Gossip, girl

Sharing is caring and Tanya Meeson is done feeling bad about it

Woman&Home SA, June 2021

It’s late-night Twitter and I see my sister chatting to a guy I’m uneasy about. I shoot off a text: ‘Just watch out for that one. Got called out on Twitter about a year ago for being a creeper.’

It was a single conversation in a lifetime of similar conversations: ‘I wouldn’t collaborate with P, she’s got a bad rep for screwing over business partners’ … ‘You haven’t heard from E because he’s got cancer.’ … ‘I saw her husband on Tinder.’ … ‘Did you hear…’, ‘What do you think of…’

Gossip. Exchanges of information about people. Sometimes substantiated, sometimes not. Sometimes mean-spirited; most often not. Always a ripple across the web of your social proprioception.

As a child, I believed that gossip was the lowest form of communication. The image in my mind’s eye was one of ‘silly little women’ around a quilting circle babbling on about mean and meaningless fluff. It was an image handed down to me by a religious upbringing and my War-time granny. Gossip was slander, unholy and the pastime of the low. It was dangerous. Good women didn’t behave in such a manner.

This was problematic for me since talking about people was – and remains – one of my favourite past-times.

To add further insult to my intellect, somewhere in my twenties I came up against the wildly sanctimonious quote: ‘Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.’ It’s incorrectly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but dates as far back as 1901, when the heart of patriarchal mores, so defined by sexism and classism, was still beating strong.

That was more than a century ago and yet that sentiment lingers today. Gossip is something bad people do, but more specifically it’s something mean girls do. Hollywood has made that stereotype stick well past its sell-by date.

I only started finding some relief for my awful gossiping ways when I read Yoval Noah Harari’s 2011 Sapiens. Harari describes gossip as the exchange of information that helped us bond and form social cohesion, that became storytelling and inspired visionary exploits. Of course, it then turned out that anthropologists have been saying this for years before Harari. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, is particularly well known for his theories on the value of gossip in social grooming and the evolution of language.

So why aren’t these more practical views on the values of a good natter more common? Why do we still hold to the kindergarten philosophy of ‘what Susie says of Sally says more of Susie than of Sally’ when information exchange is how we find our tribe?

I think the answer lies in the enduring misogyny of our social constructs.

Did you know that the origin of ‘gossip’ holds no negative connotations? The earliest recorded use of the word is around 1014 as the Old English term, god sibb, meaning a child’s godparent or the mother’s female friend assisting in the birth. It soon came to mean a small collection of close female friends. Nothing seemingly problematic with that. Until you look at the hundreds of years following.

It’s a generalisation, but I think it’s a fair statement that women in almost every culture had no power, no say, no standing in their communities. That all they had was information they could share with each other. And what could be scarier to the established male power base than a collection of women sharing information uncensored and unbridled, telling secrets that might cast a light on ugly truths, start discussions that might spark revolt…

What better way to tame that fire than make it shameful, gross and perverse to even light the match?

As a GenXer, I straddle two generations diagrammatically opposed to each other: One of our mothers, who were taught that silence is a dish best served always; and the other of our daughters, who are seeing the power of sharing information. #metoo was one example of that. There will be more.

But if we continue to perpetuate the fallacy that gossip is only ever bad, that sharing curious or unpleasant information about the people around us is base, that we should utter only kindness and prettiness about our experiences of them, then we continue to keep this archaic form of silencing alive.

And for what? To please and appease whom?

This column was first published in Woman&Home SA.