The question of gossip

One of the things I’ve been thinking about (due to some professional work talking about online harassment and disagreements) is the role of gossip and social commentary in the Pagan community.

I believe that there is healthy gossip and unhealthy gossip, but I want to talk about some examples.

What is gossip?

Most generally, gossip is generally seen as being two or more people talking about other people who are not present, usually in a lighthearted way that often also allows us to make comparisons between different choices. Research studies suggest that there are actually some powerful benefits to gossip.

Community history:
One powerful benefit is that it allows people who are new to a group or community to catch up on the community history. I see this one all the time, because I work in a school setting.

New teachers are often told directly to listen carefully to lunch time and faculty room conversation, because it helps them put some events or individuals in better context. Knowing that a particular grade has a reputation for being particularly challenging or easy to work with can help them calibrate their own expectations. Knowing that a particular teacher is brillant but scatterbrained, or that another is very detail-oriented, but slow to adapt to new technology might all be helpful. Knowing that someone is the child of a long line of alums can sometimes put their pressures and expectations in better focus.

Community guidelines:
A number of studies have found that gossip helps reinforce community standards. For example, in one study among ranchers in the Western states, gossip helped reinforce community expectations, like maintaining fence lines. In city neighborhoods, you might see the same thing with who shovels snow promptly and who doesn’t. Not sharing important information – like the fence being down, letting animals wander – was actually seen as far more negative than sharing it.

Reinforces healthy imperfection:
Sometimes it can be very easy to feel like everyone else around us is perfect, and we’re an imposter trying to fake our way through a particular task.

Oddly enough, gossip turns out to reinforce the idea that we don’t need to be perfect. Healthy gossip allows us to hear about other people’s foibles and missteps – but also helps us calibrate the serious ones. We might have a funny story about someone messing up in a minor way – handing out the wrong handout, or putting up the wrong presentation. But when it blows over, we’re reassured that our own minor glitches are no big deal, and that no one’s obsessing about them (and we shouldn’t either!)

On the other hand, it means that we also have a way to talk about more serious issues – things that really do affect the entire community we’re part of. It gives us a chance to consider what we’d want to do if we were in a given situation, or to look at what we might change in our own lives to avoid something serious. Without gossip, we’d be limited to direct discussion – and might miss a lot of opportunities.

Want to read more? There’s an article from the New York Times in 2005 that includes the non-personal examples above. (You may need a password for their site, but it is currently showing up without log-in for me.) There’s also a great blog post here with some additional commentary and guidelines – be sure to read the last one (#4) if you check it out.

Some general guidelines:

There are some common guidelines that get brought up in discussions of gossip. (I like the discussion here, which is from a Jewish perspective, but which cites a number of other interesting articles.) My guidelines include the following:

Does it share good news about someone that is generally public knowledge?
Healthy gossip is particularly helpful when it shares useful information, or when it indicates that someone is really on top of things (like someone getting a promotion or special recognition.) I’ve been seeing this one at work the last month: my boss has a new job, I’m stepping into his current role. Healthy gossip means people know to ask me questions, not him.

Does it share known challenges?
Gossip can also be helpful in letting the community know that someone has more demands on them right now. It can be for a wonderful reason (they’re having a baby, their spouse got a major promotion, they’re taking on new duties) or it can be for a challenging one (there’s a serious illness in their family). Either way, it’s good to know whether you should focus on other resources or support right now.

Obviously, you should be respectful of personal privacy – if in doubt, be as non-specific as possible. (“I think there are some family issues she needs to tend to” not the full medical details.)

Does it solicit help?
The example I’ve seen of this is “Parsley needs a new kidney” letting the community know that a community member may have some specific needs. Not all of us can offer the kidney – but it also encourages us to get the word out about organ donation, to offer to help with errands or household chores, or to offer rides to the doctor. Again, respect personal privacy, and check first if you’re not sure how much information you should share with others.

Does it offer a bonding or teaching moment?
In smaller, closed group settings, some kinds of gossip can help provide either bonding moments, or a teaching moment. (“What would you do differently?”). I’ll be coming back to this one with some more examples of teaching moments, but the classic bonding example is actually celebrity gossip – if you are gossiping with someone about a public figure, you’re both talking and sharing – but you aren’t getting intensely personal with each other yet. This can actually be really appropriate for moving from a superficial relationship to a deeper one, if you both include other thoughts and reactions.

And finally, does this serve the general good?
Is there some benefit to the individual or the community in sharing this? Does it make me feel icky to be talking about this? (If so, I should stop.) Does it make me feel good to share information that can help others? (In that case, it’s probably healthier.) Am I sharing an appropriate level of information?

There’s one last issue – that of venting. While I think it’s possible to abuse this (in many ways), I think it’s also a powerful tool, especially for people who spend a lot of time being very patient in public settings (whether that’s customer service or helping out with answers on a newbie-friendly Pagan forum.) Like gossip, I think venting can serve healthy and unhealthy purposes. Healthy venting helps someone get it out of their system, make reasonable decisions about it, and move on with life. Unhealthy venting means someone says trapped in ranting and raving about the problem – without changing it or moving forward.

My personal guideline for venting is that if it isn’t likely to make it possible for me to do good things in some direct way, maybe I need to look at changing something. (i.e. venting in a way that makes me able to go be patient again is good. Venting that turns into problem-solving is good. Endless venting and never making changes is stagnation, and not how I want to spend my time – also unhealthy.)

A Pagan examples:

So, let’s look at an example. Let’s say that a HPS, Salvia, is hiving off to form a new coven. There are parts of it that have been a bit rough, and parts that she’s excited about.

Healthy gossip example:
“Did you hear? Salvia is hiving off and forming a new coven – I understand there’s a little roughness right now, but she wants to focus on purple elephants, cherry lollipops, and orange ping pong balls. When I saw her, she looked a little stressed out, though.”

What does this tell you?

New coven! Some people might want to check it out as a potential group. Others might want to see if it was a coven they were comfortable recommending to Seekers. Either way, you’ll probably need to wait a month or three until things get up and running.

That things are a little rough right now. If you’re a friend of Salvia’s, you might want to give her a call and offer some support, an ear to vent into. If you were thinking of inviting Salvia and her former groupmates to a small event, you might want to check into more details (with them, directly) before you send out invites. (And consider waiting a few months for hard feelings to settle down and resolve.)

Her focus: Again, this is important community information. If you have a student, friend, or request from the community about purple elephants, cherry lollipops, and orange ping pong balls, you have a great resource to point someone at. (Assuming you think Salvia’s competent.)

She’s a little stressed out: This is probably not the best time to beg her for a favor that’s going to take more time and energy. She’s got a bunch on her plate, and some of her previous support structure (her former group/teachers) is changing.

A teaching example: A group might, on hearing this, decide that it would be a good time for them to have a clear and thoughtful discussion on what the hiving process looks like for them – and ways they might avoid some of the rough spots in future. If they know more (accurate) details of Salvia’s story, they might use them in a closed teaching environment, or they might talk about stories from the group or tradition’s past, as ways to illustrate specific concerns and needs.

Unhealthy gossip:

“Did you hear? Salvia is hiving off and forming a new coven. Actually, I heard that Morgan and Raven [1] kicked her out. They won’t even be in the same room with her – I saw them snub her at Beltane last week – just ignored her and turned away when she came over. She wants to focus on purple elephants, cherry lollipops, and orange ping pong balls, and did you ever hear of such a stupid thing? Everyone knows it’s lavender elephants, kiwi lollipops, and teal ping pong balls. When I saw her at Beltane, she looked totally miserable – stressed out, like she’d been crying, and there were huge dark circles under her eyes. Serves her right, really – you remember when she did that horrible thing to me two years ago, and she *still* hasn’t apologised.”

You’ll notice, if you read carefully, that the above text includes almost everything in the “Healthy” example – but it adds a lot more nasty material. Consider the following:

How does this person know what happened? Do you really have accurate details? This “I heard that…” kind of story can quickly get exaggerated, with totally false information. “Morgan and Raven asked her to hive because it’s clear her interests are going different places” might well become “There was a huge shouting match and Salvia pitched the cauldron at Raven’s head…” even though nothing like that actually happened. (After all, peaceful agreements don’t make great stories!)

Is someone reading their desired outcome into other people’s actions? The snub at Beltane does suggest are a little more rocky than civil. But still, there can be a lot of reasons someone steps away. Maybe they saw someone else they needed to speak to, or didn’t see Salvia coming over. Maybe stuff really has been rocky, and they weren’t up for trying to be chatty and civil in a public setting. But that doesn’t mean they hate each other entirely – just that they weren’t up for that conversation in that place.

Differences in practice (or belief) matter – sometimes intensely – but they’re not an excuse for nasty behavior. It’s perfectly fine to say “Lavender elephants matter hugely to me.” but as soon as someone starts downright trashing someone else for a particular practice choice (that’s a matter of opinion and preference, not safety) then you’ve got some issues embedded. There are far more productive ways to bring up differences of opinion and practice that produce better discussion and conversation.

Don’t read too much into the superficial. Yes, Salvia may have looked lousy – but you don’t know if it was the coven stuff that caused it. Maybe she just got really bad news. Or, she may just be really stressed over a lot of change and shifting in her life, but she’ll work through it in a couple of months, and be very happy again. (Some of us deal with change better than others. Me, I don’t like rapid change and uncertainty much.)

Are we letting the past drop? This gossiper is bringing up an old grudge. We all have them – and certainly, we shouldn’t just ignore or forget someone’s past behavior. But is this actually related to the new coven? Maybe yes, maybe no – but pulling out the old grudge probably won’t help anything unless the speaker brings it up with Salvia. (Plus, it was two years ago: maybe Salvia’s changed.)

What can we do?

Part of it is just being clear about our own guidelines (mine are above.) But really, the other part is stepping away from the unhealthy gossip.

  • Don’t ask about it if it comes across your radar (or ask only about the specifics you directly need to know about.)
  • Don’t encourage the nasty comments – and call people on them if they do them around you.
  • Be very thoughtful about how you discuss the hard stuff in a teaching situation – again, I think there’s a lot of benefit in looking at “How would you handle this?” examples that have a lot of detail to back them up (not created hypothetical examples), but it’s important to be sensitive to the real people who were and are affected by the information.
  • Look at your own actions and how they might show up in gossip – is that the way you want to be portrayed? How could your actions be misinterpreted? Are there things you could do to avoid that?
  • For group leaders and teachers – model the kind of conversations and actions you want to have. Find ways to gently call attention to the damaging parts. Talk directly about the positive and negative aspects of gossip, and consider asking students/group members to reflect on it over the next week or month, or to create their own personal guidelines.

[1] I’ve been aiming at the habit of picking random herb/plant/stone names for examples in postings, but I couldn’t resist the chance to use Morgan and Raven as nice gender neutral group leader names. (Based of course, on the old joke that if you ask for Morgan or Raven at your average Pagan gathering, at least a third of the event will show up.) Any resemblence to actual people using these names is strictly accidental, as I hope my examples of practices involving elephants, lollipops, and ping pong balls demonstrates.)

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