Evening jogging is the time only for me, which I spend with myself and nobody else. Fresh air, music… This is when I think about many different things, sometimes about my patients’ stories. Recently, a gossip has appeared in my mind. This is a social phenomenon which we all know very well, as old as human language. In ancient China creating gossips and using them professionally in the form of intrigues was no less widespread than in antique Greece and ancient Rome. The Bible also mentions malicious slander and warns against thoughtless gossip. In the New Testament, the apostles write in their numerous letters about the sin of word, double tongues, biased praise and loquacity which harms your neighbor. Apostle James usually appeals against abusing the word “[…]but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” (3:2-11).
In everyday language we can often hear the word “rumor”, e.g. “a rumor has spread about somebody”. Thus, it is a little “less elegant” synonym of gossip. The origin of this word seems interesting. In ancient Rome the uncertainty concerning how gossip had been born and who had spread it was expressed in the fictional persona of Rumor. People were a little ashamed to admit that gossiping constitutes human vice. In his “Metamorphoses”, Ovid describes the House of Rumor as follows:
There is a place at the center of the World,
between the zones of earth, sea, and sky,
at the boundary of the three worlds.
From here, whatever exists is seen, however far away,
and every voice reaches listening ears.
Rumor lives there, choosing a house for herself on a high mountain summit,
adding innumerable entrances, a thousand openings, and no doors to bar the threshold.
It is open night and day: and is all of sounding bronze.
All rustles with noise, echoes voices, and repeats what is heard.
There is no peace within: no silence anywhere.
Yet there is no clamour, only the subdued murmur of voices,
like the waves of the sea, if you hear them far off,
or like the sound of distant thunder when Jupiter makes the dark clouds rumble.
Crowds fill the hallways: a fickle populace comes and goes,
and, mingling truth randomly with fiction, a thousand rumors wander,
and confused words circulate.
Of these, some fill idle ears with chatter, others carry tales,
and the author adds something new to what is heard.
Here is Credulity, here is rash Error, empty Delight,
and alarming Fear, sudden Sedition, and Murmurings of doubtful origin.
Rumor herself sees everything that happens in the heavens,
throughout the ocean, and on land, and inquires about everything on earth.
(Ovid – “Metamorphoses”, Bk. XII: 39-63, tr. Anthony S. Kline)
In this way, all human vice was devolved on Rumor: excessive curiosity, loquacity, malignancy, rejoicing at someone’s downfall or misery. Rumor became known as “scapegoat” who carries those behaviors which are reluctantly seen and criticized by the society.
In general, we unwillingly admit to gossiping. And how do the facts look like? Is there anybody who doesn’t repeat fictional and untrue facts from the life of their acquaintances or else celebrities from the world of business, culture, politics? Research shows that about two thirds of the time devoted to conversations concern social topics, in particular gossips.
Gossip is commonly understood as talking about other people behind their back, often including malicious slander, which is to result in defamation. We can also admit with shame that gossip is the favorite form of communication between humans. It consists in uncontrolled prattle, thoughtless listening to and repeating subjective opinions about other people. It is mainly the outcome of our imagination, so curiosity is the most important reason of gossiping. Everything which is unknown stimulates our imagination, so we invent different things, thus filling in the gaps in our knowledge. Look out when during a business meeting its participants stop talking about professional subjects and begin talking behind other people’s back. This vigilance is necessary – it means that you are facing a powerful tool, namely – gossip. By using it one may “undermine” the authority of a person whose life is being discussed. However, when the general mood of the conversation turns out to be positive for them, its main character gets in the winning position. Maybe not the main character themselves, but their reputation. Gossip is usually spread on condition that it remains a secret. I am sure you have heard these words many times: “But don’t tell anybody”, and we usually agree. But we often do not keep the secret and feel guilty and ashamed that we were unable to keep the promise to remain silent, that one cannot trust us.
Both men and women tend to gossip equally often. The person who gossips about other people behind their back, who spreads the information enriched with their own assumptions is for a moment in the center of attention and feels important. Striving for appreciation, importance, respect or praise constitutes one of our basic needs. Some people tend to satisfy it by taking up the function of a “gossip carrier”. Such person feels great as a holder of intimate secrets. In addition, they will be reinforced in this function by the waiting attitude of other people, striving for sensation that they are going to spread. This is how the need of the entire group is also being satisfied. The society has high demands towards an individual and the individual wants to meet them to the greatest possible extent. This is where the tendency to suppress different behaviors in order to create our better image in front of other people comes from. For example, one is unable to admit to themselves and to other people that they feel the fear, are egoist, biased or envious. Outside they are adapted to the environment even if inside, different unaccepted parts of their own self are agitated.
The motives for gossiping are considered mean and unacceptable, e.g. we gossip out of revenge or jealousy. Gossiping may also be used as competing strategy to destroy the reputation of our competitors. It is also one of the manifestations of indirect aggression, i.e. aggression which is not used directly and aims at destroying psychological wellbeing and interpersonal relationships of the person about whom we are gossiping. Both in the private sphere as well as in the media, gossip is characterized by the enjoyment of offending other people and the fear of discovering our own self. We would like to know, but without being “decrypted” by others.
Gossip may be particularly malicious and deeply reaching when it concerns people who used to be friends. They know a lot about themselves, for years they were emotionally involved in a common relationship and trusted each other. They did not have to fear each other, so they shared their secrets. Each party used to do that as they believed that their friendship would last forever. They were certain that nothing would get outside to reach “unauthorized” ones. They were creating intimacy. Then something happened and everything changed. “Spiced up” information leaked out, ruining the life of one of my patients. At last, something fake has come to its end, certain relationship which for sure did not deserve to be called friendship.
The story of one married couple constitutes another example when gossip resulted in a crisis. They were both about 40 years old and they were happy together. For a long time there were only two of them, without children. After more than ten years she got pregnant. Three babies from one pregnancy, as it is easy to guess, totally changed their life. As they used to be very active professionally, they found it very difficult to include their new role in their life and their relationship plunged into crisis. One day she felt so overwhelmed and full of negative emotions that she told her friend in secret that she has enough of her husband and worries that children constitute for her rather a burden than the source of happiness. The news turned out to be very “attractive” for the friend, who transmitted it to her husband and then, in confidence, to her friend. The rumor spread quickly, enriched with many speculations, as it is usually the case when it comes to gossip. People stated, with malicious satisfaction, that perfect couples do not exist, but the woman was not called bad mother. What is more, the husband had a close female friend with whom he would meet from time to time to have a coffee. This detail, unimportant up to then, became a spicy sensation. Another gossip appeared, this time about the affair between them. People felt pity of the woman who, unaware of it all, was sitting at home with the children. Very quickly “kind informers” told the woman about the affair (confirmed in their opinion, but in fact totally untrue) with her husband’s friend whom she trusted. As the woman stopped her professional activity, she heard that it was easy to predict that something like this would happen, that her husband would prefer to spend his time with a well-groomed and professionally active lover. The wife, instead of having a calm conversation with her husband, in a fit of depression and despair, had suicidal thoughts, which she shared with her mother in the last moment. The mother quickly contacted her son-in-law in order to clarify the situation.
The words by Bathasar Gracian devoted to not being the slave of first impressions constitute here a perfect quotation: “Some marry the very first account they hear: all others must live with them as concubines. But as a lie has swift legs, the truth with them can find no lodging. We should neither satisfy our will with the first object nor our mind with the first proposition: for that were superficial. Many are like new casks who keep the scent of the first liquor they hold, be it good or bad. If this superficiality becomes known, it becomes fatal, for it then gives opportunity for cunning mischief; the ill-minded hasten to color the mind of the credulous. Always therefore leave room for a second hearing”.
Gossip as a safety valve of human fears and aggression not only combines with first impression about a given person or social phenomena, but is also strictly connected with prejudice. It seems to me that nowadays, gossip and prejudice rule human minds and they resist firmly to any evidence which could undermine it. Prejudice is the attitude towards a given situation, people, social groups based not on our own experience and recognition. These are statements, opinions and expectations accepted without checking them, out of convenience or the lack of perspicacity. In this way, basing on such external features as skin color, clothes, silhouette, membership of a given group we draw conclusions concerning the features of character, supposedly connected with external factors. Nowadays it is not exaggeration to say that ethnic, racial or religious prejudice is dangerous. It may result in the fact that the described phenomenon becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. It means that some biased expectations in appropriate conditions cause certain behavior. So our attitude towards a given person determines our behavior towards him or her.
A gossip that a given bank is soon going to go bankrupt because of financial problems may constitute an example of self-fulfilling prophecy. This information spreading among the clients of the bank may lead them to blindly follow the crowd. As a result, money is going to be withdrawn from the bank and its bankruptcy will become a fact.
Well… At present, gossip is flourishing. One can enjoy it (if they do not become their victim themselves), may bring it home, keep it or pass on. In order to reach its hidden roots it is necessary to make an effort, dig or tear it out in full bloom. However, out of convenience or often fear, in order not to get hurt by its invisible spikes, one usually lets it grow and bloom. But we should stop for a moment, revive a reflection to let a doubt, a different overview of a given situation appear. One story is shaped by numerous events. Not everything is as you have heard it to be. Being a human obliges you. It is a gift. We are the only ones who know what marks we could give ourselves. In our lives there are moments when we are standing in front of ourselves naked and true. Taking a break to look at ourselves sometimes constitutes painful confrontation, so it is easier to judge other people’s lives by gossiping. Everything has its beginning and its end. A thought is not born just like this. It has its author, and the author is a human being. Nowadays it is difficult to prevent harmful influence of gossip. Huge demand for gossip, spread by mass media, inevitably results in the need of new gossip, both in literature as well as in private contacts with other people. These days we tend to lose the feeling of surety when it comes to ethical rules. Currently it is thus more difficult to answer the question concerning the sense and aim of human life. We feel lost as we see less and less understandable and uncontrollable social processes. Paradoxically we can say that what is only certain is the fact of common uncertainty. In this situation human tendency to destruction and aggression becomes striking.
Gossiping results from the need of “projection”, attributing negative features to other people in order to make ourselves more valuable. Gossip makes it possible for a gossiper to create their new identity, to make them better. What do we project? Maybe our own weaknesses which we tend to hide, imperfections of our own personality to which it is difficult for us to admit and even more difficult to accept them.
Conclusions: gossiping is a way of self-recognition and, in my opinion, this constitutes a positive aspect of this phenomenon. Before we say something negative about somebody else, we should ask ourselves a question whether we maybe have those criticized features too or else whether the problems which we want to stigmatize are our own ones that we would like to hide. It is usually difficult to answer this question. Only continuous attempts may lead to self-recognition. Thanks to higher level of consciousness of our own self we become more sensitive towards others, more tolerant towards their difference and curious to discover it. A question arises here – Will it really change something if I stop gossiping? It is only a water drop in the ocean… That is true, but the ocean, doesn’t it consist of such water drops?
Tłumaczenie/Translated by: Agnieszka Zielińska
Zdjęcia / Photos by : Anna Fotyma