“The only thing worse than being talked about,” said Oscar Wilde, “is not being talked about.”
I love gossip. I love to hear it, I love to spread it, and most of all I love to be its subject, target, and victim. In fact, I actively cultivate and disseminate disinformation about myself and others, especially when I find myself in the confines of a retreat, which is to gossip what a Petri dish is to bacteria. Because when it comes to the sterile lab work of the mind, there’s nothing more exciting than an uncontrolled experiment using live cultures. The way I look at it? If people are so bored that they’re talking about me in the first place, I’d much rather they unwittingly spread half-truths and distortions than repeat a dull litany of trivia and plodding, indisputable facts.
Yes, I know that gossip is rotten. But then, for the most part, so are we. Which is why you can spare me the po-faced, hand-wringing sermons about right speech, noble silence, and all the rest of it. Those are some fancy ideals, but I call ’em like I see ’em. And isn’t there some famous dharmic exhortation to start where you are?
My point entirely.
Our minds can’t resist chatter, our thoughts flow naturally toward the gutter, and forming opinions based on little or no information is as natural to us as breathing. Sharing those opinions and thoughts is merely the way we justify having them in the first place. This being the case, we might as well make the best of a bad job and ensure that gossip at least fulfills its function, which is to titillate, entertain, and generally cause envy, disdain, outrage, and—if it’s really juicy—awe.
Gossip gets a bad rap. True, talking trash about someone is a negative act that will almost certainly poison the minds of both speaker and listener alike. But not all gossip is venal or intentionally harmful. Just as there is right and wrong speech, I submit that there is right and wrong gossip. Because when stripped of all the blithe moral assumptions, gossip is just another word for speech. And as with speech, it’s basically neutral. The factors that color gossip—that make it right or wrong—are motivation and result.
Gossip in its verbal form generally refers to the habit of discussing something that’s none of our business. But as a personal noun, a gossip is usually a woman. This blatant gender stereotyping is doubly curious because the word’s earliest appearance in Old English, about a thousand years ago, was as a description for a male. Derived from the Old Norse godsibb, it was a masculine term meaning “God-relative,” or what we would call today a godfather. Unfortunately, the etymology gives little clue as to how it acquired its latter-day, quasi-misogynist meaning.
Yet we might find a hint in modern science. Among those who work in the relatively recent field of evolutionary psychology, gossip is generally regarded as a good thing. Why? Because it’s seen as an aid to social bonding among communities, helping to build and maintain social norms and reinforce an individual’s accountability within group structures. It’s also regarded as an invaluable mating tool that enables women (especially) to pool information and identify socially desirable men and to avoid less dependable potential partners.
There’s even a biological argument in favor of females swapping snippets of information. Last year, the University of Michigan published a study suggesting that harmless gossip and playful social interaction between women increases levels of the hormone progesterone, helping to boost well-being and reduce anxiety and stress. The study also linked this hormonal increase to a greater willingness to help others, even at one’s own expense. So while nobody’s saying that gossip is a precursor to developing selfless altruism, it certainly doesn’t seem to merit the bad-mouthing it’s had through the years. You could even say that gossip itself has been the victim of some malicious slander.
Perhaps it’s the idle part of gossip that we find so disturbing. Conversation has been moribund for decades, at least since the advent of TV. The frantic pace of modern life leaves little time for playful repartee, and few of us are inclined toward wordplay and creative banter. If time is money, as we’re constantly told, the meter starts running whenever someone opens his or her mouth. Naturally we expect—even insist on—speech that is direct, focused, pithy, and precise. We no longer analyze concepts merely for the intellectual sport involved. Instead, we adopt and repeat fully formed opinions to like-minded individuals who will confirm or at best, fine-tune them for us. Rare are those who seek out intellectual challenge, debate, and the contest of ideas.
Gossip, on the other hand, is all about speculation. It thrives on uncertainty, inviting challenge and provoking rebuttal. This is yet another reason to regard it as an invaluable component of civilization.
Some people, perhaps most, are afraid of people gossiping about them. Maybe I am too, but my overweening vanity means I’m far more concerned about going unnoticed altogether. Or worse still, being dismissed as banal. My way of deflecting that fear is to stimulate gossip based on spurious rumor and downright falsehood. Nothing amuses me more than to flick a little spark of plausible nonsense into the dry kindling of acquaintanceship, and watch it glow. Fan this smoldering factoid with similar yet conflicting reports, all of them self-generated, and a tiny ember of half-truth will flare up and start to blaze. Next thing, you’re standing in line at the tea urn when someone sidles up and says, “So you were once married to a violet-eyed Senegalese princess of Fulani ethnicity, I hear. But when you were implicated in a drug-smuggling plot, her marabout father issued a fatwa against you, and you’ve been on the run ever since, right?”
If I can’t stimulate scuttlebutt indirectly, I’ll just fake it. Like the time, for example, on a teaching retreat in France when a fellow Englishman and I spent a morning conspicuously holding hands and petting in public, quickly fueling a rumor that we’d gone gay for each other. (We gilded the lily by wearing tank tops and sarongs.) Honestly, I’m rarely as happy as when a fellow retreatant, seeing through our deliberate incitement, shook her head and sighed, “Alix…toujours une nouvelle provocation.” Eventually, of course, this kind of mischief can come around and bite you in the butt, but only if you’re concerned about maintaining your good reputation. In which case you should probably read the small print on that dharmic disclaimer about the eight worldly concerns.
However, there is one case where I’ll avoid gossip at all costs, and that’s where samaya, the agreement I have with my teacher, is concerned. More than once I’ve been invited to attend a teaching or empowerment and have been told not to discuss it with anybody—even sangha members who I know (simply because they refuse to say where they’ll be at the same point in time) have also been invited. The way I understand it, or at least how I recall the given explanation, is that loose chatter about such events can dissipate the spiritual power and blessings involved. Silence seals the potency inside the group, strengthening the practice and making it more efficacious.
Yet even here there’s potential for a fabulous whispering campaign. After all, when you realize that the dates clash, what do you tell sangha friends who ask why you won’t be able to attend the party they’re throwing? That’s right, you tell them you’re making a documentary about cosmetic surgery in Brazil. Then you tell one of their close friends that you’re actually visiting your new girlfriend in Rio de Janeiro. Finally you call another of your vajra brothers or sisters and casually mention your Brazilian school friend, a former professional soccer player, who just had a sex change. You can count on the sangha to do the rest. Just don’t forget to dedicate the merit. After all, they’ve earned it.
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