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?
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?
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.