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The art of gossip & trying to live without it

After one cat fight too many, a female friend of mine (who shall remain nameless for the most obvious of reasons) decided to give up gossip for good. To her surprise, she soon discovered that life was impossible without it…

Not long ago, she decided to improve herself by doing the unthinkable. She decided to give up gossip. This wasn’t going to be a half- hearted attempt to stop chit-chat, but a decision to stop saying anything at all about anyone else. There would be no mild speculation about friends or colleagues and certainly never any hissing about people behind their back. She could never be accused of being hypocritical and her soul would be all the sunnier for it.

She embarked on this project when she was still reeling from yet another catastrophic night out. Something someone said to one friend had been repeated (and so on) until they all ended up drunk, screaming or in tears outside a bar at four in the morning.

Conventional wisdom says that women gossip more than men; surprisingly, a recent study from the University of California claims that men are more talkative. “Gender differences may reflect a tendency among some men to control the conversational floor when interacting with women,” the study said.

My friend’s scheme needed some parameters. Gossip is a concept we’re all so familiar with that we tend not to define it in certain terms. It’s with us at every moment, from the glaring-hot headlines of the neighborhood rags to the water-cooler conversations about last night’s “friend’s night out” and the traditional coffee ceremony of utter gossiping and we all know how those conversations go. Gossip so pervades the fabric of civilized culture that even the most mundane information is fodder for incredibly lengthy discussion.

My friend’s definition of gossip was as far-reaching as it gets. She reasoned to herself, if you’re going to kick a habit, you might as well be strict about it. She resolved to entirely eradicate any exchange of information about the affairs of other people, positive or negative, true or untrue.

It was harder than she thought. At work, for example, when her boss asked her the whereabouts of a co-worker who hadn’t been at her desk for the past hour, she wasn’t able to say she’d run outside to grab a drink with her rich boyfriend. She then wasn’t able to tell her colleague how much she wishes her boyfriend could whisk her away from work for a cup of tea. She would have commented on not only her co-worker and her boyfriend’s affairs but also the financial affairs of her own boyfriend. More frustrating was when a friend suddenly broke up with her boyfriend and had to rebuild her life from scratch; she couldn’t tell her what a jerk she’d always thought he was.

“But that’s not gossip,” her close friends would say, rolling their eyes, when she was only able to give them short, curt answers about how her day went. Oh, but it was. She couldn’t tell them how the girl on the vegetable stand overcharged her for the tomatoes and had then been rude about it when she picked her up on it. And she couldn’t tell them that her sister had finally got a job she desperately wanted. She found she could hardly say anything at all. Everything about her life, since she does not live in a bubble, has to do with other people. The entire course of her day was a series of positive, negative or forgettable interactions with other people. What happens is not necessarily important; it’s how it happens. “I went to get my hair done” is a considerably more mind-numbingly boring thing to tell someone than “I went to get my hair done and run into a friend who told me a juicy story about a friend of a friend who we all dislike.” The latter is usually how the whole course of a conversation about a simple trip to the salon goes between girls.

Over time, her conversation became severely stunted . Whenever she spoke, she felt like someone who spouts unnecessary details no one cares to hear. Perhaps she went too far. She in deep water just had to cut out gossip about her friends and family, but when she decided to stop gossiping about friends and bosses she doesn’t like too, she might have as well cut out her larynx. Anyone who has started a new school or job knows the drill. In the early bonding stages, you’ll know who is to be friend or foe by their reaction to mentions of football, politics and social life. It’s how normal people get to know who they can trust in a new environment. How do you try to feel someone out without this spoken device? Could you truly make a new friend? Or would there forever be a gap between you of uncharted territory? What about dating? You might be able to glean political views, values and interests, but you’d never be totally sure of their character. After all, the way we often pass judgment on another is by seeing who they’ve passed judgment on.

Of all the self-righteous, self-imposed self-improvement schemes she has ever undertaken, giving up on gossip definitely left her the loneliest. Not to mention the quietest. It was only when she was stripped of the ability to talk freely about other people that she realized how much of her incessant commentary had been gossip rather than real opinions about things that actually matter. No one ever says in passing, “I hate it when romantic relationships are broken down because of trust issues”, or “Oh my God, our ecological balance is falling apart and no one even realizes it.” Two hundred years from now, if someone had a recording of the conversations she’d had since she graduated college, and offered it as the sole document of what life was like in this era, you’d think she’d lived in a peaceful, vapid interlude where there were no wars, riots, inequalities or anything besides minor nuisances that required all her attention.

Before the gossip scheme finally crashed and burned, she found herself mute. She simply had nothing to contribute. “It’s painful to watch you,” her friends would say. “You’ve become pensive and dull.” After a month or two her heart was no longer in it. In the end, gossip crept back into her life so slowly and innocuously at first that she barely noticed it. Then one night, over drinks, it all came flooding back. She found she was running off her mouth about something that was none of her business. She was once again an active participant in a conversation, rather than watching it from the sidelines. She took a deep breath, looked around to make sure none of the concerned parties were standing nearby, and launched into a full stream of gossiping.

She somehow felt liberated and cathartic. She decided she’d become so staggeringly uninteresting that to be anything else – even a cantankerous, catty talkative – would be preferable. So she returned to her gossip-fuelled social life with relish. “It’s good to have you back,” her friends told her. “Your valuable input was sorely missed.”

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