Gossip, a fascinating phenomenon

A vicious rumour has the potential to destroy. It’s an indirect attack that leaves the target virtually defenceless.

Gossip is a fascinating phenomenon nonetheless. You need two to tango and three to gossip: the gossiper, the listener and gossipee: the absent third.

Affairs are exciting, but three-cornered relationships are thrilling.

The gossiper must always wonder: Is the listener on my side? If not, the gossip could blow up in their face. “Sorry, but I’m not interested in what you have to say.” Who hasn’t endured that humiliation? The key is to choose the right listener. The next question is: Do I want my listener to spread the gossip? And to whom? That’s another key question.

The listener has the same options. Do I keep the gossip to myself or spread it? And so a gossip can either die an early death, spread through an entire network of friends and acquaintances, be banished out of boredom only to resurface again a year later and make a magnificent comeback. In all cases, however, the target has not yet been hit. Cowardice and discretion make sure of that. If you had any idea how much people gossip about you, you’d never leave the house again.

Who cares about the truth?

When gossip does hit its mark, the target is always left wondering what is wrong with having a personal life. After all, gossip always hovers at the junction between public and private. Just think of the politician who gets caught at work (public life) looking at seedy websites (private life). If you dig a little deeper you’ll soon realise that physicality and sex are the most popular topics. Colleagues caught in the copy room; a cousin caught going to a peepshow in his hometown. Whether it’s all true….who cares?

The victim must wonder: What’s wrong with these people? Well, gossip is fun. Gossip strokes the ego. You get to stand on a pedestal and be part of the group at the same time. You get to soak up the laughter that your juicy story about Mr or Mrs C induced. The added bonus: it draws the attention away from you. Thou shalt gossip so as not to be gossiped about. But there’s a but. We’re jealous of people who don’t gossip. They exist, just as the Madagascar turtle exists, but they’re rare. These are the people who aren’t interested in the private, only the public. Maybe that’s the definition of the modern-day saint: someone who never gossips.

Another plus: gossipers and their sympathetic listeners draw a line. The gossip itself decides who belongs and who doesn’t. Sometimes, the outcast is cast out so he can re-join the herd, while others must forever live on the periphery. Gossip as a way to systematically do away with people.

The damage done

In the meantime, the gossipee is just praying that the gossip limits itself to a certain radius. Often it does. The home front will remain blissfully unaware as long as the topic is somewhat small and insignificant. But as soon as it involves a celebrity or a famous this or that…

Once public and social media get their hands on the juicy morsel, it circulates, only to come full circle. And there it is. A reputation damaged if not destroyed. Going on the defence only makes things worse. There’s only one hope for the public target: an appeal to humanity. Forgiveness? Forget about it. That will never happen. We don’t forgive anyone for anything these days, so it’s a good thing we forget everything and everyone instead.

By Ad van Iterson

Dr Ad van Iterson is an associate professor in Organization Studies for the Organization Studies group at Maastricht University. His main fields of teaching and writing are: informal organization, civilising theory applied on organizations, and institutional contexts of organizations. van Iterson also published three collections of short stories, two novels and one stage play, and teaches creative business writing.

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