In Defense of Gossip | Vogue

I never particularly thought of myself as a gossip until I saw my first child, age one and a bit, 
hold a banana to her ear in the kitchen and say “whatsthegoss?” into one end. She had already ruthlessly named me “cappuccinomummy,” but this was a real moment of self-revelation; if she was going to mirror me on the phone, I had better start thinking about what I was saying, or she was going to get an addiction to chitchat and caffeine before she could stand up.

In my defense, I was on maternity leave, with my second child, and it is precisely when one is most cut off from other adults that one longs for “thegoss.” A phone call with a like-minded friend could change the mood of a sleep-deprived morning, from anxious remoteness to a blessed feeling of inclusion in the buzzing outer world. Gossip is hardly a niche occupation. Do not the most interesting people also like to analyze other people’s behavior? Is this not evidence of a superior sensibility, and at least a starter grasp of Freud, etc.? Could those who disagree kindly feel free to sit elsewhere?

What a disaster the pandemic has been for all such human fuel: real-world gossip, connection, call it what you will. So many months of nothing much happening (the odd divorce, too lowering to dwell on), and you couldn’t see anyone to discuss it with anyway. Where’s the fun in that?

In my case, a longing to be in some kind of ongoing conversation about everything and everyone began in the quarantine-like isolation of a tweedy English boarding school, where we were so starved of fun news that when we weren’t reading glossy magazines on our beds, dreaming of ball gowns, parties, and coupe glasses of Champagne, we were crammed onto the floor of a red phone box poring over tabloid newspapers while hiding from the grown-ups. This would invariably happen during church on Sundays—walking in pairs from the boarding house for safety, two of us (it was my evil idea) would surreptitiously step out of the procession to the service, and, an hour or so later, newspapers in the bin, slip into it again as the other girls filed past us back to the boarding house, without the matrons noticing we had swapped psalms for sweet scandal.

What did happen during the pandemic—and it was happening anyway—was that the remaining shreds of gossip, tattle, rumor, and info all went online. This strikes me as supremely unhealthy: Our supercharged scrolling, our super-scolding, any difference of opinion or real or perceived grievance played out at hysteria pitch. Gossip, at its best, should bring us together—and ensure we behave. “Gossip is the beginning of moral inquiry,” wrote the critic Phyllis Rose; Jane Austen’s 
Mr. Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, decrees, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

The author, in 1995, on assignment in London with the Mail on Sunday

Photo: Keith Waldegrave/ANL/Shutterstock

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