The Provocateur: we use our friends for social currency
Gossip is an integral part of friendships, says Marie-claire Chappet. As Sex And The City hits 20, she looks at why we love to dish the dirt…
having good gossip is like having cigarettes in prison. It’s powerful currency. How thrilling is the phrase, ‘ You’ll never guess what’ or, ‘I shouldn’t tell you this, but… ’? It’s whispered, hushed, and followed by huddled heads and appreciative coos. Turning someone’s personal life into gold star entertainment can give you serious social power.
This summer sees the release of Swan Song, a fictionalised account of the writer Truman Capote’s real-life fall from social grace in the 1970s. The celebrated author of Breakfast At Tiffany’s was known to be ‘addicted’ to gossip. He fuelled his high-society friendship groups with stories (some made up, some anecdotes from others’ personal lives), but in 1975 he went too far. He published La Côte Basque, 1965 – an excerpt from a novel he was working on. In it, he spilt all his friends’ secrets. He exploited their emotional lives for the sake of a good story and was then socially shunned.
Gossip was also the driving force behind Sex And The City. As Miranda once moaned, ‘How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends? It’s like seventh grade with bank accounts.’ All while Carrie regurgitated their personal stories, weekly, in her column, of course.
We may not have dirt to spill on New York’s belles or the Manhattan dating scene but, in our own small way, we do the same thing in our own friendship groups. When we gossip, we trade news about others like social coinage.
‘ We are fascinated by other people’s dramas,’ explains relationship therapist Denise Knowles, ‘ There’s a comparative thing going on, too. It makes us feel better about our own lives.’
And there’s a furious appetite for it. Think of the gossip pages we devour, the Instagram accounts we are glued to, or the reality TV we consume. These shows are predicated on mining people’s emotional lives for entertainment; on conversations about other people’s business. As Denise observes, ‘ There’s an awful lot of people who make a hell of a lot of money from gossip.’
The desire to gossip is, however, perhaps more nuanced then just entertainment. Denise notes that gossips are typically insecure and being the purveyor of someone’s secret is a power move. ‘Insecure people usually feel on the edge of things, and gossiping makes them feel in the loop,’ she explains, ‘It gives them a sense of importance and belonging.’
Nothing glues people together like the natural intimacy of talking about someone else. I can feel myself doing it. In pauses in conversations, I use gossip as Polyfilla to
patch up the gaps of social awkwardness. It’s terrible really; why can’t I just talk about the weather? But the weather is dull. And gossip is not. That’s the dangerous thing about it.
Earlier this year, I was talking to an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while. We were falling into the trap of idle small talk. It didn’t feel like a connection between good friends, it felt like the polite, stilted behaviour of acquaintances. I hated it. So, I gossiped… ‘Did you hear H is thinking of breaking up with her boyfriend?’
‘No way! Actually, I think maybe she is cheating on him… ’
Bang. Back in business. All I had to do to get out of it was proffer up a tale of someone else’s misery and we felt like pals again. It’s sickening.
Many years ago, my friend Lucy*, in possession of a particularly scandalous bit of gossip – her friend’s affair – let it slip at a party. The problem was, the person she told was the exact person she shouldn’t have, and news spread fast.
‘I don’t know why I did it now,’ she says, ‘I feel really awful about it, but it is a rush to admit you know someone’s secret.’ She is, predictably, no longer friends with the person whose secret she blabbed.
Men are not immune to the lure of gossip ( just look at Capote), but my boyfriend did receive a piece of information last year that he flat-out refused to tell me. I was in awe of his restraint, especially when he was eventually released from his obligation of silence, and I found out it was good, juicy, Spanish soap-opera stuff, too. ‘It’s not my news to tell,’ he told me, and I felt ashamed that keeping a secret of that magnitude would have been torturous for me.
At university, a boy who I didn’t know very well once asked me, ‘So, what’s the gossip then?’ He had heard that I was ‘the person who knew everyone’s business’. But, if people knew I knew things, that also meant that I was not to be trusted. I was a gossip. I felt terrible.
My gossiping tendencies are now – if not completely gone – severely diminished. I feel dirty whenever I do it, like a drug dealer who trades in other people’s misery. As enjoyable as a good gossip is, perhaps with maturity should come distance from that kind of talk. It’s too easy to trade people’s news and never stop to think of the consequences.
So, if in doubt, just remember the fate of Truman Capote, or the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘Great minds discuss ideas… small minds discuss people.’