In the wake of a conversation that left my partner feeling funny, we’ve started a gossip jar. He struggled to articulate not precisely shame, not exactly sheepishness, and not really guilt. More like a creeping sense that he’d caught himself gossiping about a person there was no need to talk about. The jar, he figured, would serve as a deterrent against trading inappropriate information and as a punitive measure when he slipped up: a flat rate of one dollar per character, per story. Recounting something overheard in line at the fruit market would cost a buck, while a long and detailed vignette casting a wide net over no fewer than five co-workers and incorporating judgments about their collective assholery, and which rambles on and on through dinner and into dessert might tap out at $10.

Once the jar was labeled and set on a prominent kitchen shelf, I figured I should sign on, too. I’m no stranger to colourful interpersonal narratives, and while I keep it fair and discreet, some of my tales are a bit offside. Probably, some of yours are, too–few topics make easier material than our fellow humans. But before joining this shit-talk rehab, I needed more information and a firm definition of “gossip” because, frankly, the stories that launched the jar didn’t seem like gossip to me. Our conversation quickly became a debate and soon after, reached an impasse:

Me: So, what counts?

Him: Everything, Miller. All gossip counts.

Me: Yeah, but what is gossip?

Him: Any story about anyone, who isn’t you or me, and who we don’t really need to be talking about.

Me: How do we define “don’t need to”?

Him: Are you telling me something I don’t really need to know? And is someone else involved in this non-essential story? Yes to either one of those, and it’s gossip.

Me: So, if my mom calls and I tell you what she called about, that’s gossip?

Him: Yep.

Me: Even if it’s something major and I’m unsure how I feel about the thing, and I’m telling you as a way of sorting through it, and talking helps?

Him: Gossip.

Me: No way! It’s gossip if I tell you my mom called and then tell you what she and I talked about, but I also add in some commentary, like something judgey about what she said.

Him: Totally gossip, Miller. No wiggling out of it.

Me: What if it’s a really funny story where I’m not saying anything mean or making fun of anyone or telling embarrassing stuff about another person, or rehashing something that was told in confidence, and it’s actually really a cute and hilarious story and I’m telling it you so that you smile and have a good laugh and no one gets hurt in the process? What’s that?

Him: You know what that is. That’s $1 in the jar, per person, per storyline.

Me: So then if I come home from work and you ask about my day, what can I say?

Him: Anything, so long as it’s not gossip.

Me: So, like, I can tell you about my pencils and the way I folded a letter? We’re back where we started! What counts as gossip?

(and so on)

Under such guidelines, typing that dialogue bears a two-dollar fine, and since my mom is in there, too, albeit as a working example, it might even cost me $3. If this essay weren’t a tool for dissecting gossip and poking around its guts, I might agree since reciting household conversations online is rather poor form. And, under the telephone-with-mom definition, this essay counts as gossip as surely as discussing a family problem to figure out my feelings.

My concern thus becomes twofold: am I a dreadful gossiper in denial; and, if all that stuff counts as gossip, what’s left to share? Without a good story here and there, one’s evenings quickly become tiresome exchanges like the one in the The Great Muppet Caper where John Cleese and his stuffy wife dismantle the week according to the weather forecast. After recounting her disappointment with not just the rain of today but also the skies of yesterday and the predictions of what tomorrow might deliver, she startles John Cleese out of his fugue and asks, “Neville…am I boring you?” Oh no, he assures her, this is all very interesting.

That’s the thing about gossip: it saves us from becoming Nevilles. Confronted with dinnertime dullness, or at any point wanting for words, it’s easy (read: lazy) to dip into the business of others, tweak it a little with artful language and crafty storytelling style, and suddenly an anecdote about a colleague, sibling or stranger becomes currency. A thing you can play for reaction, even if you don’t mean it in a mean-spirited way. For instance, yes, it is rather hilarious that some of my queer friends share their cruising exploits with me. The things they tell me about their weekends…oh my gosh. But, do their tales pass the gossip test? Is the story about one of us? Yes. Is it information I really need to know? Not particularly. Are there other people in the story? There certainly are. And, do I need to know that information about the other person(s)? Hell no! That’s gossip, Miller. But, as a narrative this gossip is funny, sometimes self-deprecating, often shocking but not in an horrific way, more like a “Dang man, really? That’s how you spent the evening? I drank wine and wrote an essay and talked to my cat. You know yesterday was only Tuesday?” kind of way. It isn’t Neville’s wife’s story about the weather letting us down, nor is it a tale where anyone gets embarrassed or hurt or betrayed…not really. Presumably the guy from the cruising site doesn’t mind that some woman at some guy’s office knows he fucked a Kevin last night. So, does it warrant a contribution to the gossip jar?

How about if I go home and prepare a lovely supper, and my partner and I draw our chairs up to the table and dig in. We talk about our days in a way that is at first arm’s length, and gradually hones in on the meaty parts. My bicycle ride and the driver who nearly creamed me and the thing I wanted to shout but refrained from shouting because I’m doing my part to not perpetuate driver-cyclist animosity these days. My partner’s slow wake-up and sluggish commute, then invigorating hour at the gym. How much he wishes we could do yoga every day. Our decision then and there to try harder to make that idea work. The fantastic scone I devoured on morning break, and how I not only let the crumbs lie where they fell, but also wiped my hands on the underside of my desk-chair. Which, by the way, is a shitty chair, I hate the thing, it never stays at the proper height. The stupid thing drops an inch every night I swear, like magic, like elves creep in and notch down its crank simply out of spite. Or maybe it’s the woman who sits a few desks to my left and who, you know, has some spite of her own to spare, and who I could totally imagine doing that sort of thing. Gas-lighting co-workers who have crossed her in some way she feels deserves putting right. Settling the score. Like that one time when she…

…ok, now we’re talking. And what we’re talking is gossip. Cash in the jar. A dollar for the office-lady and one for each of the chair-jacking elves, too. Gossip is like the word in a book you skim over and can’t really define. You don’t bother interrupting your flow to look it up; you get the general idea of the sentence. You don’t feel like you’re missing the author’s point, but, if you knew what it really means, that word might enrich your life. If pressed to provide a cogent definition, you circle around the point but never quite hit it. If you decide to play this one all nerdy and serious, and whip out the dictionary, you’ll learn that gossip is “idle talk, especially about the personal or private affairs of others”. But, now instead of one just word, you’ve compounded the situation by adding “personal” and “private” to the list you need to limit and define. Either the gossip jar is going to rattle with a single dollar, or we resort of feeding it large bills to save trips to the shelf.

Defining gossip is like the other day when I tried to explain what a hipster is, to a friend who had no idea what people meant when they referred to this insidious population of young people who had recently invaded the local vernacular. Sturdy cocktails in hand, three of us attempted to distill “hipster” into something that would make this fourth friend go, “Ohhhhh, I get it! Those guys!” We cobbled together adjectives like “ironic”, “insincere” and “trying too hard” but failed to produce a viable life form. It was evident we were floundering when we started shouting long, wordy descriptors like “American Apparel v-neck t-shirts, but only on guys”, and “fucking stupid moustaches” and “grown men wearing those boxy birth-control eyeglasses that all the boys’ moms made them wear starting when we were in grade 5, so that by the time they started getting boners and wanting girlfriends, none of us would date them and then their moms didn’t have to worry about having The Sex Talk!” By now, the drinks were empty, my friend was more confused than when we started, and we hadn’t even touched on hipster females. Desperate, I suggested we meet the next morning at my local coffee shop where it would take elbows and shoulder-bags to fight through the capacity crowd of hipsters seeking caffeine and slouching space. “Ohhhhh, I get it! Those guys!” she shouted. “Why didn’t you just say so?”

Gossip doesn’t wear v-necks or Flashdance sweaters, and it doesn’t ride a retro ten-speed or flop in a loft. But for all it doesn’t share with hipsters, it does possess a common trait: you know it when you encounter it. And, even if you can’t quite define it and keep on reading without looking it up in the dictionary, you get the general idea. For all my obstinate efforts to probe and define and map its make-up and true nature, I’m being a bit obstinate here. Because, I know what gossip is. It’s the mean stuff a bunch of girls I hung out with when I was small and living in Winnipeg said about one another and then collectively pinned on me. It’s the trigger for high school fights, and the fuel that keeps workplace disputes blazing. It’s the moment when I lean closer and say, “Ok, this is kinda awful, but you have to hear this!” And, if it made my partner feel shitty after telling it to me, then it’s his story at dinner the night the jar was christened. Gossip is a story that makes you feel like you should look over your shoulder before starting, or wash your hands after sharing.

Gossip is the difference between my word and “my word!” It’s the divide between feeling like you could tell me something and my assurance of confidentiality is implicit, versus taking the preemptive measure of making me promise, “ok, so this stays between you and me, ok?” Gossip is a story shared out of context; one that makes the listener go, “My word! Now that’s a good one!” In this context, good being short-hand for juicy. Definition reached, fines established, jar labeled. The current gossip account balance is just under $100 (CAD), but we haven’t made a donation in weeks. At first, we joked about how we may one day spend the proceeds, and how it couldn’t be on something good otherwise we’d start talking about everyone in sight to reach our savings goal sooner. Then, we simply found other, better, things to discuss. Which is not to suggest my subject matter is beyond reproach; it’s just lighter on the interpersonal narrative and more robust in other departments.

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AMANDA MILLER is a writer and editor who lives and works in Toronto, Ontario. She moonlights as a baker and is currently writing a book about the intersections between cake and love. You can find her work in the anthology, The Edible City (Coach House Books, 2009). She also appears online at http://cakesandneckties.wordpress.com and http://hangoverhelper.wordpress.com/.

29 responses to “My Word vs. My Word!”

  1. […] also say things at The Nervous Breakdown, although perhaps not as often as I should! from → The Nervous Breakdown, agony of […]

  2. Becky Palapala says:

    I have a weird relationship with gossip, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

    Like most people, I’m prone to it.

    On the other hand, it sometimes makes me feel guilty.

    My general feeling is that simply mentioning that someone did something, for example, your mother calling, isn’t gossip. Not if the person you’re talking about could reasonably expect that you might tell others (especially your significant other!) that they had done this or that thing and really has no foreseeable reason to feel that information should be a secret.

    One of the guiding principles of gossip: Would the person you’re talking about feel hurt or betrayed to know you talked about them, to whom you talked, and what you said?

    That’s gossip worth feeling guilty about, in my opinion. At least most of the time.

    Major events that happen in my life, I fully reserve the right to discuss with my husband and close friends, even if it involves other people’s actions–a friend’s divorce, for example. Here’s why: The divorce affects us all, our friend group, etc. No man, as they say, is an island. We are social creatures and it’s ridiculous (potentially pompous?) to pretend otherwise. Plus, having those discussions is not just about whoever we’re talking about. Sifting through the social milieu is an exercise in relationship building with the person you’re talking TO; it is not, necessarily (or even often), about the person you’re talking about.

    However.

    If the chatter about others becomes unfair, snarky, one-sided, mean-spirited, that’s something else. I’m likely to back away.

    Unless someone explicitly tells me not to share something with my husband and has a damn good reason for doing so, anyone, at any given moment, should expect I might tell him what they said or did. He’s my husband.

    Which returns us to the question of what’s “necessary” discussion of others. If talking about the trials and tribulations of your day–talking about your concerns and frustrations with others–with your partner now requires a toll, that seems…well…let’s put it this way. I’d tell my husband he’ll listen and like it and I won’t pay a dime. It’s part of what he signed up for. Tough noogies.

    • I totally agree re: discreetly hashing things through with a partner/ spouse. And, indeed when mine expressed concern about having blabbed some story to me he believes he shouldn’t have shared, I felt like he wasn’t so much gossiping as trying to articulate how he felt, and was affected by, a story that directly affected/ involved someone close to him. It wasn’t so much gossiping as reflecting.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Exactly.

        Reflecting. Working through. Unpacking.

        I think the spouse/partner and even best friend situations have to allow for this. I mean, if we can’t talk to those people about things…

        I mean, what do you say?

        “I had a bad day.”

        “Oh no. Why? What happened?”

        “A thing happened. With people.”

        I mean, maybe I’m just a habitual gossip, but I don’t see that as being a very effective sharing experience.

        • “A thing happened. With people” totally sounds like the kind of statement that would trigger a whole other conversation, along the lines of “so how come everything you say to me sounds like you’re avoiding telling what happened today, and now I am suspicious about how you spent your time?” hahaha

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Exactly. You can’t win.

          Hence the “you will listen and like it” thing.

          As much as a many-minutes-long diatribe about anyone’s work/day/mundanities can be a snore or confusing if you weren’t there, I’d rather the husband talked about them than not.

          If he stops talking about them, THAT’S something to worry about.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Oh, gossip! It’s a terrible but delicious thing.
    I think that gossip on the whole is harmless – unless of course, it’s malicious.
    It’s human nature to talk about other people and I don’t think it’s something we should automatically be ashamed of – unless of course it has the potential to hurt or harm the people involved. But gossip in its purest form is simply information shared. I know that I gossip and everyone I know gossips – it’s silly to pretend we don’t. I assume my friends gossip about me (God, I certainly give them enough material!) and I would assume they assume I gossip about them. The key is knowing what it is okay to share and who it is okay to share with. Some things should always remain a secret, no matter how tempting it is to tell.

    • I still maintain a close friendship with four women I’ve known since high school. Over the years, we’ve forged alliances amongst ourselves where someone is kinda on the outs, and then it’s someone else, and the one of us moves away and is out of the loop, or one of us has a particularly rough go of things and someone steps up and that pair becomes temporarily closer than the rest of the group.

      We talk about one another, to one another. A lot. To the point where it’s caused trouble in the past. A lot. But, when we’re the talkers, we always believe we’re talking not to hurt or betray each other, rather out of love and concern, and a hope that together we might support each other more effectively, or reach out more appropriately, or deal with a situation more efficiently than alone. But, yes, it means a lot of the time we’re together and talking, it’s to swap what we know about each group member.

      One evening about five years ago, we were having supper on a patio at the height of summer. It was brutally hot and we were all a bit cranky, and I think someone was probably picking at someone else about something or other. And, due to prior engagements, one of us wasn’t present at all that night. So, she’s the one we were talking about. My friend had brought her son along, who was about 9 or 10 at the time. At one point, after remaining silent and sullen all evening, dead-bored out with his mom and mom’s friends, he looked up from his Gameboy and asked, “So, how come all your guys ever talk about is whichever one of you isn’t here?”

      OUCH.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Oooh…gossip is a dirty game.

        I mean, you’re either in or you’re out.

        Either you play or your pay. When people really get into it, it can make or break your social life. I mean, even though you’re all kind of thinking it, if you’re the one to actually act uncomfortable about it or say anything about it, you can be SURE you’re next up in the gossip/snark queue.

        Man oh man.

        It’s for this reason exactly that I try to keep my female friends to those who wouldn’t hesitate to say it to my face, mostly. Then I feel more or less secure that nothing they’re saying behind my back is any worse than the shit they’re saying to my face.

        I like to keep those lines of communication open. You know.

        • Yep, it was a few short weeks after that dinner incident when I broke up with the lady-posse…declared that I love them all, but can no longer hang out in groups of us larger than me plus one.

    • PS: your profile photo is awfully fancy! Nice one!

  4. Your chap calls you by your surname? Very Howard Hawks.

  5. Marni Grossman says:

    In doing some repenting on Yom Kippur, I noticed that gossip is one of my three greatest sins. (The other two were “scoffing” and “mocking). But can you be a writer and not be a bit of a gossip?

    Great post!

    • I feel like your two additional sins unlock the mystery of gossip. Just plain talking is one thing. Mocking and scoffing, though, tend to buddy up with talk, et voila…gossip. It’s one thing to be all “yeah so this lady at work said this thing today!” But, it’s something else altogether to throw in some judging and belittling. Which is generally standard fare when I tell stories like that. Admittedly, I tell them rarely, but I’d be a liar if I claimed to *never* tell stuff like that.

      And yep, I agree…you know those column-style decision-making tools they taught us in grade school? Like the PMI chart (for plus minus interesting)? You’d have an issue to resolve, and you’d write down as many things as came to mind about it, filed by column under whether you felt that point was an upside, a downside, or undecided and worthy of further thought. “Gossip” is sort of one of those…dissect a story you tell, as a writer, and probably at least a handful of your tales include gossip, scoffing and mocking. I guess it all comes down to whether you use your powers for good or evil.

  6. Judy Prince says:

    Beautiful writing riffs, Miller. Money in the jar, fo’ sho’, Miller. I loved this, Miller. Too many bits to paste in, but you did wit like few folks can:

    ” . . . we started shouting long, wordy descriptors like “American Apparel v-neck t-shirts, but only on guys”, and “fucking stupid moustaches” and “grown men wearing those boxy birth-control eyeglasses that all the boys’ moms made them wear starting when we were in grade 5, so that by the time they started getting boners and wanting girlfriends, none of us would date them and then their moms didn’t have to worry about having The Sex Talk!” By now, the drinks were empty, my friend was more confused than when we started, and we hadn’t even touched on hipster females. Desperate, I suggested we meet the next morning at my local coffee shop where it would take elbows and shoulder-bags to fight through the capacity crowd of hipsters seeking caffeine and slouching space. “Ohhhhh, I get it! Those guys!” she shouted. “Why didn’t you just say so?”

    And here’s a hark hawk hoot: “I know what gossip is. It’s the mean stuff a bunch of girls I hung out with when I was small and living in Winnipeg said about one another and then collectively pinned on me.”

    You totally nailed gossip with the word “juicy”, Miller.

    And this is absolutely stunning; thank you very much: “It’s the trigger for high school fights, and the fuel that keeps workplace disputes blazing. It’s the moment when I lean closer and say, “Ok, this is kinda awful, but you have to hear this!” And, if it made my partner feel shitty after telling it to me, then it’s his story at dinner the night the jar was christened. Gossip is a story that makes you feel like you should look over your shoulder before starting, or wash your hands after sharing.”

    Miller Miller Miller!!!!!!

    • I’m smitten with your term “hark hawk hoot” I must say!

      • Judy Prince says:

        Darling woman, you had me hark hawk hooting throughout this fabulous post. It is a fine fine piece of writing, poetic, fluid, packed (not to mention once again, hark hawk hootful, natch).

        Carry on, Miller Amanda. You are ready for Big Time and I can’t wait to see where you’ll shop this and other wonderful writings. Keep us posted, keep us laffing—-and we could do with some weeping and commiserating, which you also write poignantly and brilliantly. There are no limits, no can’t-do’s, no hard-edge boundaries to your brain, spirit and writing gifts. Just start stuff and see where it carries you, riff off what you hear and read and see and bleed. We’ll be here ready to feel your fun and pain.

  7. dwoz says:

    As much as it pains me to do so, I have to say that becky P got my point in before me. Gossip is what you wouldn’t say if either the person who told you or the person about whom, was present at the table. So relaying a funny/embarrassing anecdote that the person would themself laugh at, is not gossip.

    But the jar thing.

    I sometimes encounter that in the professional workspace. Not so much these days, but there used to be this fad that companies bought into, hiring “facilitators” to conduct “share-sourcing” and such. Offsite meetings, etc.

    One bright perky woman who was from some big facilitator company like IBM, was conducting this meeting series, and she made this big thing about putting a cookie jar in the middle of the table, that was the “kamp kitty”. Yes, she spelled camp with a “k”. If you were the last person in the room at the morning start, you owed the “kitty” a dollar. If you interrupted, or said a swear….etc.

    Now, I’m all for team building. I am a group player. Hey, I’ll sit and keep my mouth shut for a few hours for a free lunch. But that shit just makes me KRAZY. So I stood up, pulling a fiver from my wallet, and leaned over and stuffed it into the jar. “You let me know when that’s all spent.” I told her. She was an ass.

    The jar was gone the next day.

    It’s kind of like my concept of child-rearing. When you say “Do xyz thing or else” to a kid, you’re creating an implicit second choice for them, which is to continue to do their unacceptable behavior, and “purchase” the behavior with a price. Some price. Whatever it is. Instead, there is no alternative choice. It sounds draconian, but if you think about it, it removes the need to perform punishment, because you never let them CHOOSE punishment. That of course goes along with the requirement that you yourself never dictate an arbitrary.

    But after all that, I think it is PERFECTLY acceptable to say anything at all about people who worship at the cult of retro.

    • To be honest, I agree about the jar, and more than anything, we treat it as a bit of a joke. Like a tool with which to poke fun at ourselves, more than an object to place before us in hopes that it bullies and guilts us into being better people.

      We charge each other for telling embarrassing stories about my cat, or for saying we don’t like the pants a pedestrian is wearing as we drive past in the car. I stuffed my birthday money in there last week because I didn’t have time to hit an ATM and deposit it, and didn’t want it in my wallet either.

      And to be *really* honest? I don’t think I gossip at all, and when I do tell a story and someone else is in it, I’d contextualise it more as expressing my feelings in a forum that hurts no one rather than framing it as “talking behind that person’s back”. I think it’s inhuman to say nothing about anyone other than yourself, ever…bordering on sociopathic. I also think it’s a measure of your own character, how well you balance the ratio of, for instance, book and movie reviews, daily events, casual observations, and practical topics alongside “so this guy at the office today…” in your conversations. A bit of this, a bit of that…not too much of any single one.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      You’ve heard what they say about that Becky P…

    • Judy Prince says:

      A totally Kute Kaper, dwoz. She was indeed an ass (oops, arse).

  8. Gloria Harrison says:

    If you need a definition of hipster, just direct your friend to several of the fine essays that have been written on this very site in the last couple of weeks. Steve Sparshott’s recent essay is a good example.

    You know, Amanda, I’m already so in debt that I just don’t think it would behoove me to start this jar. Also, I’m not sure what else I’d talk about. I mention my children or a conversation I had in almost every essay I post on here. There’d be a $20 entrance fee for every post if I instituted your rule.

    It’s interesting though that you and your partner have started this. I’d love to be a fly on your wall over dinner conversations as each of you begin to say something then stop, pause, and redirect the conversation toward the quality of the meat or tofu in front of you. You make a good point: What else is there to talk about?

    • Under the heading, “what else is there to talk about?”:

      1. whether or not what one of you is trying to talk about counts as gossip

      2. whether or not what one of claims is gossip is actually just an innocent story

      3. why one of you really owes the jar about $5 by now, if we’re going to start considering XYZ story “gossip”, since this sets a precedent for about a jillion other things also being classified as such

      Lesson learned: that attempting to classify, avoid, and penalise certain topics as “gossip” and therefore “bad” and “to be avoided at all cost, specifically, the cost of $1 per person per storyline”, it hones a focus on so-called gossip to such a degree that you’re now completely obsessed with it, when beforehand, you merely noted from time to time that perhaps a certain story constituted the wrong sort of sharing.

      In the beginning, the jar served an interesting purpose, not so much as a punishment or deterrent, rather as a thing that encouraged a greater degree of self-awareness, and a greater consciousness of how often we fell into talking about…well…nothing. At least, nothing that really mattered or needed to be talked about. And, it sometimes called us on a failure to deal with an issue, feel however we were going to feel about it, then let go and move on. Gossip can be about altercations, annoyances, encounters, all sorts of things that wind you up inside…and those things, at least in my experience of them, are generally best gotten-over.

      So, in a way, the gossip jar also worked as a tool that made me expend less energy on something that didn’t really deserve to play so heavily on my mind. And actually, we talk about loads things since we let go talking about friends,acquaintances, family and neighbours. We did that before the jar too–by no means is this to suggest my house was a cloud of other people’s business, haha…

  9. i love designer shoulder bags that are designed by Prada and Gucci, they are the best ::

  10. the shoulder bags that my girlfriend uses are always made up from natural leather *'”

  11. Abner says:

    Very good write-up! I’m also likely to create a blog post about it… appreciate it

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