Last night we were in the supermarket, waiting at the checkout as you do. There was the usual stack of magazines, and as usual I was goggling at them in wide eyed wonder. Apparently Brad/Ange/Jennifer have been usurped by someone called Alison who has split up with her husband and is quoted on the cover of two of them as saying "It had to end!"
To which I went "Who is this woman and why should I be interested?" And it got me thinking about gossip.
Gossip = bad, right? Certainly in my corner of the world, discussing other people's private lives when they aren't present is considered to be a bad thing. A thing that only petty, small minded people do. Some people are so allergic to gossip that they'll actively avoid anyone who talks about other people's business.
But I wonder.
People are social animals. We flock together in groups and anyone who's not interested in this grouping is considered to be a bit strange. We connect our lives together in complex maps of association, most people have an inner circle and an outer circle, and share information about themselves with each other as part of bonding. The level of information sharing varies from person to person, and usually the closer you are to someone, the more you know about them. And, at least in my social sphere, there are people that I'd trust with any information about me.
Yet, showing an active interest in what's going on in other people's lives is considered to be a bad thing. I guess it's a fine line between sharing/seeking information, and using that information for nefarious purposes. There's gossip, in other words, and there's malicious gossip. And I think it's important to know the difference, because in my opinion showing an interest in what's going on with other people is part of what strengthens community bonds. If we all went "None of my business" all of the time, we'd be very isolated from each other. Imagine going through something that tore you up inside, and having everyone stick their fingers in their ears and go "Lalallaallaaa don't want to know" instead of listening. I think that would kind of suck.
While being discussed behind your back is not something most people enjoy finding out about, I'd love to hear from anyone who's never talked about someone else's business while they weren't there. I guess the problem arises when people are willing to discuss others' stuff behind their back, but not willing to talk to them to their faces - and that's pretty common too. It almost seems to be part of the human condition, this desire to know stuff about what others are up to. Some people take it to extremes with prying, and others use it to be nasty with malicious gossip. And of course there's the Chinese Whispers effect, which exaggerates stories out of proportion. We all know about this effect, yet we're not willing to accept it as a fact of life when it's our stuff that's been blown up to widescreen in public, to laugh and say "OK, now calculate the x root of that, where x is the number of people it's gone through to get to you, and you'll be somewhere close to the truth". Instead we gasp in horror and label those who've talked as Bad People.
And so this natural interest we tend to show in each other has become something we should squash, hide, and Not Do. Which is why I think there's such a market for magazines that are full of celebrity gossip. There's a kind of disconnect where it's not ok to show an interest in the people you actually know, or talk about their problems, but it's totally fine to discuss the marriage breakup of someone whose face you see on TV. It's like you know them because their face is familiar, but your discussion of their personal stuff can't hurt them, so it's ok to dissect their personal life. And the marketing folks know this and play to it by making the celebrity gossip as juicy as possible. I figure if there wasn't some kind of human desire to do this, nobody would buy the magazines and celebrity gossip wouldn't exist.
And you know, personally I don't give a rat's arse about Alison's marriage. Sure, it's sad when people split. I'm sure they are going through the same things we all go through when something like that happens. But for me, I am absolutely more interested in what's going on with the people in my community, how they are feeling, what they are doing - because they are people I actually interact with, and I care a hell of a lot more for those people than I do for any random famous person. Those people are my community, and while gossip can be Really Bad, I hold that taking an interest in the lives of those I care about is an important and healthy thing. That doesn't mean I'm about to go off and broadcast information about people - but to not enquire after someone's wellbeing when you know something's going on with them because you're afraid of being labelled a gossip, seems to me to be just another wedge driven between people in a society that's already set up to become more and more fragmented.
I think that if all you ever had to talk about was other people's business, then that might be a problem because it shows an unhealthy lack of balance in your own life and interests - but a bit of interest in others is, I believe, natural, normal and healthy.
Last night I dreamed I was walking along the side of the motorway, picking up the coins people had dropped and putting them in my pockets. Eventually my pockets got so full that my pants fell down. Go figure...