“Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
In Medieval times gossip was considered a serious crime in Britain. Perpetrators were physically punished and humiliated, forced to wear a mask of shame called a scold’s bridle and paraded through the town on a leash. The scold’s bridle was an iron muzzle enclosed in a framework that surrounded the head of the accused. The device prevented the person from talking by a bridle-bit which was put in the woman’s mouth and pressed upon the tongue. Sometimes a spike was attached to the bridle-bit, so that the movement of the tongue would cause wounds. Christianity viewed gossip as a sin. Islam, Judaism and the Bahai faith took a similar stance.
I believe it is natural and healthy to take an interest in other people but there is a big difference between negative, malicious gossip and neutral gossip. Passing on factual information is one thing, but twisting the facts and inventing sordid tales to create a frisson of excitement is another.
For example, neutral gossip – Mrs Smith says to her neighbour:- “I saw Susan in the Post Office this morning. She’d just had her hair done and was wearing a new coat.”
Negative gossip:- “I saw Susan in the Post Office this morning. She’d just had her hair done. Pink hair and a leopard print coat at her age – talk about mutton dressed as lamb!” Followed by mutual laughter.
Unfortunately, most gossip tends to be malicious and is carried out by ignorant people with low self-esteem to make themselves seem more interesting. Gossip is akin to an act of violence. It can cause huge damage to the lives of others. Very often the victims of gossip are marked out as different or vulnerable in some way, eg single women, people with mental health problems or those from ethnic minorities.
The old English proverb states, “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you”. Not true. Words are powerful. Physical wounds will heal over time whereas emotional damage may last forever. In my local village there have been cases of marriages breaking up, people losing jobs or forced to move away and even suicide due to malicious gossip. It seems small rural communities enjoy gossip and relish the stigmatisation of minorities. However, gossip happens in all types of enclosed communities including schools and workplaces where it is particularly dangerous. Gossip is a form of bullying and with the advent of social media it is a growing problem throughout the world.
Our attitudes to gossip have been moulded by language. Many metaphors used to describe gossip have associations with food or drink, eg spilling the beans, tempting, scuttlebutt, a water cooler moment, grapevine, juicy, delicious, delectable, tidbits, morsels. It’s as if gossip is something to be devoured, digested, a form of nourishment. The writer, David Rakoff complained about the negativity of these expressions as they imply that the pleasures of gossip are those of schadenfreude: that is, one person’s enjoyment at the expense of someone else’s pain. The word ‘gossip’ originated in the Old English ‘godsibb’; god sibling, the godparent of one’s child and usually a close friend. Shakespeare’s uses of the noun were derogatory: “Shall she live to betray this guilt of ours—A long-tongued babbling gossip?”
If you become the victim of malicious gossip you may feel upset, violated and helpless as rumours and untruths circulate. Challenging or arguing with the instigator is not to be recommended. It is demeaning and only adds fuel to the fire. The best policy, although it can be difficult, is to ignore the whisperers, raise your head up high and pretend you don’t care. When you are forced to meet your accusers be polite but indifferent. Build up your confidence and nurture your self-esteem by treating yourself kindly. Remember your achievements and that you are a strong person. Surround yourself with friends and supporters as much as possible. Do activities that you enjoy. Show the gossips that you don’t need their approval or validation to survive and be happy. Remind yourself that the people who gossip are sad individuals with empty lives. Defamation is the only way they can get their kicks. They are not the type of people you would choose as friends. But do not indulge in gossip yourself. Let others find out for themselves where the truth lies.
I recently bought the small ornament pictured below as a reminder that gossips are insignificant. It is only what you think about yourself that matters.