The next time I’m tempted to repeat some juicy gossip, I need to remind myself that it might leave a stain that is harder to clean than the Cat In The Hat’s bathtub ring.
I went to dinner with a friend one evening, and on the way out of the restaurant I stopped to chat with an old acquaintance I’ll call Dan. He’s a respected businessman, now retired, who was dining with his wife and another couple.
After I left the table and caught up with my friend, she whispered, “Do you know what I heard about Dan?” I shook my head. I didn’t know what she had heard, but I was certainly eager to hear it.
“My friend Sue used to work with Dan,” she continued, “and she said he cheated on his wife constantly. She said he screwed anything in a skirt.”
I was shocked – genuinely shocked. That wasn’t the Dan I knew. He was a pillar of the community, active in his church and someone I had liked and admired for 25 years. Could it be true? Could I have been so wrong about him?
I had been eager to gobble up this juicy bit of gossip but it left a bad taste in my mouth. I wished I hadn’t heard it.
I thought about it all the way home. What if it were true? What if it were NOT true? How would I know? I couldn’t very well ask him. Merely hearing this once meant I was going to carry around this newfound, bad impression of him from then on, with no way to either confirm or disprove it.
If my friend (who is not a malicious person by any means) was spreading this story, so were others. Gossip spreads faster than a flu epidemic, and can be just as dangerous. And the gotcha gleam in our eyes shines brighter the more virtuous the subject is held to be, and the more sordid the news. Why do we get such delight in knocking someone off a pedestal?
What was the benefit of hearing this about Dan? It certainly didn’t help him any. And what did I gain from the information? Is it a good thing to know all of a person’s failings or does it just damage us, the listeners, to have yet another illusion shattered?
This question is especially important now, during election season. We need to know a lot about the candidates so we can take the measure of the man or woman – morals and character do matter. But do we need/deserve to know EVERYthing?
I decided I wasn’t going to pass the “news” item about Dan on to anyone else. I was going to bite my tongue if it killed me. What did I do as soon as I walked in my front door? I blurted to my hubby, Bill, “Have you heard about Dan???”
I was mainly seeking reassurance, but my motives probably weren’t entirely pure. Delivering big news makes the teller feel big as well; the greater the shock-value, the bigger the reflected importance. No doubt some of that motivation prompted my unplanned blurt.
Bill delivered reassurance. “I don’t believe it,” he said without hesitation. “I’ve known Dan most of my life, and I have never heard even a whisper of a rumor. You know in a town of this size there’s no way something like that wouldn’t have made the rounds if it were true. He is a decent man – I would bet on it.”
In this case, telling Bill turned out to be a good thing because he set my mind at ease. But that is far from the usual result of retelling a malicious tale about someone else.
The story about Dan reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. The Cat came to play on a day when Sally and her brother were home alone. He caused all sorts of mischief, took a bath in their tub and left a big, pink bathtub ring. The Cat tried to clean it, but all he did was spread the stain. Soon the bed, Mother’s good dress, and all the snow in the yard looked like they were casualties of a Pepto-Bismol war. It took special Cat in The Hat magic “Voom” to finally clean it up.
That’s how gossip is. Once started, it spreads faster and farther than the Cat’s pink bathtub ring and, in the end, even a whole hat full of “Voom” won’t clean the stain left behind.
One of the many pearls of wisdom my mother used to cast before us, her little swine, has stuck with me all my life. She asked us to imagine climbing to the top of the tallest mountain, ripping open a pillow and letting the wind scatter the feathers to the four corners of the world. It is easier, she cautioned, to collect up each and every scattered feather than it is to take back words said in anger. That also applies to gossip and all the other words we would be better off not saying.
The next time I’m tempted to listen to and/or repeat gossip I need to remember that someone’s good reputation may be at stake. That is something that is both valuable and vulnerable, and it’s almost impossible to retrieve once someone lets the cat out of the bag.
Or so I’ve heard.