Yesterday I took a walk with a friend and we ended up talking at length about how upset we both were with a mutual friend who’d been checked out, unavailable and unpredictable lately. During the course of our two-hour walk, I felt like my personal complaining digressed into gossip. I wanted to stop, and I tried several times, but I couldn’t.
When I got home I felt irritated and uncomfortable. I was walking around with a metaphorical layer of dirt on my skin, grimy with guilt. I grew up with a lot of gossip. It was part of our family culture. My parents had a lot to say about pretty much everyone they met. I thought it was normal to assess and judge everyone. I learned that this was how people talked about each other. Naturally, I grew to believe that people talked about me like we talked about other people in our house.
Gossip is everywhere. People do it every day, unconsciously most of the time. I don’t think people who gossip are malevolent. I don’t think most of us even realize that we’re doing it. But why do we gossip?
As I sat in my soiled skin thinking about why I’d digressed into that form of communication I realized that the regressive gossipy conversation my friend and I had yesterday was serving me by creating a bridge away from my own feelings.
In finding this common topic and feeding it with tidbits of gossipy details, I was joining my friend on a bridge. We could stand there together and be in this neutral place, neither of us being truly with our feelings.
If I had been able to be with my own emotions of sadness and disappointment about our mutual friend, I wouldn’t have needed to build the bridge away from myself. But it was easier to walk away, meet my friend, and stand on the bridge, biding time away from the pain of my own feelings.
Gossip is a way to not be alone in whatever emotion we are having about a person. Yesterday when both my friend and I regressed into caddy gossip about our mutual friend we were finding a way not to be alone. Each of us felt hurt in our own ways and it was painful to experience that emotion. So we joined each other on the gossip bridge and kept each other company, neither of us alone in the discomfort of what we were really feeling.
Gossip hurts the people we are talking about, but it hurts those who are gossiping more. Over time, if we manage our feelings using this method, the grime builds up and becomes more difficult to scrub off. When we look in the mirror it becomes harder to see ourselves clearly. We are so covered with the dirt of others that we don’t even remember our true selves.
Not gossiping is as much a practice as gossiping. And it’s a lot harder. Sitting in the discomfort of whatever we are feeling — sadness, discomfort, insecurity — takes a lot more emotional muscle than ranting about someone’s character defects or personal choices. But it’s possible. Most of us know when we’re gossiping. Maybe you feel it like I do — that dirty layer of silt on your skin. Maybe it’s that sinking feeling in your gut or a tingling in your cheeks.
Notice when you are walking towards the bridge, colluding with someone else, about someone else, and try to turn back towards yourself, to listen to what you have to say, what you are feeling. The conversation might change. Instead of talking about someone else, you’ll have to talk about yourself, about how you feel. And that’s harder work, but it’s also kinder. And it’s a lot cleaner.