Through These Eyes: The Five Stages of Gossip


The Court of Public Opinion, that oft-cited, remarkably powerful thing to which elected officials owe their careers, is what exactly? Most call it a visible, impassioned trial through the majority’s widely held political and societal beliefs. Some think the Court to be the highest in the land, controlled by the media, that initiates “trials” not on their merit, but on their juiciness. Others think that it’s only majority opinions that yes, sometimes but rarely, go to “trial” at all.

On the local level? Stage 5 gossip.

The Rumor Mill churns not with wind or water, but with gossip. And because personal gossip on the local level hardly warrants any real attention, it’s largely a grassroots effort, one without a gossip column or magazine distribution, but every river starts with a trickle.

It’s a virus of ours, something to keep things fun and a means through which we avoid awkward silences. Having a lull in a lunch conversation with a friend? Gossip about a mutual acquaintance. Out with friends and see a passerby you somehow know? Down the Red Bull-vodka and let it loose, or…

“Oh my gosh,” you say to a once-in-a-while, what’s-his-name-again acquaintance, “How are you? You look fabulous!” He echoes your excitement, and when he’s gone you regroup with your friends, “He slept with so-and-so, you know. And I had heard he gained some weight, but DAMN. Oh, yes, he is such an asshole.”

We’ve all done it, even those of us who act as leaders in our communities, in our charities and cause championship. Example from a fundraiser: “I didn’t think she’d be here tonight. Did she donate anything or is she here for the free booze?”

And it makes its rounds, much like a game of telephone. At one end of the line a message is received by a single individual who passes it to two, who pass it to four, eight, sixteen, on and on. By the time the original message is in the hands of so many that it’s hard to know from where it came, it likely now holds only a nugget of truth inside a bedrock of falsity. But unlike the game, this version of telephone loses its truth not merely because of misunderstanding, but purposeful elaboration.

Again, you’ve done this. If a rumor is too well known among your friends, it must be elaborated to keep it going.

So we arrive at the 5 Stages of Gossip.

(Aside: It’s not always this way, please understand. Gossip is not always a vicious cycle. Indeed, closer proximity to friends might be the result of commiserating over someone who has done you wrong. But we’re addressing the Court now, so back to the Mill.)

The 5 Stages of Gossip: creation, initial delivery, friend share, acquaintance share, mass share. A landmark to identify in what stage a rumor resides is hearing gossip you’ve already heard. If you hear gossip come back to you from someone you’ve never told, you’ve got a Stage 5 monster.

But the most interesting stages of gossip are the first two: creation and initial delivery. We initiate gossip often with an incomplete picture. Say, for example, someone reiterates time and again that he lives in a nice neighborhood in which you’ve never seen him and have heard that no one has seen, or has been invited to, his house. Maybe he’s a liar. Maybe. So you run the theory by a friend. You want to make sure you aren’t thinking about this the wrong way. Your friend either agrees with your assessment or admits he doesn’t know. Either way, the first trickle of gossip has appeared and there’s a Rumor Mill down the riverbed ready to churn.

The decision about whether to pass along gossip comes from preconceived notions. If you’ve heard rumors from a credible source, it must be the truth, and since to someone you are a credible source, they must know, too. And for someone else, they are a credible source that must be trusted. And so on.

It’s the game of telephone. The question remains, is it worth the answer?

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