I love my small town. Love it, love it. There are quirks, though. One of these quirks that has been on my mind, on and off, over the past couple months, is gossip.
I suppose you’re going to find gossip anywhere. And I guess it’s heartening to think my friends involve themselves in the local community instead of talking about the goddamn avian flu in tight little clusters of fear. I mean seriously – what kind of stuff do you discuss when your community is larger, more scattered, when you don’t even know one another’s names and jobs? And who is there keeping track of you, even when you don’t want it? Keeping track isn’t a bad thing, if it can feel stifling at times. From my experience it can feel a lot worse to think no one is noticing what you’re doing, who you are, and what your little (& big!) rituals are.
Not all third-party sharing is gossip, of course. To my way of thinking, a discussion surpasses communal good sense and well-intentioned sharing when it includes at least one of these elements: 1. added drama for drama’s sake; 2. a truth that would be expressed differently were one of the involved parties present; and 3. a violation of someone’s privacy as they would define it.
Now, hell – I gossip. But rarely. Do I hurt feelings? Probably more often than I know. As pertains to gossip, I have a code that’s rather simple. My thought is that with whatever I do or say, if someone, anyone, were to hear what I was saying, I wouldn’t be ashamed – I could take responsibility for what I said. By the way, that does not mean forgoing a strong opinion. My ability to express my strong opinions is a feature I like about myself. I don’t keep them closed in to fester or become personal dogma; I air my opinions as openly and directly as they exist for me. This works well for me most times, and is either a lovely feature or a total pain in the ass for others – I leave you to decide for yourself.
And God, of course I violate my ideal. The example that comes to mind immediately is this summer when I called a piece of public art “mediocre” while, unbeknownst to me, the artist was coincidentally within earshot (I don’t think he heard exactly what I said, but I am pretty sure he knew I was dissing his work). That bugged me for awhile, and I couldn’t figure out why. I really didn’t care for the work in question, but in my heart I didn’t like what I’d done. Finally, I came to where I felt discomfort. The way I spoke about the art piece wasn’t entirely respectful, and it didn’t have any larger context. I should have said something like, “I don’t care for it personally, but man – what balls to put one’s work out in public!” (Later I would find out he put it in public without the proper permissions – it has since been removed. Funny.) The concept of being that accountable with one’s opinion may seem overwhelming, but I also believe it is within my reach and a worthy method of operation.
I realize as I finish that paragraph that some might say, “Why even express your opinion at all if it isn’t nice?” I guess I’d wonder what is so threatening about being honest – as long as you are also curious and humble with your honesty. While in the abovementioned example I really did express myself in a way I later regretted, I don’t think it was “wrong” to have this opinion, or even to air it. I trust the artist in question to know that not everyone might enjoy his work. The converse is true for me as well: I don’t “need” other people to approve of or enjoy my own art, writings, clothes, and kids. Besides – as I’ve said, I am open and direct. That’s me, in the now at least. For someone who likes to be private, they are welcome to keep their opinions closer to home. It works out. Of course there’s nothing wrong with being nice, or exercising some restraint on one’s opinion. But I notice the people who pride themselves on being “nice” are, from my personal experience, often ticking time bombs of resentment, rage, and rather narrow expectations on other people’s behavior. Seriously. Some of the scariest and most unpleasant people I know are “nice” people.
Now, I know you’d like to read more examples where I’ve been a Grade A Asshole. But I’m done with those, for now. I guess I’m thinking of gossip and my definition thereof because there is a saga being discussed in a couple of the groups I swim amongst right now. The cool thing is, all the time I spent my thoughts on gossip – the pros, the cons, the pitfalls it presents and the social structure it helps support – I am navigating these fields well. I haven’t participated in a way that feels bad later, and I haven’t tried to “shut down” the behavior that I don’t want to participate in.
The “shut down” is the sin the non-gossiper can fall into if they’re not careful. It is an emotional distancing and “saint act” that really stems from the non-gossiper’s discomfort and insecurity in the face of behavior they dislike. In light of that theory, these last few months I’ve been working on not being “uncomfortable” when this saga, or any other, gets aired. As it turns out, this has been one of the most fun aspects of personality to work with. Why should I be “uncomfortable” if someone is oversharing (their own life or others’), or being dramatic, or scare-mongering? I may end up wandering out of the conversation (physically or verbally), but I am OK with witnessing behavior that I, in the moment, am choosing not to partake in.
And back to the big picture of who I want to be and why: I guess when I really think about it, I’d like my friends to think I have their back. I’d like each of them to believe, should I witness someone saying some sneaky or nasty shit about them, that they can trust me not to get caught up in the fun of gossip and do something I’d feel ashamed of later. Not that I will show pseudo-loyalty (blowing where the wind goes) or ass-kissing dogged devotion – I don’t need that from friends, either. But I want them to know and have confidence in who I am, and that I can be that woman no matter what other people are saying and how juicy, scary, fun or mean it is in the moment I am brought in to involvement.