Story, Character . . . and Gossip


I came across some notes from a lecture on writing that I sat in on years ago, when I was a teacher attending an education conference. The writers in that audience were all mainstream, most writing for kids.

The guest writer opened her talk by saying, “We all know what gossip is.”

She wiggled her brows and everybody laughed.

Then she said, “I believe that gossip is another name for storytelling. It’s not literature, which is a different discussion. Gossip is story in its purest form.”

The writer went on to describe how gossip is used in stories for kids, which was fine, but I think the subject ought to be taken a step further: I think that for writers in particular understanding gossip is a great way of understanding character.

The maliciousness of gossip is just about always the first thing one thinks of when the word comes up in discussion—because exposing people’s secrets, or spreading lies about them, is the most memorable form of gossip.

The origin of the word is anything but malignant: the OED states that the word came from godsib, one’s godfather at baptism—a serious charge in the medieval days when sudden death could hit either parent, and there was no social net other than the ones people made for themselves.

Godparents were usually the ones parents were closest to, to whom they talked the most about their mutual charges. I’ve seen people addressing one another as “good gossip” in very old texts meaning a respected friend, usually female, in early literature.

Whether malicious or benevolent, gossip is one of the first ways we become aware of, and explore, the entire range of human behavior because the truth is, most all of us are storytellers.

Modern media tends to equate gossip with girl gangs, pretty much the same way that in former times only women were called gossips in the negative sense—and even punished for it. Men have always gossiped just as much, but as the law-making lay in their hands, they considered theirs important. Only female gossip was frivolous.

The truth is, we all talk about each other.

Gossip not only tests social bonds and hierarchies, it tests trust. We’ve all grown up hearing wisecracks about how a secret only stays a secret if everybody hearing it is dead. Or that a secret told to one person becomes gossip as soon as Person 2 tells Person 3 in strictest confidence.

Each might have a different motivation for passing on the same information: 1 who feels alone and needs a sounding board, talks in strictest confidence to 2, whereupon 2, who might want to check the advice given against another pair of ears because of worry about 1’s situation, talks in strictest confidence to 3; 3, who feels no particular loyalty to 1, passes the gossip on (in strictest confidence) to 4, perhaps to demonstrate being on the inside, implying that 4 is on the outside. And 4, who got the message, feels no compunction whatever about entertaining others with a hot bit of gossip.

Everyone knows the game Telephone: here, you have whatever is passed on colored not only by memory, but reaction to what they heard, and motivation for passing it on.

Gossipers may or may not try to repeat the facts of what happened, but their judgment on whatever they are relating will influence word choices. This gives the listener insight into two individuals: the one being gossiped about, but also the gossiper. Listeners who go on to discuss the piece of gossip will often begin with speculation about why it happened. Sometimes revelatory gossip can actually create insight, but even when it just reaffirms judgment, it is character-revealing not just about the target, but also about those doing the judgment.

Gossip is assumed to be a private act, but it is also a social act that can have public consequences, and I don’t mean just the social shunning of the individual who has been discovered to break a behavioral rule of the given group. Malicious gossip works to shove someone outside a given group, but gossip can also be used as a way to reassure members of a group that they are secure in the group—and it can function to reaffirm the hierarchy within the group.

Gossip can not only ruin lives and careers, and it can bring down governments. Only along the way, gossip has changed its name, but not its format to rumor, and finally, news.

“Did you hear the news?” asked one of the sisters in the Wynne diaries—actual diaries of a set of sisters who lived during Napoleonic times. “What news?” “Marie Antoinette escaped the Terror?” Unfortunately, this rumor—or gossip, carried by a carriage driver, and spread about the country—reached the frontier about the time Marie Antoinette was beheaded.

We don’t just gossip about people we know personally. We also gossip about people in power, whether political, economic, or social. Teens talk about the gorgeous cheerleader who is the most popular girl in school, they gossip about celebrities, they gossip about the bosses at work.

No matter how boring a person you otherwise think the boss is, the workers still speculate tirelessly about the boss’s tastes, car, clothes, every reaction, every statement. What the boss does matters, just as what the king, and his favorites, did mattered in history.

Revealing supposed secrets of those in authority brings them closer to our level. We understand them, sometimes forgive them, and other times bring them low, which makes the lowly feel more powerful.

Kings knew that. Among the many efforts kings made in ruling was to try to influence what the people thought, and in particular control the flow of data.

We are all aware of historical attempts to curb the voice of the populace; any reading of Tudor history is going to include some stomach-turning descriptions of people’s ears being cut off as the government tried to curb the flow of information.

Louis XIV tossed nobles like the powerful duke Bussy-Rabutin into the Bastille for being a bit too clever in gossiping about royal mistresses—in print. The various governments of the French Revolution were no better in their efforts to muzzle people by using the guillotine.

Napoleon also tried to manage information; he managed to constrict the many newspapers down to two, both of them printing only the “news” that he wanted printed—with his judgment built in. The people were only to get the news he wanted them hearing, and they were to think about it the way he wanted. So of course word of mouth gossip thrived, as people strove to discover what was really going on.

Through reportage and speculation about those who dare step outside the rules, gossip experiments with social change, and that’s the intersection with literature I find most interesting.

I think part of the fun of comedies of manners is the deliciousness of figuring out who knows what when, and who doesn’t know.

A complicated story will carry that outward to several degrees (Tom knows that Sally knows what Fred told Mary about Jesse, but Sally is aware that Jesse told Harry something different) and the comedy comes in when characters interact who think they know something, but their assumptions work at cross-purposes. Some of Oscar Wilde’s wittiest scenes are predicated on mixed assumptions, so that dialogue was freighted with layers of meaning.

This aspect intersects with Theory of Mind and other explorations of how storytelling fits into human behavior (and why we read), which is another fascinating topic.



Story, Character . . . and Gossip — 11 Comments

  1. Most of my gossip is about dead people, but when I gossip about the live ones, I try to be very intentional and accurate. The truth is that most of the gossip going on at my workplace is positive–people spreading great news that the perp is too modest to spread. So that’s refreshing!

  2. This gives the listener insight into two individuals: the one being gossiped about, but also the gossiper. Yes! I pay attention to the things people complain about in other people–it lets me know what they’re sensitive to and where I could go wrong, myself.

  3. Whenever I think of gossip, I recall the wonderful song ‘The Rumor’, from ‘Fiddler On The Roof’, and how quickly the news moved through the town, as well as how quickly the news became distorted. And the wonderful thing was that it was proclaimed as ‘news’, not just ‘gossip’, and the way it moved – first through the women, and then through the men, until the Rabbi, the leader of the Shtetl himself, spoke about the news.
    But of course, there are many different types of gossip, and as you write, it offers insight into both the gossiper and the gossipee. The Gemara has a wonderful saying about Lashon HaRa, that is literally ‘bad tongue’, a name meant to describe harmful gossip: “Lashon HaRa kills three: He who said it, He who listened to it, and He whom it was told about it”. And I think this ‘death’ is actually the implicit judgement contained in the gossip about he who tells it, he who listens to it, and he about whom it is told.