. And some people might even argue that it is better to say such negative things outside the earshot of the victim, so as not to hurt them. But this hypocritical attitude is even more offensive to me than gossip. In fact, I've just now realized (LJ really is a tool for growth!) that part of my intense dislike for gossip stems from my even more intense dislike for hypocrisy (I won't go into the reasons for that here - another entry some other time :-) I really am of the opinion that if you cannot say something to a person, you shouldn't say it at all. But keep in mind that I *want* people to give me constructive criticism about the things I am doing that bother/irritate/offend or otherwise produce negative responses in them, and I very much prioritize honest above social propriety. So I'm not advocating that we should only say positive things, and never say negative things. Just that if you are going to say negative things about someone, why not talk *to* them. It is almost a guarantee that such a conversation will reveal that at least some of the negativity stems from misunderstandings, rather than from some universal "badness". Or that the gossiper will realize that the *reasons* the one being gossiped about are due to personal insecurities or difficulties, and that they deserve empathy and help, not persecution.
Let's go back and revisit the argument that it is better to say negative things outside the earshot of the individual so as to avoid hurting them. Ignore my objections about prioritizing social propriety over honesty, and my equally strong objections to people's apparent preference to live in self-delusion rather than know about negative truths. There is still something very wrong with this argument. Imagine yourself being in a situation where you find out that someone has said something negative about you behind your back. Compare the hurt from that with the hurt you would have experienced had they told *you* the things that were bothering them (hopefully with your best interests in mind, with constructive criticism and a receptivity to having their impressions swayed by the intentions behind the actions they found so objectionable). Wouldn't you agree that there is less hurt in the latter than in the former? In fact, even if they were rather inconsiderate in how they present their thoughts, I can easily imagine the "behind the back" hurt being much more significantly hurtful. If they do take some care to present their concerns to you constructively, it will most definitely be much less hurtful (with much more potential for positive things to come from it) than hearing about the same thoughts spoken behind your back.
Admittedly, however, we cannot just compare the hurtfulness of (retroactively discovered) behind-the-back comments and a more direct and honest approach, because we must take into account the possibility that the individual doesn't discover the behind-the-back comments. If the person doesn't discover the gossip about them, then one might argue that there was no harm done. But this is patently absurd. First, even if they do not find out, they are still harmed (by having someone else now holding a more negative opinion of them, without any ability to clarify or explain). Second, the victims of gossip seem to very often find out about what was said. Gossip about gossips is, after all, poetic justice. If you say something negative about someone to a third party, and somehow expect them not to tell others what you said, you really are deluding yourself.
Now, lets revisit my comments about gossip being enjoyable. I think part of my intense dislike for gossip is my personal understanding of how it can be *enjoyable*. Because I really dislike finding something so petty and negative to be enjoyable. So I conciously stop myself from indulging in the act, even though I too experience a (sick) kind of pleasure from it. Gossip can be very addicting. The more you engage in it, the more difficult it is to stop. The more you engage in it, the more you attract others who also like to gossip. The less you gossip, the easier it is to not gossip. And the less you gossip, the fewer gossips you attract.
Yet another reason for my contempt of gossip is the implicit manipulativeness of the act. Gossips are setting themselves up as the arbiters of what is and is not acceptable behavior, implying that the way they think is "right", and the way others think is "wrong". A perfect example is the situation where a female is labelled as a slut. This word, when used negatively, says much more about the speaker than it does about the target. The word is meant to be hurtful. It is meant to chastise another for behavior the speaker considers inappropriate. But who the hell are they to dictate what is appropriate for someone else? And what does the word "slut" (used negatively) actually mean, anyway? I'm not asking about the dictionary definition, but the definition used by the talker. Usually, it means "someone who has had more sex than me (which obviously makes them inferior because I'm more pure)". Alternatively, the speaker might not care at all about the sexual activities of the victim, and instead be using the term purely a means of being hurtful or trying to make other peers dislike the victim. Ugh. I cannot begin to describe how distasteful this dynamic is. If someone is being sexually promiscuous, there are usually two possible reasons. One, it is a cry for help. Two, they want to be. In either case, labelling them a slut is absurd. If it is a cry for help, why not help them? If they like sex, how is their enjoyment negatively impacting anyone elses life? The term "slut" can be an incredibly powerful, erotic thing (and yes, there is a journal entry coming on this topic).
Hmmm. More reasons for my dislike of gossiping. There is a cliche that females are more likely to gossip than males. Much of this stereotype is invalid, because our society selectively uses different terms to describe the same actions, depending on the gender of the ones involved in the action. A bunch of girls sitting around talking are labelled as "gossiping", while a bunch of boys sitting around talking are labelled as "talking". Stereotypes can be self-fulfilling, after all. However, I *do* think that there is a gender difference in how problems are resolved. Males tend to be much more direct about differences of opinion, while females are much more circuitous and circumspect. And there are positives and negatives associated with both of these approaches. For good or bad, females are often much less likely to confront the individual with whom they have a disagreement than a male would be (for many different reasons). Instead they talk about the issue with friends, and otherwise negotiate in a manner that is very foreign to male (or at least my) thought processes. And yet almost every female expresses frustration with the cattiness and spitefulness of other females. Puzzling stuff, I tell you. Why not try compassionate, sympathetic, real honesty? Seems much more productive, but maybe that is just me. And yes, I know I am being snide. Almost catty, even. :-)
The reasons for disliking gossiping just keep multiplying! Here is another. I have always been very bothered by someone having an inaccurate perception of me. If someone dislikes me because they really know me and for whatever reason just don't like what they know, that is one thing. Not pleasant, but certainly acceptable, and (in many situations), quite understandable. For example, I can easily understand why a person who incessantly gossips would dislike me. People don't usually like people who have contempt for one of their defining characteristics, after all. I can also easily understand why a person who interprets my appreciation for candor as rudeness, would dislike me. In any event, if they really *know* me, and dislike me, that's ok - it is acceptable to dislike someone when you know them. But I am really bothered by someone disliking me because they believe something about me that isn't true. This is not an earthshattering observation - I'm sure everyone dislikes this situation. But the observation relates gossip in that if someone says something behind my back, I have no means of explaining where I was coming from. And although I agree that actions are the most important consideration, intentions certainly have some significance. And even actions themselves are so very easily misinterpreted without active clarification. Sadly, people seem more prone to gossip than to spending the time to truly understanding an interpersonal dynamic.
To wrap up this entry, I need to do a little meta-communicating. I am aware that the tone of this entry could be offensive and off-putting to some, because it implies that I am some paragon of virtue and that gossip-mongers are evil. I'd like to clarify that I most definitely am not claiming to be a paragon of virtue. I have many personal flaws - it is just that gossiping is not one of them. A tendency to gossip, or the lack thereof, is only one of many, many personal characteristics. As well, there are an infinite number of shades of gray between "refuses to gossip" and "talks negatively about others behind their back all the time". I'm not claiming I'm better than anyone, just because I conciously refuse to gossip. I *am* claiming that refusing to gossip is better than partaking in gossiping. I *am* stating that if a person starts saying something negative about another person when I am present, I will ask them to stop.
I realize that an entry like this can be somewhat problematic, because it will come across as a direct attack on at least some of the people who read it. It was a mistake for me to use second-person pronouns in this, but I'm sorry, I'm too lazy to go back and change the entire tone :-) On the other hand, I quite intentionally chose the word "victim" to describe the target of gossip, even though it is not a neutral term. I assume most people agree that gossip is objectionable, even if they engage in it, so it shouldn't be too biasing to use a word that emphasizes the negativity. I could have used "target" or "recipient" or some other word, but "victim" seems entirely appropriate. After all, the targets of gossip are, by definition, unable to defend themselves.
If you have ever gossiped, and especially if you regularily do so, you have a variety of choices. You can get pissed at me for expressing contempt for this activity, and choose to ignore everything I've said and maybe even disavow further contact. Alternatively, you can respond with arguments that demonstrate that there are positives associated with gossiping that outweigh their negatives. Or you can acknowledge that gossiping isn't nice, yet continue to do it anyways. Or you can take this diatribe to heart, and conciously decide to stop gossiping. Stopping really is quite easy. If someone says something negative about someone else, hold up a hand and say "I don't want to hear negative things about someone unless they are present - I gain pleasure from such gossip, but feel that it is counterproductive and not in their (or our) best interests". It works quite well. If you do this, and discover that you no longer have conversations with your friends, get some new friends :-) Yes, I know I'm coming across catty. I'm sorry, but I really, really dislike gossip.
One last thing. In a situation like this, I can completely appreciate that expressing any opinions counter to those expressed here has some real inhibitions associated with it. However, I *want* to hear some counter arguments, and *want* to explore the various sides of this issue that have not been addressed. I *want* people to play Devil's Advocate and point out things that I haven't expressed or considered. For example, one big topic that I haven't yet discussed is about the fact that gossip is not always white and black. Is the statement "He cheated on his last girlfriend" gossip, or is it an important thing for a friend to know if she is contemplating a relationship with him? I do realize this, but I want to wrap this up - I'm going to go eat some cookie dough now. Anyone want to continue the thread?