It was day four of a five-day retreat. We’d just finished another soul-baring breakout session, three of us practicing new interpersonal skills and getting critique from one of the retreat facilitators. The exercise would have been grueling on any day; on this particular day it came after hours of deep, intense lecture on many things dark and psychological.
I could say we were exhausted, but exhausted doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Right after the breakout, the facilitator left. The three of us retreatants were left on our own. And we started to compare notes: our opinions of x facilitator’s belief system, whether y facilitator had completely misunderstood us, the off-the-record thoughts each of us was harboring and are y’all thinking the same thing?
In other words, gossip.
OK, I am using a very specific (and somewhat edited) definition of the word, from the OED: “Casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people.” Yes, gossip often carries overtones of rumor mongering, malice, and other nasty stuff. I’m referring more to what church people sometimes call parking-lot conversation: the casual chat, often held in parking lots after a meeting, where folks linger to let their hair down and say what they think. Sometimes the conversation just involves ideas, but because ideas come from other people, we sometimes end up talking about other people too.
This kind of chat gets a bad rap. We refer to it darkly as “talking behind each other’s backs.” The Bible confronts “whispering” and “tale bearing” with a hearty dose of condemnation.
So, in true contrarian fashion, allow me to raise a few good points about gossip, at least as I’m defining it.
For one thing, this brand of gossip is an effective reality check. It can be useful when an event stirs something within us that resists what’s been said, and we can’t tell whether or not our opinion is abnormal. “Did you hear that? Did it seem weird to you? I couldn’t help hearing it and thinking _________; what about you?” This is especially important for adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle mightily to figure out what normal is.
Similarly, “parking-lot conversation” can help us ferret out the essential from the trivial. During contentious meetings, I’ve found myself speaking angrily about an issue without taking the time to determine whether this is the battle I want to pick. The “meeting after the meeting” provides a calmer place to re-examine what happened, whether I should have just let it go—or, conversely, whether it’s important enough to keep pursuing it.
Informal conversations also allow us to reflect openly on people who may be toxic. Such folks typically excel at manipulation, the use of language to conceal or mislead, crafty tactics to divide and conquer, etc. It can be nearly impossible to figure out their game—and then defuse it—without comparing notes with others.
Certainly we need to take great care with this kind of conversation. We must watch our own souls for signs of the aforementioned malice or the desire to spread rumors. Still, gossip (defined this way) does appear to have its good points. I’m sure there are others. Can you name a few?