Gossip – The Cultural Enforcer
The enforcer sits at the table with you. Walks down the street with you and tucks you into bed at night. Stories, rituals, mealtimes, family celebrations and general playfulness all serve as the rich soil in which kids learn how to become a member of their community. But it’s gossip, that steady stream of conversations about the challenges of belonging, that reminds – and reminds – and reminds.
WHY DOES GOSSIP HAVE POWER?
As humans, we need to belong, to be a part of a community in order to survive and thrive. It’s critical that we understand the behaviors that can get us marginalized or ostracized. Kids’ inborn radar constantly scans and absorbs all the environmental clues about expectations. What did Auntie say about her neighbor’s son? What was that conversation about the girl next door? Even though spoken in whispers, kids hear cultural stereotypes and biases. They notice when people snicker about another person. They understand that all of these norm-breaking actions bring risk.
Kids learn that belonging to a culture means that people in that culture feel it’s important to monitor and influence its members. When they spot behaviors that tinker with norms – or actually resist norms – there is an automatic response like white blood cells to an injury. It is an instantaneous and natural function.
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
DISTRACTION. When a violation is ‘discovered,’ cultures expect people to join in the chorus of critics. Expressing outrage at violators shows commitment to the community, right? But “piling on” can mislead. We all have seen too many pedophile preachers or closeted haters pointing fingers at others. The finger pointing can simply serve as a distraction from their own shortcomings.
SHAME. The line between gossip, a hostile environment and bullying is crossed routinely. Rumors can be used to threaten, discourage and destroy. Webster defines shame as a “painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety.” Malevolent gossipers and bullies laser in on people’s perceived shortcomings and make them feel embarrassed and ashamed – sometimes for simply being themselves. These wounds can take a lifetime to heal.
PRESSURE TO CONFORM – OR FLEE
At some point in all of our lives we reflect on the environment we are in and determine if we want to stay. We may come to feel that being true to ourselves will provoke a lifetime of hassles from our family, or faith or community. So we leave – and build new connections – maybe just for a while. The mythological hero’s journey is all about finding our own way – and – often – finding our way back home.