Monday, July 02, 2007

The Book of Gossipel: Good News Gets Zits

Backposted from Bone's Blahg Blahg Blahg, June 13, 2007:
"If you want unverified gossip passed on as truth, it is there. If you want a person's private fault reported as public fact, it is there, too. If you want the most inconsequential nonsense blown up into an earthshaking event, you will find no shortage of it." —Francisco S. Tatad

If you live in a small town like Berea, there is absolutely no shortage of gossip. In fact, whether or not you actively condone or participate in the gossip grapevine, you will likely find yourself knowing way more about other people's business than you even want to know. Perhaps it's unfair to condemn the small town as the only hotbed of rumorous ruin or the most fertile soil for salacious social swindles. I admit that it can exist and proliferate in any tight-knit community, cohort, or collective bound by closeness of proximity and/or endeavor; however, there's a special sort of gossip that germinates in a small town where everyone knows everyone over an extended period of time.

"In a town this size, there's no place to hide/Everywhere you go you meet someone you know/You can't steal a kiss in a place like this/How the rumors do fly in a town this size." —Kieran Kane

Throughout my life, I've been constantly surprised and saddened to learn (again and again) that most people are not as honest and forthright as I am or expect others to be. It's a long-standing naiveté that, in spite of my perennial pessimism about most things, I keep hoping will manifest in consistently open, respectful dialogue about reality rather than rumors. Granted, I cannot claim to be a perfect example of honesty and integrity in every action or aspect of my imperfect human life. But over and over, I am shocked and appalled (not to mention flabbergasted and bumfuzzled) to have my most heinous fear about humanity realized in the overtly obnoxious display of disrespect for the first-person narrative.

"Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it: it proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker." —George Eliot

Not only do most people talk about things they have no first-hand knowledge about, but they also relish the opportunity to embellish on someone else's uninformed speculations and/or lies. And no one is exempt from being the center of this negative attention. At some point, each of us is a walking "wanted poster" on exhibition like a notice in the local post office for everyone to see and write graffiti upon. As people turn their gaze upon the "representation of you," some are inspired (or possessed?) to write some personal perception or overheard utterance. Somebody else comes along, reads it, and then writes their own opinion about the image (and the cumulative commentary) portrayed. In short order, you have become nothing but a tall-tale written by bored social insomniacs who are far more interested in defaming their neighbors than living their own lives and setting an example of what it means to be a good one (neighbor, that is).

"Whoever gossips to you will gossip about you." —Spanish Proverb

Then, new people come to town thinking that they've found their respite in an "alternative" community that is undoubtedly "enlightened" and above all that pretension and gossip found in other small towns. So depending on who they first meet up or interact with, what invisible faction they enter into, the newbies are quickly indoctrinated into a particular book of the Berea Bible that is built on gossip of the past, some singular Gospel According to Gossip [Insert Name Here]. Oh, and I could insert names; I could wield that power with a heavy hand (or torrential tongue as the metaphor were). And sadly, I have. For a brief period of time when I first came to Berea as a freshman (ahem—teenager), I actively and zealously promoted and participated in the willful manipulation of people's reputations and relationships simply because, for the first time in my life, I actually embodied the social power to influence people's perceptions. But I quickly terminated this hateful hobby upon seeing how devastating, demeaning, and destructive it was to both the victims as well as my own sense of well-being and integrity.

"Gossip is the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid." —Walter Winchell

Of course, I've also been the victim of good-for-nothing gossip, the object of too much talk about naught. In fact, I've even high-tailed it the hell out of this small town (more than once) to escape the scrutiny, speculation, and not-so-savoir-faire of its "all-seeing" eye and loose lips. Small towns are supposedly the epitome of tight-knit community and support, an extended family poised to catch its relatives with open arms should they lose their balance, stumble, or fall. But too often, it's the opposite. At its best, it's a dysfunctional family with all the judgment, guilt, resentment, and jealousy that is commonly referred to as "love." At its worst, it's a pit of vipers (disguised as a safety net) ready to surround and consume the clumsy passerby who trips into the trap. A community, your family is supposedly there to watch your back, but instead it's usually too busy stabbing you in the back to protect it.

"No one gossips about other people's secret virtues." —Bertrand Russell

This interest in or obsession with others' misfortune (or the active manifestation of others' misfortune) unfortunately is not matched with an equal enthusiasm to spread the positive news or praise that some people actually bestow upon others. Given my distaste for ruthlessly relentless gossip-mongering, I now try to embody the compensatory role of what I call "Glenda the Good Gossip." I hear people say plenty about other people, and like I said, it's usually more than what I want to know. I tend to tuck most of it away, give people the benefit of the doubt, and only refer back to some unsolicited forewarning if my own experience finally corroborates it. But on the rare occasion that I hear someone mention what a good friend someone is, how thoughtful someone is, or how proud they are of someone's accomplishments, I make a special point to relay the good news directly to the recipient who might not hear it otherwise.

"Good gossip is just what's going on. Bad gossip is stuff that is salacious, mean and bitchy–the kind most people really enjoy." —Liz Smith

Needless to say, I'm very tired of this seemingly inevitable small-town bullshit and so invite (no, beg) my colleagues, cohorts, companions, and other colorful community characters to call it into question. I also offer a few words to the wise (or the wise guys that think they wise already…):
  1. First and foremost, be careful what you say and who you say it to. I've learned through trial and error who I can trust with my innermost world (and they are few) as well as who can't be trusted with even the most innocuous of passing comments unless I'm prepared to have it broadcast throughout Berea. Sadly, you might find that your most willing and compassionate of confidantes is your biggest liability, so pay attention when someone is uber-eager to hear tragic news about anyone or anything.
  2. Take anything someone says with a grain of salt—they might be having a hard day and acting a little more negative than usual; they could be acting out vengeance for a personal grudge; or they might be genuinely concerned about someone but basing it on a long conga-line of he-said/she-said as primary evidence.
  3. It's okay to say you'd rather not hear it; you have a right to nip it in the bud if you suspect someone's sources or motives are not worthy of your attention. Likewise, consider your own motives and audience when choosing whether or not to pass on some juicy and/or questionable tidbit that has made its way through your auditory canals. Gossip is really hard to undo once it's done, and trust can be destroyed with even a casual statement dispensed with good intentions.
  4. Finally, if you have a question or concern about someone, ask them instead of relying on faulty second-hand (or third- or fourth- or otherwise dubiously disremoved) information or seeking stats from someone else behind their back. From a personal standpoint, I'm a big girl, and I'm damnright honest enough to either tell you what's up or tell you that it's none of your business. And if I tell you it's none of your bees-wax, respect me enough to let it be rather than seeking another source to satisfy your insatiable curiosity. Because, you know, it will make its way back to me.

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