Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 2, No. 10. June 14, 1939
In Defence of Gossip
In Defence of Gossip
Three issues ago "Salient" inaugurated a Gossip Column. Since then it has been praised—and condemned. There are those who have smiled on it; there are those who have frowned on it; and some we fear who almost made up their minds to spit upon it. Despite all this, the idea of a Gossip Column is, we feel, on intuitive grounds, a sound one. But even though there is really no need at all to do so, we intend to vindicate ourselves.
Here is an article that sets out with the intention of defending the institution of Gossip and makes a fist of it. May it be enjoyed in the reading.
Let's be honest. When you open your newspaper, as soon as you have made sure that England hasn't declared war, or been bombed, what do you look at? Why, the gossip columns! And as for books, if you had to choose between the serious study and the amusing gossip, say, between Clarendon's History of the Rebellion and John Aubrey's Scandal and Credulities, wouldn't you choose the latter? Of course you would! Who would rather learn the facts of Augustus' imperial policy than discover that he had spots on stomach? No one.
Pleasure of Curiosity.
Few of the human passions can be guaranteed to last. Sooner or later we all grow too old for love, and even the Joys of eating and drinking depend upon the caprices of our digestion. Tobacco? Yes, possibly, but the only pleasure we can absolutely count on to last as long as life itself is the one which distinguishes us from the beasts, the pleasure of curiosity; and, of all the exciting and interesting things which happen round about us, the behaviour of our neighbours is the most fascinating. I know that there are people who would rather find a lesser spotted woodpecker in a wood than their churchwarden with a chorus girl in a teashop, but these are the real eccentrics.
Then again, a lot of us have work we are interested in, but that's shop, and what a bore the fellow is who will talk shop in general company, the stockbroker who holds forth about bulls and bears to people who have never got nearer one than the Zoo—so un-English, don't you think? Or the lady who insists on giving you the latest bulletins from her nursery: the baby-snob, she's a terror.
No; shop can be the most absorbing of all forms of conversation, but for heaven's sake let's keep it in its proper place.
But you and I, I hope, are not bored. Whatever our consciences may say, whenever we meet our friends, as soon as the conventional inquiries about health and babies are over, we settle down to a cosy little gossip.
I saw John the other day. You know he's engaged.
I did hear something about it. She's very rich, isn't she?
Yes, her parents are perfectly furious. He turned up at a party at their house in a hired dress suit!
How's that friend of his? The one who's so [unclear: worried] about his hair?
Oh. David, you mean. I saw him last week at a [unclear: cocktail] party. He was tight, and insisted on talking French all the time. But It wasn't very good French. He'll be as bold as a coot in a few years' time. Talking of David, how's Helen?
Not drinking quite as much as she used to. I think she's lovely, don't you?
Yes. But, Christmas! How stupid!
That's the trouble. She knows she's a bore.
The one I'm sorry for is that child of hers, left alone all day with that ogre of a nurse. My dear, she positively eats him. And so on and so on. We all do it, and no policeman or clergyman will over stop us. But gossip Is still listed officially as a vice, the kind of thing we do ourselves, hut punish children for doing.
Is Gossip a Vice?
Well, is it really a vice? Never, we are told, say anything about other people that you wouldn't like to hear said about yourself. This is ridiculous and Impossible. If we were really to act on this, we should never say anything about anybody except that he or she was the nicest, most beautiful and intelligent person in the whole world, because nobody is satisfied with less praise. We all really think that we are the nicest person in the world: if we didn't we should commit suicide. Perhaps at the bottom of our hearts we suspect that this isn't true, but we quite rightly expect our friends to behave in our company as If It were. We are not so foolish as to expect them to believe It. though. We all know that they'll say something very different, and perhaps nearer the truth, the moment our back is turned. Just as we shall about them, but who cares? As long as we don't actually hear the catty remark, we are happy. It's this that stops most of us from reading other people's letters and listening at keyholes. We are terrified of coming across some unfiattering reference to ourselves as in those horrifying advertisement strips. "James asks me how I liked his book: I had to pretend I'd read it." or "Poor Jean is under the illusion that she still looks twenty-three." You know the kind of thing.
Gossip has fallen under a cloud because of the people who abuse it. I remember once as a small boy when my elder brother repeated at a tea-party, where a certain lady was present, a remark of my aunt's to the effect that the lady smelt. For the next few days, to all his toys, to his sponge and toothbrush and all his belongings, he found a paper pinned on which were written the words. 'Never Repeat.'
Or a Creative Work of Art?
Another objection raised to gossip is that it causes mischief. As the result of a loose tongue, someone loses his Job or divorces her husband. This is not the fault of gossip, but of the kind of people one gossips with. There are some kinds of people in whose presence you should shut up like an oyster:people with strong moral views, members of Watch-Committees or Purity Leagues, natural policemen, schoolmasters. If you really mind what people do you have no right to gossip. But there's no reason whatever why gossip should make mischief. As a game played under the right rules It's an act of friendliness, a release of the feelings, and a creative work of art.
I began by saying that an interest in one's neighbours is common to all the human race. Common, too, at least to all nice people, is a love of conversation and a dislike of being alone. There are people who would rather play bridge or tennis nr do something rather than talk, but I think that rather unfriendly, don't you? Still worse is the person who sits in the corner saying nothing, and then goes home and writes It all up in a little black diary. He is a spy, and should be treated as such. No: you can be quite sure that the person who dislikes talking dislikes the entire human race, himself included, which is worse than the person who talks shop all the time, who at least likes himself.
A friendly person is interested In other people, and tries to talk about the things which interest them. Cut out gossip and there'll be no conversation left except shop, smoke-room stories, and the most vapid kind of tea-table talk. I'd rather be dead.
Secondly, gossip is the greatest safety valve to the emotions that exists. Psychologists tell us that we all nourish secret grudges, hatreds, jealousies, resentments against even our nearest and dearest, and that the cure lies in getting them off our chests. When we gossip, we do for nothing in the street or the parlour what we should have to pay two guineas an hour for doing in the consulting room. How often I have worked off ill-feeling against friends by telling some rather malicious stories about them, and as a result met them again with the feeling quite gone. And I expect you've done the same. When one reads in the papers of some unfortunate man who has gone for his wife with a razor, one can be pretty certain that he wasn't a great gossip. Very few gossips end in asylums or the condemned cell. It is cheaper than going to a doctor, and much nicer than actually having a row with our friends.
Lastly, gossip is creative. All art is based on gossip—that is to say, on observing and telling. The artist proper is someone with a special skill in handling his medium, a skill which few possess. But all of us to a greater or less degree can talk: we can all observe, and we all have friends to talk to. Gossip is the art-[unclear: form] of the man and woman in the [unclear: street] and the proper subject for gossip, as for all art. Is the belfavlour of mankind.
Advice to the Beginner
Oh, yes, and while we're on the subject of technique, there are two faults which the beginner should avoid. Never be arch, by which I mean, never start like this:
'I had an interesting talk with X the other day'.
'What did she say?'
'Oh, I promised not to tell you.'
'Oh, come on!'
'No, really, I can't—!'
Etcetera, until everyone is bored. It's bad manners, like keeping people waiting for their dinner.
The other fault to avoid is the apologetic opening. Phrases like:
'I suppose it's cruel to say it, but—'
'You know I'm devoted to her, but—'
'I don't usually gossip, but—'
It's a bad style, and a sign of an unpleasant nature. Let your gossip be yea. yea. and nay nay.
The great subjects for gossip are Love, Crime, and Money. Few of us, unfortunately, know many criminals, and reliable information about other people's finances is difficult to get hold of, so we generally have to fall back on love, which is a pity, as it tends to get rather monotonous. The ideal situation for the born gossip would be a village containing a mad vicar, a squire who was the terror of every parent with a daughter, a squire's wife who was being blackmailed by her chauffeur, a cocaine-taking doctor, a beautiful blonde girl In the pay of a foreign Power, a sinister professor who never came out of his house, and an ex-convict or two; but, alas! such villages only exist in detective stories. And we must put up with our own little village where nothing more happens than that the vicar is too high-church for the vestry, the squire's son has failed in his school certificate, the doctor danced several times with the beautiful blonde girl at the village institute dance, the professor is only an unmarried old entomologist with small Independent means, and now and then someone is fined for poaching.
Well, [unclear: never] mind, [unclear: skillfully] handled, you can make quite a lot of that. Remember, never hesitate to invent but invent in detail, never gossip to people who'll run off straight away to the victim, never gossip to people with moral principles, and don't have any conscience about being a gossip. If it is a fault, which I don't believe, it is a fault that is shared by the entire human race.—[Abridged.]