Back in 2004, I saw a young singer, 20 years old at the time, in concert. She had a big radio hit at the time, and I thought she was a gifted writer and wise beyond her years. I recently came upon some recent concert footage of her on YouTube and she sounded wonderful and had some good new songs.
At first, I started to look her up (on Wikipedia) to see how the last 15 years had been for her. Then I decided I wouldn’t.
You see, too many times I’ve learned less-than-flattering things about people I only know from a distance. I’ve found that my preference is to preserve my warm feelings toward these people. I’ve realized it’s a mistake to indulge my curiosity.
Am I putting my head in the sand? Am I avoiding reality? Do I want to see the world in a way that is contrary to reality? I don’t think so.
As a child, my favorite part of the library was the biography section. Back then biographies written for a young audience left out any boozing or carousing. As I got older, I found out my heroes on the field and court weren’t always heroic in their non-sporting lives.
People are not cardboard cutouts, and they have issues in their personal lives. You have to learn this at some point. And you have to be willing to accept, forgive, and even love others despite these foibles. It isn’t always easy.
I don’t need, however, to know everyone’s business. Contrary to what some would say, I think people have the prerogative to present themselves with their best foot forward. We shouldn’t be deceitful, especially to our friends and family. But we don’t need to read the tabloid magazines at the checkout counter. If we admire someone, we can preserve our admiration.
And this isn’t confined to entertainers. Much to my regret, the only information I know about some of my colleagues came when someone blindsided me with a chunk of negativity about someone else. Maybe this person is known to have had an affair, or someone made a demand which blew up in his or her face. Maybe someone made an error in judgement which was uncharacteristic and was attributable to the worst day in his or her career. For some reason, I was chosen to hear about it.
Perhaps the goal was for the speaker to feel better about himself or herself. (In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer rationalizes spreading gossip about his neighbor Flanders: “It’ll make me feel important, without being drunk. That’ll be weird!”) Or maybe it was to influence me to think a certain way. There is even evidence that gossip forms a strong bond between us. Perhaps I’m closer to “the enemy of my enemy” than I am even with my own friends.
Psychiatrist Frédéric Fanget points out the social role of gossip: “We gossip to share our worries, seeking reassurance and support. It’s an indirect way of speaking well of yourself, and your listeners. It’s also fun to arouse others’ curiosity and monopolize the conversation, when you have information to reveal.”
For whatever reason, the result is that now when I see certain people, I think of some particularly ugly aspect of their lives which they would be shocked to know that I know.
I decided long ago that unless something unflattering was actually a matter of consequence in my life, I would keep it to myself. I don’t hold myself up as virtuous in this regard; I’m sure I’ve engaged in gossip in my life. But the fact is that when we choose to introduce someone to someone else by describing the worst in another, we rob both of the opportunity of making up their own minds.
Perhaps you’ve heard the idiom, “What you spot, you’ve got.” In other words, in describing someone else, we may very well be talking about what we fear about ourselves. To the degree you believe this to be true, you might want to keep it in mind the next time you are tempted to air someone’s dirty laundry at work. Maybe that trait you so desperately want to point out is your worst fear about yourself.
In the last regard, our desire to speak ill of others actually provides an opportunity for us. When that ugly creature raises its head, we can ask ourselves if perhaps the reason we are tempted to do so is our own insecurity about some aspect of ourselves.
This isn’t to say that we can’t seek help and confide in our friends when we have a difficult relationship which threatens to drain us. The distinction, however, is whether our discussion of another is gratuitous to our everyday life.
I’ve noticed in my favorite people a reluctance to criticize others, perhaps even more so if I don’t know the other person. From these people, I’ve learned to take on that same reluctance in my approach. My goal: If you know something bad about someone else, you didn’t hear it from me!