The healing power of gossip | Sunday Observer

The healing power of gossip

What is gossip? Most of us know that it is information passed from one person to another about other people’s behaviour and private lives, often unkind or untrue remarks. When someone tells you, “Here’s an interesting piece of gossip about Mrs Daniel,” you naturally want to hear it. Sometimes, we ask our friends and office colleagues “What’s the latest gossip?” A female colleague used to ask me, “Do you want to hear some juicy gossip about our boss?” But another elderly colleague did not want to hear any gossip. He would say, “I have no time for idle gossip.” Nowadays, I miss a lot of office gossip, but whenever I meet my old pals we exchange local gossip as if we are sharing a hot cup of coffee!

Some newspapers run gossip columns which are savoured by readers. Such columns are mostly about politics, politicians, their wives and mistresses. No doubt, such columns may infuriate some top politicians. But, they have to grin and bear such barbs. Some gossip columnists do not spare anyone, including film stars, when it comes to passing remarks about the high and mighty. Innovative modern newspapers give prominence to gossip columns even on page one.

Sense of belonging

“I’m telling everyone,” a friend of mine used to say whenever she had a particularly juicy piece of gossip to share. “But remember you didn’t hear it from me.” It is perhaps human nature that we do not want to miss out on hearing the latest gossip. But, we do not want to identify ourselves as gossips because we know it is something immoral. The world, however, is changing and modern psychologists say gossip is good for everybody. Some scuttlebutt may put our minds at rest.

Psychologist Frank Mc Andrew says, “Gossip helps us to know who we are and how we fit in.” That sense of belonging is the key to sound emotional health. Of course, all the stories we share may not be benign. Psychologists distinguish between rumours which are often unfounded and malicious, and gossip which is mostly about those superior to us. If your boss is involved in an illicit love affair, which happens often, that is grist for the gossip mill. Jealousy lies in a corner of your heart when you speak ill of someone higher than you on the social ladder. We also gossip about their shady deals and not about their achievements.

Gossip is mostly about negative information. In Mass Communication we learn that good news is no news. That is why bad news makes headlines. Spreading or speaking about someone’s negative information helps us to move up a rung or two at least emotionally. Despite education and social background we engage in gossip about other people who matter to us. For instance, we do not gossip about the President of the United States because he is someone distant to us.

In India and Sri Lanka, village women gossip at the well or bathing places. These are ideal places for them to exchange tales about their neighbours. According to psychologists, this helps rural communities to establish moral boundaries. They gossip when a married woman has an extramarital affair with a youth or when a village damsel goes astray, and gossiping women pass judgments on various acts according to their moral standards. Social anthropologist Kate Fox, of England’s Social Issues Research Centre says, “We all have to learn the unwritten rules of our society or social group.” Gossip helps us to discover, negotiate, transmit and reinforce those rules.

High society

This does not mean that only rural women gossip. Even men and women in high society gossip about their friends and colleagues. Their issues and targets may be different from those of rural women. Politically powerful people gossip about their rivals or their spouses. As Frank Mc Andrew has pointed out, “Gossip provides a means of social comparison, a way for us to compare ourselves with others.” It is generally believed that comparisons are odious, but such a rule does not hold water when it comes to gossip.

Philosopher Ronald de Sousa said, gossip has a ‘saintly value’. What he meant was that gossip allows us to exchange truths that might otherwise remain hidden, painting a truer picture of what it is to be human. Oscar Wilde seems to agree with Ronald de Sousa when he said, “Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”

Wide margin

When you know that you are the butt end of office gossip, what are you going to do? Are you going to punish those who are gossiping about you? This is not something possible to do. You cannot stop others from gossiping about you. Therefore, give them a wide margin. Enjoy what you do whether it is fishing by the river or lecturing to a group of university students who are eternally thinking of their next protest march. Gossip is not going to harm you in any way either physically or psychologically. If you ignore all the gossip in newspapers or in your workplace, gossip mongers will have to find some other hobby.

In sum, gossiping is a harmless hobby invariably practised by many people. Although women get the credit for being great gossips, men are not excluded either. However that may be, there is no law to prohibit gossiping. Even when you happen to meet someone on the street, you tend to do a little bit of gossiping. The problem is if we are not going to talk about others, who else will do it? Therefore, the concept of gossiping as something immoral has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Whether you like it or not, people will be gossiping about you probably because they know the healing power of gossip.

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