It’s a Small World After All: How Gossip Affects Relationships
“It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears. It’s a world of hopes, and a world of fears. There’s so much that we share, that it’s time we’re aware, it’s a small world after all.” These lyrics from the Sherman Brothers are more than a catchy theme song for a Disney park boat ride1. These are words that we all live by to some degree, because whether we want to admit it or not, we are all connected to each other.
Connections are often much more pronounced within a subculture. Sometimes being part of a smaller community can feel like being shut up in a windowless room with only your crazy uncle Chadwick and his thirteen cats to entertain you. Other times it can feel like being completely alone in a vast space, regardless of any awareness that there are others who share your philosophies. Either way, the polyamorous community, as large as it might be (exactly how large is still unknown), is a fairly small place. With sites like Meetup2 and other social networking avenues, it’s easier than ever to meet other poly folks. This is a great thing for many of us, but like most great things there are some potential complications.
This became abundantly apparent to me recently. There was some drama between friends that I deeply care about, and I found myself caught in the middle. Typically this kind of thing doesn’t bother me too much, but this particular situation seemed to be a matter of misunderstanding on one end and fatuity on the other. Person A was gossiping negatively about person B, who was discrediting person A, and it seemed that neither really knew what was going on (which could have easily been fixed through some direct communication).
Gossip is informal communication that is intended to forward or protect one’s interests. It can be used for good or bad, and is not inherently either3. However, it should not be taken lightly, especially negative gossip. To gossip successfully is a form of art and almost nobody manages it without damaging their own influence and relationships. There are several factors that can affect how gossip is received:
1. Relationship to the gossiper: If the person gossiping is a stranger, then we are much less likely to believe what they say. We value the opinions of our friends and family over those of a stranger because we trust them and like them. One potential exception to this rule is if the stranger is an expert in whatever they are gossiping about.
2. The type of gossip: There is such a thing as positive gossip (as well as negative gossip). If the gossip is positive, then we are more likely to agree with it. Even so, any type of gossip can often lead an undesirable perception of the gossiper, but that perception is likely to be worse if the gossip is negative.
3. History of gossip: Does the gossiper have a history of slandering or making speculative statements about others? If they do, it’s usually safe to say that they are speaking on behalf of their own opinion and should be taken with a grain of salt. Serial gossipers typically gossip for the sake of gossiping. However, if they never gossip then we are more likely to think they might be right in what they say, due to the perceived novelty of the behavior3.
One very important thing to remember about gossip is that (unless the gossip serves to increase group cohesion) the gossiper’s credibility and likeability almost always automatically go down. Put simply, the gossiper usually ends up being the one who looks bad, rather than the person they are gossiping about4. Being diplomatic can be a very useful social tool, especially when the community is based on trust.
As the situation unfolded, I found myself thinking about how tightly-knit the poly community can be, and to publicly vilify someone in this community is often a recipe for disaster because they are almost inevitably going to find out; most people are closely attached to each other and oftentimes share lovers and friends. The poly community thrives on word-of-mouth networking and most people know at least one other person you’re familiar with. My point here isn’t to scare people out of disclosing with those they know and trust, but simply to be conscious of how your messages might be received and whether or not the balance is tipped in your favor. When in doubt, throw it out.
3 Paine, R. (1967). What is gossip about? An alternative hypothesis. Man, 2(2), 278-285.
4 Turner, M. M., Mazur, M. A., Wendel, N., & Winslow, R. (2003). Relational ruin or social glue? The joint effect of relationship type and gossip valence on liking, trust, and expertise. Communication Monographs, 70(2), 129-141.