The Millennial Pilgrim: Let's hold better standards for how we gossip

The urge to gossip about people comes from certain deficiencies in our internal landscape and certain standard assumptions about how the world functions

Somi DasUpdated: Saturday, April 02, 2022, 05:58 PM IST
Photo: Freepik

Our girls' gang had met after a long time. We were at a cafe. All of us had dressed to kill. Donning bohemian neckpieces and danglers, strawberry perfume, winged eye-liners, high heels — we had put our best foot forward. As expected, gushing compliments flowed in abundance, which each of us instinctively knew had to be returned instantly. Once we had validated each other in the way only women can validate women, we sat down to unleash the pent up material we were carrying in our gut, material we had saved for each other with the promise of “I will tell you, when I meet you.”

I was holding my cappuccino in one hand and choking to death a lone lanky soggy piece of French fry between the index and thumb fingers of the other hand while intently listening about the royal life apparently one of our friends was living. This person of interest wasn't present that day for she was on a world tour of some sorts for work and recreational purposes. “But who is clicking the pictures that she flaunts on social media? She only puts up solo pictures of herself,” said one of the group members, drawing all of us in. I knew the answer to it. Felt a tremendous urge to spill the beans. “We would know if she wanted us to know,” I responded, appearing to be much holier than thou, proud that I had not succumbed to my worst impulse; making the other friend feel badly judged. In my mind, I was judging myself for having thus far participated in the conversation, and worse deriving inexplicable pleasure out of it.

Gossip is like junk food. We know it's bad for health but it is addictive and irresistible. Plenty of our conversations are about people who are not present in the room, who skipped the party for work or left the gathering a little early. Some of us stay back long after the party has stopped being any fun and drunken drones from uncles have taken over, just to make sure no one gets to talk about us behind our backs while we have no qualms in discussing the salacious details of someone's affair or divorce.

Evolutionarily, gossip has played an important role in our survival. Those not clued into the grapevine were more likely to perish. A disease travelling from far off, gossip of threat, or opportunities. Information in mythical forms, which there was no way to verify, was the only source of news in the times of antiquity. Gossip also serves as a strong social adhesive. It is a way of saying: “I trust you, you are an in-group member.” Gossipers are powerful influencers. They influence opinions about people within and outside the group. People have forged relationships over hating a common person. The connection between two people or an entire group could be built on the edifice of hatred for a toxic boss, or a certain colleague. These friendships aren't lasting, but temporarily they have a pseudo therapeutic effect.

It is still hard to explain the excitement of talking in pejorative terms and making collective slights about a friend who is doing exceptionally well in her life and flaunting it on social media. Clearly, there is more going on here than just harmless bonding. The assumption that the standard 'good life' comes at some cost, probably is where our scrutiny of my friend's life came from. “No, it can't be that perfect. What's the chink in her armour? Where's her wound? Where does she fail? She must be unhappy over something in her life. No?” We wanted to heave a sigh of relief and thus were looking for teeny weeny bits of details about her life that would make us feel better even as we struggled on personal and professional fronts.

The pressure of living the mythical perfect life that some elusive people seem to be living — we want it off our chests. It is too much to take while we are hustling to pay our meagre bills. This is the reason we gossip about celebrities, politicians, and high profile rich people. It's easy to see them live a life we would never have. Yet, when one of our friends becomes a globe-trotting successful power broker, best-selling author, TED speaker, or who knows what — some jobs are just so difficult to describe (what exactly does he/she do is the common lament) — we become curious about their lives behind the social media blitzkrieg. We start speculating about the reasons that aided their success story.

The urge to gossip emanates from our personal deficiencies or perceived deficiencies in our life. How we talk about others in their absence tells us what we think of ourselves in the isolation of our minds. Gossip is judgement in its barest form. The licence to say anything in the safety of common indignation. In the end, no judgement is devoid of self-judgement.

To be curious about others' lives is different. To try and honour someone's story — their successes and failures, strengths and vulnerabilities, to derive lessons from them to reach a place of aloof resignation that Nida Fazli had so succinctly written about in “kabhi kisiko mukammal Jahan nahi milta” is different. For such succour we don't need gossip. Poetry would do. But, to rummage for material in someone's story to validate our worldview, or justify our current state of affairs speaks of a certain lack of conviction in what we are doing with our life or what we want to do with it.

Maybe every time we feel like discrediting someone's achievements because seemingly there is something 'mysterious' about it, we should reflect on where the judgement is stemming from in our psychic system. What is it we are lacking that we feel compelled to discredit others in private conversations or participate in their underground condemnation? It is okay to be unsure about what we want to do. A better GPS is knowing what we don't want to do, or what we don't want from life. Once, we are sure of that many internal resentments that power these gossips would fall apart effortlessly.

Setting standards for what we indulge in is necessary for maintaining moral and emotional hygiene. And, that holds true for something as flimsy and irreverent as gossip. Unfortunately, standards can't be set up by topical advice like “it's bad to gossip”, “don't speak ill of others”. Such diktats are useless, in fact, counter-productive and guilt-inducing. Standards can only be set after we have done a thorough check-in with ourselves. After we have unravelled our resentments, lacks and hurts. The needs that haven't been met. When we have caught ourselves in moments of wanting to be nasty to someone in their absence. These moments, when properly examined without self-flagellation of “I am such a bad person”, can act as portals to self-knowledge.

We can still make fun of our friends who take their success too seriously or are full of themselves and dismiss any other way of being other than what suits their worldview and personality in closed rooms. But the texture of that conversation is different from malice-laced unwarranted questioning of someone's integrity and success.

That day, after I had put that soggy French fry inside my mouth and wiped off the residual oil on the tip of my finger to fill in for the awkward silence that had taken over, strangely I felt a little lighter. Thankfully, another friend took over and began her lament about men. Now, that's a topic for guilt-free indulgence.

(The writer is a mental health and behavioural sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found as @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)

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