Friday, December 01, 2023


What other people say about me is none of my business.

It's a rationale that pops up for me when I feel judged by others, when I suspect or know that someone is talking about me behind my back, or, and this is probably the most frequent circumstance, when I feel insecure about the opinions of others.

The truth is that for those of us who are not Taylor Swift or Joe Biden, our fellow humans probably spend insultingly little time thinking about us, let alone judging or gossiping about us. Still, try as we might, it's almost impossible to not, at least at times, fret or wonder about the things being said about us when we're not present. And I suspect that's because, we ourselves, judge others, and at least sometimes, we express those judgments to others.

Judging and gossiping are part of being human. In his book Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari relies on anthropological research to assert that not only is gossiping part of human nature, but that it is one of the key traits that allowed Homo sapiens to evolve from a middle-of-the-food-chain mammal to an apex predator. Gossip, it seems, empowers us to create social bonds, friendships, and community. 

"Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction," writes Harari. "It's not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It's much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat."

Given the centrality of gossip to our evolution, it might be surprising to consider that most of us, most of the time, are vehement in our disapproval of gossip. Indeed, one of the worst reputations one can have is of being an inveterate gossip. So most of us strive to keep our harshest judgements to ourselves or only express them in the strictest confidence to our best friends, managing our own behavior lest we become, in turn, the subject of judgmental gossip.

My mother used to scold us, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," a worthy aspiration, but hardly possible when gossip is such a central part of what our species is all about. 

In a study out of Japan, researchers found that even children as young as four will adjust their behaviors when presented with the possibility that an observer, even someone they don't know, might gossip about them. Children in the study shared their treats with peers, not just when others were watching, but even when they thought their behavior would be conveyed to a stranger who was not even in the room. However, when the children were assured that there would be no gossiping, they were less likely to share their treats. "These findings," the researchers write, "suggest that 4- and 8-year-old children attempt to manage their reputation when they could be a target of gossip."

Of course, what we mostly despise is malicious gossip. We tend to not object to gossip about, say, the anonymous charitable giving of a neighbor or the romantic birthday gifts exchanged between spouses. Indeed, we might not even label those things as gossip because we tend to narrow our definition of gossip to the spreading of negative or harmful stories, true or not, about others. The habitual spreading this kind of gossip, if left unchecked, has historically lead individuals to be ostracized or worse.

Gossip stands as one of the most powerful mechanisms by which human communities manage themselves. We may bridle at the idea of being controlled in this way. Likewise, most of us are likely uncomfortable with the notion that we control others, not necessarily because we gossip, but because of the possibility that we will gossip. Even very young children seem to understand this: it is part of what makes us human.

I wonder, however, if this social function of gossip is starting to wane in this era of pervasive social media (which is many ways is just a gossip column on steroids) and political leaders who seem to be immune to the feelings of shame that gossip relies upon. In fact, it seems that malicious gossip is too often rewarded. It seems that there are some who have found that gossip benefits them no matter how heinous their behavior; who thrive, indeed, on infamy. I don't know if this is a modern thing or not. I suppose there have always been those who rise to positions of power and prestige due to their reputations for cruelty and debauchery. At the same time, I wonder how much evil we've managed to avert because of the power of gossip.

When our daughter was born, I was instantly aware that I cared deeply about how she would see me. I wanted her to know me as loving, reliable, competent, and kind, even though I often hadn't behaved in those ways. This is what I mean when I say that our children make us better people. At least in my case, I managed my reputation to the point that I am, today, a much more loving, reliable, competent and kind person than I was on the day our daughter was born.  I did it for her, but also for myself.

The American culture is one in which individualism is set on a pedestal. We love the people who don't seem to give a damn what other people think . . . At least until they do or say things that make us wish they would consider the opinions of others. We admire those who blaze their own trails . . . At least until their blaze begins to scorch the earth for others. 

We want our children to grow up to be compassionate, to care for others, and a big part of that is caring about what others think and say about us. By the same token, we don't want our children to be driven by shame or to sacrifice good and unique aspects of who they are in the name of fitting in or getting along. 

This, I think, is the great dance of being human amongst humans. We are the gossiping animal. What others say about me may still be none of my business and that is often exactly the stance to take in the name of mental health, but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter. 


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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