Gossip: harmless chat or destructive bullying? By Angela Caldin
I was interested to see that one of my fellow blogger’s heroes of 2014 is Pope Francis. I have to agree that many of his calls for action have come as a breath of fresh air to those of us who think of the Catholic Church as bogged down with stale theological argument rather than giving us a helping hand in our daily lives. He’s advised us not to waste food, to make time for others, to choose more humble purchases and to meet the poor and marginalised person to person. I can empathise with all those recommendations, but there is one more that intrigues me: Francis has preached on several occasions in very strong terms against gossip.
He says that gossiping or speaking poorly of someone else is equivalent to selling them, just as Judas sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. He calls gossipers cowards and hypocrites because, in his view, they don’t have the strength or the courage to look at their own defects. He acknowledges that the tendency to gossip always exists in the family, in the neighbourhood, even among friends, but his advice is, “If I have something to say, let me say it to the individual, not to the entire neighbourhood; only to the one who can remedy the situation.” His conclusion is that gossip is harmful to people, as well as to their work and their surroundings; he sees it as a weapon that threatens the human community every day, leading to envy, jealousy, power struggles and even murder.
The assumption behind the Pope’s robust view is that gossip is always negative or malicious. That is borne out by most dictionary definitions which explain gossip as being conversation or reports about other people’s private lives that might be unkind, disapproving or in some cases, unfounded or simply not true. There is, however, a broader view of gossip which sees it as integral to human communities and groups, instrumental in promoting social cohesion and helpful in encouraging the sharing of information which can lead to people being better informed and having a greater understanding of others. In this assessment, gossip can be non-malicious and harmless because in communities such as a workplace or a neighbourhood, it enables new ideas or explanations of events to be chewed over, at the same time reinforcing social bonds between the gossipers, while individuals who don’t participate in this kind of chat can find themselves out of the loop and isolated.
The Gossip Spectrum
There’s no doubt about one thing: most people enjoy a good gossip and that very often involves talking about the misfortunes of others rather than their triumphs. Haven’t you ever caught yourself getting interested when someone says ‘Have you heard about so-and-so?’ – expecting to hear that their husband has left them or they’ve lost their job, only to lose interest rather when the news is that they’ve bought a new house or passed an exam with distinction? Bad news is always more compelling than good news and it can be comforting to hear of others’ misfortunes because it makes us feel better about our own situation. The boost we get from hearing these bad things is akin to schadenfreude, the German word for pleasure derived from the misfortunes or failures of others, which literally means ‘harm-joy’.
Some newspapers and many magazines are awash with gossip about the private lives of celebrities or people thrown into the limelight which often turns out to be untrue. People in the public eye like this have little redress apart from resorting to the law courts and, even if judgement goes in their favour, by then the damage has been done. Think of Christopher Jefferies who in 2010 was arrested for the murder of Jo Yeates and was vilified by the national press because of his eccentric appearance and the fact that he lived alone. He was unable to go out, because the press were desperate for the scoop of discovering where he was, living a persecuted life for nine weeks waiting to be cleared of suspicion. Meanwhile headlines such as ‘the strange Mr Jefferies’, ‘Jo suspect is Peeping Tom’ and ‘angry “weirdo” had foul temper’ were among the many false claims levelled at him. This is gossip at its most destructive, amounting to character assassination and bullying.
In recent years, social media has provided a frighteningly fast way to share gossip – in a matter of minutes, harmful gossip and rumours can spread like wildfire online. Gossip on social media such as Facebook is well known to have resulted in the intense bullying of victims to such an extent that they have eventually committed suicide, tying in with the Pope’s contention that gossip can lead to murder.
As with so many things, there is a vast spectrum of what qualifies as gossip, from the positive to the negative. But, there is one constant: gossip is intriguing and we are drawn to it. In the words of Joseph Conrad:
“Gossip is what no one claims to like, but everybody enjoys.”