Epstein finds these stories irresistible, as he phrases it, “A man or woman without any interest in gossip may be impressive in his or her restraint, but also wanting in curiosity, uninterested in the variousness of human nature, dead to the wildly abundant oddity of life, and thereby, in some central way, deficient.”
Deficient, huh? Well, this is where I just like to invoke the vague autism-spectrum thing to explain my failure to evince interest in the salacious details of other people’s peccadilloes. But in fairness, when I read that, it occurred to me that perhaps this also applies to my lack of interest in reading fiction. Seriously, I’m the most fiction-deficient person you know. I hardly have any novels on my shelves, except for escapist Forgotten Realms fantasy stuff. I’m intensely interested in issues and ideas, especially in philosophy and history and psychology, but not so much in particular individual characters. Interesting.
But yeah, gossip per se doesn’t hold any attraction for me. It was strange over Thanksgiving, not having seen my family much for several months, to notice how jarring it felt to hear my mom and brother indulging in petty, somewhat mean-spirited gossip about people we knew. I didn’t realize how little I missed being around it. My brother told me something about a former co-worker of ours, who he claimed was having some sort of trouble in his twenty-year relationship. I found myself both embarrassed and irritated at even having to listen to it. And that makes me wonder about the accuracy of Epstein’s description — doesn’t it take a more nuanced, experienced understanding of human nature to hear a rumor like that and immediately think, yeah, well, maybe his wife is cheating on him, and he’s always seemed like a super-swell guy, but what the hell do I know about what their relationship has been like for almost two decades? There’s always more to the story than what you first hear. People change and grow apart, interpreting the same situations differently until one day they suddenly realize that a hairline crack in their shared experience has widened into a unbridgeable chasm. It doesn’t always lend itself well to the gossipy tendency to paint a heroes-and-villains kind of story.
The thing I associate most with gossip isn’t being titillated by dirty little secrets; after all, a lot of gossip is benign, just a way to fill the air with words and create some sort of common bond. It’s what most people would think of as the mindset of a small town, where everybody knows everybody else, and more importantly, seems to take it for granted that they have a right to be in everyone else’s business. My family is very small and I only have two living relatives outside of the area; we’ve never been very tight-knit. But my ex had a larger extended family, and it was always expected that you would put in regular appearances, especially at holidays, and there was something unsavory about you if you didn’t. I could never get over my instinctive revulsion at the presumption, the expectation that I was obliged to keep everyone informed about what I was doing, and again, the embarrassment at having to hear about whatshisname’s gambling problem and so-and-so’s mental illness.
I wish we had an acceptable social category that encompassed the feeling of “You’re a pleasant enough person, but we’re only associating through external circumstance, we really don’t have anything in common, and we should just be adults and accept that we don’t want to spend any time around each other without anyone feeling insulted.” Maybe the Germans or the Japanese have a word for that.