Many of us gossip and don’t even know we are doing it. Some of us gossip and know very well what we are doing. Sometimes, we think it is about sharing information, and other times, we are passing time talking with someone about someone else who is not present. And finally, gossiping often happens when someone is talking behind someone else’s back maliciously.
I have decided to create my own definition of gossip, because I see it as a political concept inside our feminist-minded communities. So while Wikipedia and other online resources may have reliable definitions, they don’t always include the integrity that anti-oppressive activists and feminists alike try to convey in our work and communities.
My definition of gossip is: When someone is talking about someone who is not present. This may include sharing information about a person’s life or identity, without the explicit permission from the person. This information may be shared among friends, frenemies, and not-exactly-friends, community members, partners and family. This information would probably cause a reaction from the person if they heard about this information-sharing that they were not present for.
Recently, I had someone gossip about me, which was the inspiration for this month’s blog. It was a couple of white, straight women in my community of feminist, anti-violence activists. They talked about who they think I am dating, in and around my place of work. They apparently speculated that I was dating a person known to them and began asking questions to each other (since this is gossip, I don’t know all the details or whether questions were asked). Then they started telling other members of the community that this information about me was true (I do have confirmation of this information, as the gossip came back to me!), that yes, I was dating this person who was also known to them. Finally, it got back to me that several people “knew” about this (mis)information and that many people were talking about it in and around my workplace.
I truly believe these co-activists did not talk about this gossip maliciously. Perhaps they were intrigued and maybe even inspired by the fact that I might be dating someone they knew whom they liked very much. And it is obvious that they didn’t think talking about who a queer, Brown girl survivor was dating was in fact, a big deal.
However, this gossip and situation bugged me. A lot.
Upon hearing this gossip about myself, it made me turn to my feelings, thoughts and actions of my own experience with gossip. I do it all the time. I talk about people and their lives, mostly people I love. I make comments and share opinions about my friends’ choices in jobs, clothes, lovers, etc. I mostly do this thinking I intend the best for the person. I have learned several lessons in the community around “best intentions” of gossip and these lessons are in part of people feeling hurt and most of all, well-intentioned gossip getting out of hand, to where folks don’t treasure the information-sharing, but use it to pass time and smack-talk other folks in community.
Since I am technically a grown-up, I created a policy for myself not to say things about someone to others that I wouldn’t say to the person themselves. I also make comments about my friends/partner’s/family member’s lives to them first, before I start talking to anyone else (like a mutual friend). That is a lesson I have learned from being part of community for so long. Word gets around, so might as well share your opinion to someone’s face before some else does - and further, this is a sign of respect.
Now, we all have experienced gossiping about someone else and being gossiped about. How does it feel to gossip about someone else? I’ll guess: easy, light, awkward, weird, funny. How does it feel to find out you’ve been gossiped about? Gross, uncomfortable, disrespected, no feelings.
Everyone will have a different reaction to being gossiped about, true. At the same time, when I think about gossip I also think about the US Weeklys or People Magazines and the fury of stories about LiLo being arrested again, Tom Cruise being gay or Kristen Stewart cheating on Robert Pattinson. None of it is mere information-sharing. It is mostly for the purposes of glamorizing celebrities’ lives, while simultaneously bringing them down a notch. Some of it is clearly for putting women in their places and making moral judgments on our choices. And of course, a big bulk of celebrity gossip is just plain not true and printed for the purposes of selling magazines.
But in the end, being gossiped about makes us feel bad. I felt so hurt that co-activists could talk about who I was dating like it didn’t have any personal or political implications for me. One, talking about who they think I was dating to folks who didn’t know me well, meant they were outing me every time they mentioned I was seeing this person. Two, as white, young, straight women, they didn’t see it was problematic to talk about a queer, woman of colour’s would-be lover. And three, they brought it into my work place so that others in the place where I work could potentially hear this rumour. All in all, it had many impacts on me even though I know they didn’t intend for those impacts.
Gossip can definitely feel sanctioned and acceptable in the moment. It can feel like you are getting closer to someone by sharing a “secret” only you and now this other person know. But it can have destructive and hurtful effects, and worse, it can be the beginnings of bullying and violence that we say we are so against as feminists.
While I love a good drama, a bad story about Paris Hilton’s latest sexcapades or J.Lo’s divorce, I often wonder how these women handle it. How do they go through life knowing everyone thinks they know something about their business? And we know, having tons of money doesn’t compensate for the hurt or destruction false information can cause on one’s life.
So next time I run into a situation where I can share info about someone who isn’t present, I will be checking in with myself. I’ll ask myself a few questions: How will sharing this info change … me? The person it’s about? For the better?