I try to be careful about how I talk about people—I mean when they’re not present.
I have a friend who seems truly to live by the rule of saying nothing about someone they aren’t willing to say to his face.
I often think about that rule. Is it wise? If so, why?
We live in a culture that is big on respecting others. The concept of “rights” has much to do with that, I suppose. We know to respect others—for instance by not interfering with their affairs, not taking what is theirs, and so on. Often, it is obvious what is demanded by respect for others.
But not always. I think that, in the past, we made a greater effort to provide a kind of catechism of respect and politeness and morality. Children were taught how to behave, what to do and not do. The content of such teachings must have seemed arbitrary to children (often even to objective observers!), but much of it does make sense relative to the overriding idea that one is to respect others as having a kind of significant moral standing, requiring constraint on our behavior relative to them.
(We can view the somewhat [or very] rigid package of dos and don’ts sometimes recognized in a culture as the product of an effort to arrive at a way of life that constitutes “respect for others,” among other things. [Here, the elements of right action are made meaningful by the goals or values that are expressed by them.] We might feel an obligation to honor every element of such a package, even knowing that the package, and many of its elements, is likely flawed, imperfect. [“We’ve got to stick to the plan,” says the general, in the face of mounting losses.])
In the wild and wooly U.S., the land of never-ending unconscious social experimentation, much that is traditional is lost, including much of the kind of instruction referred to above.
I often think about this.
Parents, of course, are conscious of a responsibility to instill in their children a proper regard of others. They might even consciously suppose that many of the “dos and dont’s” taught to their children are aspects or manifestations of “respect for others.” That is, these details are in the service of that larger goal.
We can imagine a society in which an ongoing “sorting out” of what it means to treat others with respect goes on. This would be sensible especially in a society that is accustomed to endlessly changing roles, practices, etc.
In a society much more bound by tradition (especially in the interactions between persons) than our own, it might seem obvious that the traditional teachings are prima facie adequate to anything that might come along. There might not be a consciousness of the need to sort anything out. A respecter of persons might simply insist on doing things as we’ve always been taught to do them.
That’s not our society.
It seems obvious to me—though it is clearly not obvious to everyone—that respect of others demands that one tread carefully in discussing others’ lives, especially the lives of those one knows. Most of us, I think, recognize that “gossip” is vicious, though we might not conceptualize this in terms of respect. Freely speculating about others’ lives, even when it is not attended by schadenfreude or malice or envy, also strikes me as an obvious “sin” as regards the obligation to respect others. It is perhaps a natural extension of the notion of gossip understood as a vice.
My dictionary defines gossip as “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.” Other dictionaries seem to provide the same meaning.
Gossiping is not just talk, but “idle” talk. After all, one might have a very good reason for discussing a rumor or delving into others’ affairs. (A psychologist, a parent, a spouse.) Such discussing and delving isn’t always objectionable.
The gossip gossips because doing so is enjoyable, not because it is necessary. We want to say that gossips are enjoying themselves at others’ expense. And that’s wrong.
“But I’m not saying it to them!” insist the gossip who is called out. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them!” they add.
I’m not so sure about that. In any case such talk—behind someone’s back—feels like deception. It also seems to be an instance of using a person. One who discovers that they are the object of gossip is offended. When one finds out that others have gossiped about one, one feels disrespected. One is inclined to say of the gossipers that one’s affairs are none of their business.
* * *
My family poses challenges for me with regard to gossip and related talk, for they talk about other people all the time. I have come to find such talk to be objectionable and disrespectful. I say that I have “come to” find it objectionable because I was raised by these people, and they freely—not quite unashamedly—gossiped about others routinely when I was growing up. I do not recall participating in it much, but I certainly heard quite a lot of it.
(A few years ago, my cousin J moved to Kentucky after a divorce with her husband of many years. Her only child, a son, was 19 years old and seemingly on track to become a policeman. Given these facts, my folks immediately drew the conclusion that J had “abandoned her family.” It was not obvious to me that she had done any such thing. None of us really knew the details of J’s situation. It seemed to me that my folks had no basis for such a judgment. I said so, and that ruffled some feathers.
(After a while, it became clear that J was living on a ranch there in Kentucky. There was some other woman around for a while. This fact immediately inspired my folks to speculate that J was “now a lesbian.” They would discuss J with knowing and disapproving looks.
(“Good grief!” I said. “First of all, you have no basis for that conclusion, and second, why are you speculating about what goes on in her life? It’s none of your business.”
(Let’s just say that my folks responded to my remark as though I had told them that they were fishwives. Naturally, they were offended.)
My mom more or less gossips routinely. She also enjoys discussing the lives of famous people, people in the news, et al. (Is that gossip?) When she and I are alone, I usually respond to such blather with obvious indifference or with the remark, “I don’t want to talk about these people’s lives. Could we please talk about something else?”
My father seems generally disinclined to participate in these discussions, but he does not object to them either.
He has no compunction about criticizing people, including famous people, that he does not like. He is from Europe, and I suspect that there is an older and more settled practice of pontificating about politics and current events—typically at the dinner table—than exists in the U.S. In any case, one obviously attractive activity for many people is to spout off without reservation about the failings of famous and important people—while it is plain that the spouters make no effort to get their facts straight or even to know at all what they’re talking about.
Perhaps owing to the influence of his children (?), my father has grown less crass in this regard, more likely to soften his judgments of politicians, et al., and to consider alternative views.
My mother is not a political pontificator. On the other hand, she still gossips and discusses the lives of others (to be fair, she has never been what one might call a terrible gossip).
* * *
My folks, and especially my father, have always seemed utterly uninhibited about noting others’ physical beauty or lack thereof. “God, she’s ugly,” my dad would say about the famous comedic actress on the screen. Anybody whose face might flash upon the TV would get an automatic attractiveness (especially an unattractiveness) assessment. “Imagine waking up to that face!” my dad would announce. My mom would just smile. This is what people do, in their world.
For whatever reason, they are less liable to do this now—possibly because of my years of pushback—but they clearly still feel no compunction about assessing people’s attractiveness in the world.
Admittedly, this failing (if that is what it is) is very common. I have good friends—seriously decent people—who routinely note others’ physical beauty of ugliness. I always cringe. I rarely say anything. I’m always thinking, “Poor dear. He (or she) can’t help having the face that he has!”
Why doesn’t that factoid inhibit people more? I hesitate to launch into a moral correction of my friends though.
Somehow, with my folks, it’s different.
Mostly, people are what they are. That is, their features are not really matters of choice. Isn’t that obvious? (Apparently not.) I am horrified to think that people are shunned or treated badly or “talked about behind their backs” owing to some feature provided by indifferent nature, something they had absolutely no say in. And, really, most of us pretty much are what we are. The notion that our moral and physical natures are “choices” strikes me as an ugly and stupid and deeply unfortunate fiction, a source of endless oppression.
We are here to fight such things not to participate in them!
* * *
Today, at lunch, my mom referred to a holiday postcard from an old couple my family knows but hasn’t seen for many years. The postcard had a photo on its cover. At one point, my mom, referring to the photo, mentioned that Mrs. X “seems sick, doesn’t she?” (It was a gossipy remark, not an expression of concern. –I could be wrong, I guess.)
Well, first of all, Mrs. X is 88 years old, and my mother doesn’t often see pictures of her. So, likely, mom was struck by how old looking Mrs. X is compared to the last photo of her she saw.
Second, everyone at the table was well aware that Mrs. X has been suffering various ailments that might make her look old and tired, etc.
So just what was the point of mom’s remark?
“Oh, come on!” I said. “Why do you have to say that?”
“What? It’s true!” said mom.
“She can’t help the way she looks, so why mention it?” I said.
Mom sputtered forth some explanation.
I walked over to the adjoining room, visiting with my cat, Teddy, who I had brought with me. My dad got up and said something pleasant about Teddy’s attitude. I said: “At least he doesn’t talk trash.” –This was meant to be lighter than it came out. I was pretty sure my mom heard me.
Worried that mom misunderstood my remark (she’s an immigrant with a sometimes tenuous understanding of English) and that she might be offended and even hurt, I explained that “talking trash” refers to talking about other people.
“I know what it means!” she said, obviously annoyed.
Well, I know my mom. She is very inclined to take offense based on misunderstandings. Happens all the time. So I clarified my remark further. I said, “Saying that you’re talking trash doesn’t mean that you’re trash; it means that you are talking about other people, criticizing them. OK?”
“That’s not what it means to me!” she roared. I knew then that I had lit the fires of inevitability. As I feared, she “understood” my remark to be implying that, in some sense, she is trash. But no, that’s not what I meant.
It matters not.
I said: “Listen, what matters is what I meant, and I meant what people normally mean by saying that somebody is talkin’ trash; I meant that they were putting down others. It in no way implies that the talker is trash. OK?”
“I have my own meaning of the word!” roared my mother. “And that’s not what it means to me!”
Good grief. I said: “You can’t have a private meaning for a word or phrase. I word means what people normally mean by it, not what some oddball hearer misunderstands it to mean.”
“You’re just using your meaning, and I’m just using mine!” said mom.
--Yes, yes, I know. I am an idiot. I should learn to walk away in silence, cut my losses. Obviously.
I said: “No, I’m not using my meaning, I’m using the meaning of the phrase ‘talkin’ trash.’ It’s the meaning you’ll find in a dictionary.”
It was plain that, to my mom, I was just pulling things out of my ass. Now, from my perspective, I was doing anything but that; from my perspective, it was as though I were saying, “the sky is blue.”
By now, mom was disgusted. It was then that the wisdom of silence finally took control of me. I grabbed Teddy and headed home.
But there’ll be hell to pay. “He has no respect of his own mother!” she’ll say. And there is nothing to do about that except to wait for time and events to wash away the whole business from mom’s or anyone else’s attention.
* * *
Owing to my training and my profession, I think a lot about such things as respecting others and what that entails. I think about rules such as “never say anything about someone you’re not willing to say to their face.”
So some things seem obvious to me.
Often, they’re not so obvious to others.
And so, once again, I’ve got my aged mother upset; I got her thinking that I have no respect for her. She feels that way because I tagged her yet again for her actions that, in my view, are disrespectful of others.
At one point today, I told mom, “I don’t think you understand how hard it is for me to hear this stuff you say all the time.”
But, obviously, she can’t possible understand a remark like that. It is hard to listen to my folks say some of the things they say and to watch them do some of the things they do. But objections accomplish nothing.
I understand that they are what they are—that they lived in a world very unlike my own that produced certain ways of being and acting and thinking and feeling.
But some of this stuff—it just won’t do, will it?
* * *
We should have an ongoing sorting out of the implications of our values. That would be a good thing.
But we need to do it together.
That’s not always possible.