Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Gossip Reconsidered: Are Small Towns Worse?

If you've been reading my blog lately you've probably noticed that gossip has been on my mind a lot (see here and here). If fact you may be thinking that I seem obsessed with it! The truth is that I think it's a very important facet of community life (church or otherwise) that is often ignored. It's a subtle sin and thus it gets missed. Yet it is so damaging. Anyway, on my first post on the topic I had some great comments made and I've been meaning to comment on them, especially the ones about gossip and small towns. Stacey first said:

Stacey: "Having said that, I have a lot less gossip in my life since I've moved here [Toronto] and rarely deal with it anymore. In the place I used to live [a small town] it was like a viral disease."

Stacey opened Pandora's box! I responded: "Stacey, I have been thinking about gossip and small towns for about a week now. It all started with me listening to a radio program where a man was interviewed who had moved his family to a small town. He loved living in the country but he was shocked by the amount of gossip, racism, and pettiness that he found out there. When people called into the show they all shared stories that seemed to underline the first one: Gossip is worse in small towns! I'm not sure if it worse or if when you know people better (as it often the case in a small town) the gossip just stands out more. For myself, I must admit that when we moved to Mennville the gossip there was more bountiful then ever I had experienced before. People actually told us in our first church care group there that they were afraid to share anything personal because it wouldn't stay with the group. I thought at that time that they were incredibly paranoid - later I understood that they were right! I had an elder of the church whom I confronted about gossiping tell me to my face that there was no way they couldn't gossip! It's a nasty habit in small towns, one that should be reframed as "sin."

Terry wanted to know what actually constituted gossip. In general I responded in my second post. Here are his questions (all good ones) more specifically - and my opinions:

Terry: "Sometimes I find it hard to know whats gossip and what isn't. For example, is it gossip when we talk about people but don't use their names?(in a small town you can't get away with it because people can figure out who it is)"
I think that you kind of answered your own question. Unless you can be guaranteed that your listener will never be able to figure it out, you shouldn't. The other test is to ask yourself if they would be OK for you to relate the story anonymously. If you think no, or you are unsure, you probably shouldn't. Why do we tell these stories anyway?

Terry: Or is it gossip when we talk about organizations or communities? Is it gossip when we use other's situations, even anonymously, in teaching situations?
-I think that when we single out an organization or community and speak about it in a slanderous way it is wrong. Does this mean that we should not warn people off of a church or an ethically questionable organization because we'd have to talk about them? Here's where it gets tricky. Paul goes out of his way to publicly call down false teachers in his letters? Is he slandering/gossiping about them? It seems pretty close to it. But I think because he is simply pointing out facts about them and doing it publicly vs in private, and since he most likely talked to them about it first, it's acceptable. Jesus too publicly disparaged the Pharisees - pointing out there general errors and even proclaiming judgment. None of this was secret though. Tough question. As for using stories in teaching situations, again, it shouldn't be done if you can't insure that no one will find out who you are talking about. Best thing is to get permission from the person, then there are no questions about it.

This leads into an excellent question commented by Roland who wonders if my comments about Mennville were gossip: "When you denigrate an entire community, how is this "not gossip"?? What would readers conclude from those comments? I've lived close to that area for many years and have concluded the people are actually "quite wonderful". Not really a "bad place to be" in my opinion."
-It's a fair question. It could be construed that by mentioning that I had never heard the levels of gossip that I did when I moved to Mennville, that this could be slander or gossip. What do you think, was it? I have thought about this a lot and am not sure. On the one hand I don't think so because I simply noted a fact: never before had I experienced this much gossip. It's a fact and I am not explicitly making a value judgment, just stating a fact - one which one cannot really argue against. On the other hand, one could read several subtle messages into it. For instance that the community is "bad" because it has some bad elements in it. If this message is being subversively put forward then you could say that yes, I did denigrate Mennville. I don't feel like it, but perhaps I did. I love Mennville. It's still a bit fuzzy in my mind and I am open to people's thoughts on this. Thanks for making me think about this Roland!

I find that in churches (or communities) that there are people who complain that everything is going wrong. This is of course bad. However the opposite is also bad: there are people who feel like any critique of the group is slander or gossip. This I strongly disagree with. We are not called to sacrifice the truth about the group's behavior in order to protect the reputation of the group. Feedback for growth, directly to those involved is not gossip or slander. The truth may not always be easy to take (and make one feel defensive) but there is a time to share it and hear it. Confronting a church/community/organization is different then criticizing it. Confronting is lovingly pointing out specific behavior that is not welcome or acceptable. Criticism is making a general value judgment about a group/individual, one that doesn't focus on what's been done but on how the group/individual is. It's tricky sometimes deciding where a comment falls and sometimes we disagree on it.

Right, so anyway that bring us back to the idea of is gossip and small towns. Is gossip worse in small towns? Charles Adler seems to think so (don't click this link if you are easily offended but if you aren't look for the link "Is Moving To The Country Really The GOOD Life?"). Or is it unfair and simply a stereotype that needs to be countered? Feel free to comment . . . just remember that everyone is entitled to their opinion . . .also feel free to vote on my poll (top right of the blog).

May Light increase!


Keith said...

Interesting topic, and like most.. not a black and white answer.. we live in shades of grey ;)

I like your choice of words on Confronting and Criticism. If I can add one point to that, I believe it becomes more black and white when we get to know the person better. For example, I can make a comment to my best friend about something I don't think is right. Chances are he will take it as Confronting. But that same comment to a stranger (losely defined as someone I might know, but just on the surface) at church, it would be easy to take it as Critism. Of course there is execptions to all this.

So what do we do? Community at Church is important, it brings us closer and therefore it is easier to confront and be confronted.

I also struggle with that because of my intravert nature (but that is for a different comment on a differnt post ;)

My 2 cents.

Jay Boaz said...

I disagree with your statement that gossip is worse in small towns. I would instead phrase it that gossip is worse in smaller groupings of familiar people. Using a municipal community as your container is an inaccurate meaure.

Riverton is smaller than Winnipeg, so while the SAME gossip is going around Riverton, there's just as much in Winnipeg, only it can't be so easily quantified since a much larger area is covered.

Winnipeg is full of strangers, hence the gossip isn't the same across the board. But I'd wager there's just as much of it, only it isn't conveniently packaged into the title of "small town".


Alyssa said...

I'd definitely have to agree with Jay on this one. Put any small group of people together (small town or otherwise), and you're bound to have some serious gossiping going on. So sad, but oh so true.

Where I see it the most is in the hospitals among the nurses. I'm continually amazed at the amount of back-stabbing and gossip that happens between nurses. Makes me so angry because it is so damaging to moral, especially in a team setting...much like within a church.

What is the point of gossiping? What's the payoff for those individuals? Those are my questions on this topic.

Anyways, I do think you're a bit misguided on this one, and maybe a bit narrow minded when it comes to small-towns. That's the drift I've been getting lately from reading your blog. A bit disappointing, I must say.

Keep up your blogging:) It's guaranteed to put me right out of my comfort zone! Thanks:)

Keith said...

I've never grown up in a small town, my Grandma and most of my Mom's side live in a small town (that is where my mom grew up) (and for the record, you can't say anything to them unless you want everyone else to know... truth by experience :)

But usually Gossip starts (at least it does for me) when there is a lack of conversation, or a down time in the conversation, or a conversation starter that triggers an event or story that you can share.
Can you say small towns are more in favor to have those circumstances?

With that said, you can find those same circumstances at Church, in the hospital and at my work.

Mark said...

Hmmm. . . good points everyone (although I notice no one has been brave enough to say whether they thought I was gossiping or slandering the noble town of Mennville - come on people get some backbone!!!).

Jay, I agree with you . . . partially. It is possible that a city has just as much gossip but it is spread across more areas and is thus diffused. The problem with this is that it basically proves the opposite point: a small town (or any small group/comunity) has concentrated potential for gossip and so you see it more. Thus it's more of a problem, right? Diffused gossip (in a city) isn't as problematic because there's actually less of it.

This feeds into what Alyssa said: small groups anywhere have the tendency to gossip and slander (like in a hospital). But small towns have hospitals and workplaces as well and yet the gossip seems to be both present in them and also transcends those places and is found outside of them (in force) as well. Thus small towns seem to earn their reputation because there is no escape from it: It's at your workplace and it's outside of it. Outsiders who move into a small town immediately notice it whereas "insiders" become accustomed to it and can't/won't see it so easily. But it's there. In cities this "outside" gossip is less acceptable. At least this is my working theory. I'm open to changing it of course.

People gossip because to tell and hear it is almost irresistible. To talk about someone behind their back makes us feel powerful. It's also entertaining. We certainly wouldn't want anyone to do it to us but we find ourselves doing it (and enjoying) to others. Pretty sick, eh?

The only way to attack it is to do so by bringing it into the conversation. Churches can do this by saying it is wrong, confronting people when they do it, and making apologies/amends when it has happened. You can't attack subtle sin with subtle solutions - it must be faced head on, bringing what happens in the shadows into the public light.

Jay Boaz said...

Alright Mark, because I feel like stretching the debating muscles, it's go time! :)

"The problem with this is that it basically proves the opposite point: a small town (or any small group/comunity) has concentrated potential for gossip and so you see it more. Thus it's more of a problem, right? Diffused gossip (in a city) isn't as problematic because there's actually less of it." - Mark

"Diffused gossip" - so you're saying that gossiping about different things with different people is better than gossiping about the same things with less people? Or are you saying that hiding your head in the sand (since you say it's better if you don't see it) means less of it is going on?

You've never made conversation at the grocery store with a clerk about the actions of a politician, celebrity, or an athlete based on a single article or news report? Or more likely, have you ever heard the person in front of you doing so? Just because there isn't a personal connection doesn't mean it isn't gossip.

I'm not saying that gossip doesn't happen in small towns, don't get me wrong. I just don't think it's fair to paint small towns as the Gossip Champions when people in the city are just as capable.

People gossip within the circle of their acquaintances, regardless of where they live.


Stacey said...

I didn't realize I was opening a pandora's box by my original comment! Interesting feedback. I will only speak from experience. I don't disagree that gossip festers in small groups even in larger cities. Mark brings up the point that gossip is diffused in a larger city, which I agree with. Having lived in both a small town and now a large city, I can only say that my experience with gossip is less in Toronto. Partly because it is diffused, partly because there is a slightly different mentality in a large city. Maybe I'm just lucky, but I don't deal with gossip at my work, at my church, at various groups and organizations I have belonged to. My experience was different in a small town. I don't mean to imply small towns are bad places to live--they have their benefits. It's nice sometimes when 'everyone knows your name'. Your neighbours are your friends and look out for each other and generally the best places to raise families. Perhaps it is more correct to say gossip is worse in small "communities" (include towns, groups & organizations). Gossip is destructive. It can ruin lives, businesses and churches. In my experience gossip "feels" worse in a smaller town. It is where you have to live, run into people, work, go to school. As Mark said, it is more concentrated--and thus, difficult to escape, especially if you are the victim of gossip. If you are the one being gossiped about in a small town, rarely will some one come up to you to hear your side of the story--because they probably heard the gossip from someone they know, and decide to believe. It stays in the back of their mind. Suddenly you are thought of differently, treated differently, avoided, left out. It is like a child's game of "telephone".. you know the game, where after a sentence is whispered to 20 different people it comes out in the end as a vague interpretation of the truth. Assuming the original message had a shred of truth to it. Gossip isn't always untruths. Sometimes you are aware of a nasty, dirty secret... and it's just too tempting to share it. Watch the reaction as you tell the story. As Mark said, it makes us feel powerful. Sometimes people make mistakes in their lives, and if they are fortunate to learn from them they have to work their way out of the mud to clean up their past wrong-doings. How much more difficult is it, in a small community, to make good, when the damage been done because of gossip spreading like wildfire. All in the name of 'entertainment'.

About your Mennville comment Mark, I will speak up and say that to me it came across as a personal observation, and not a derogatory comment about the town. I would elaborate but I think I've used up my posting quota on this one :)

Mark said...

This is a great conversation!

Jay: Ah, my friend, you are the one who came up with the idea of diffused gossip, not me! Perhaps I misunderstood what you meant by it? I never said that "hiding your head in the sand" is ever a good response. What I'm saying is that you are arguing that cities have just as much gossip as small town except that for some reason it's more noticeable in small towns. But that doesn't make sense to me; if it's not noticed, how can you prove it's really there (or at least at what level)? Small towns are known for their increased gossip levels (not necessarily as "champions of gossip") for the very reason that it is extremely noticeable. Can you really argue with that? I don't know if appealing to "hidden" or "diffused" gossip is the best arguement.

I think that maybe gossip is worse in small towns not because the people are any worse then city slickers, but because of the social context. The temptation to gossip is so much greater in a small town (and so is occurrence of it) because you have
1. Less things to do.
2. Less distractions.
3. More connections/familiarity with people.
4. Less social and personal privacy (ex/ divorcing in a small town is totally different then doing so in a large city).

Now I agree that cities have gossip as well, the question is, is it as bad in the city as it is small towns? The problem is that we are debating over something which neither side can prove. However, I would point to other statistics. Did you know that alcohol addiction, suicide, and murder/violence rates are all much higher in rural areas then in cities? Per capita you are safer, less likely to become an alcoholic, and less likely to kill yourself if you live in a small city. I'm not sure why this is so, but I find it interesting. Certain sins too are more context sensitive then others. I'm not betting the farm on it, but I think small towns may have more of a problem (especially with personal gossip) then large cities.

P.S. It should be known that I am no fan of the city and want to move back to the country as soon as I can!

Jay Boaz said...

I really shouldn't try to debate after a 14 hour workday. I'm actually not entirely sure where I am on this topic (I forgot diffused gossip was my idea!) but sometimes I like to debate simply for argument's sake as a mental exercise, regardless of which side I'm actually on. After working that long a day I probably shouldn't force my mind to try and exercise. :)

Where did you get the stats on suicide, safety, and alcoholism, by the way? I'd like to know if they were done just by population size, or if remoteness of the community made a difference. While the alcoholism in small towns wouldn't surprise me at all, safety and suicide did until I thought about reserves.


Lindsay said...

Hmmm... I must admit that - after growing up partially in the Big City and partially in a Small Town - I chose the Big City when I moved out on my own. I *love* the freedom that I feel, and a lot of that has to do with the lack of gossip and judgment. I feel free to just live my life the best way I know how.

Now, I'm not sure if that's purely a function of a Small Town, or if some of that might have to do with growing up in a Small Town Populated with a Fair Number of 'Religious' People (which is another whole conversation, really). Because the worst gossip and judgment I've ever survived was when I worked in a Small City with Lots of 'Religious' People...

So I've picked the Sinful Big City (hehe). And I've never been happier. I want my kids to grow up here, where they'll meet all kinds of people who are nothing like them - and I want them to learn to love every last one of them. It's a personal decision, to be sure, and I understand why people choose other options. But this is right for Geoff and I, and our family.

On another note, I work in a small company now - less than 12 people, all between 20 and 35 - and you'd expect us to be an environment teeming with gossip. And I've never been in a happier, more gossip-free environment. I'm also the only person here who professes to have any kind of personal faith or connection with religion... Just some food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Hey -Are we splitting hairs a bit here in our discussion about gossip? How's this for a definition for gossip? If you're talking about me or my community in a negative way in a public forum and I feel violated, it's gossip. Terry

Mark said...

Are we splitting hair a little? Of course we are! Indeed, but I like your definition. The only thing I'm not sure about is if you tie the definition to how others feel. The issue I have with that is that unless we check in with the person, we don't know how they feel. Or they might not tell us. Even if we say "would I feel violated/slandered if someone made this comment about me?" we may still be wrong and the other person could be hurt. The other issue is that some people may feel "hurt" or "attacked" not because it was gossip but because they are just not ready to face the truth - a charge of gossip is then used to shut down the "attackers." I'm trying to think of an example of this, but I can't at the moment.

I think Keith is right that this is not a black or white issue. We all agree that we shouldn't gossip, we just have different ideas about what constitutes gossip ...

P.S. Did you feel violated when I said that the most amount of gossip I'd ever experienced was when I was in Mennville? Just curious how that landed on people.

Anonymous said...

Yes Mark, it was gossip...slanderous gossip. Blogs,facebook,myspace are all mostly negative and I don't waste my time on any of them...till now. I was tipped off to your latest topic so here I am,on your blog, for the first and last time. A wise man recently told me that blogs,facebook,etc. are generally for people who are so busy following other people's lives that they never get to successfully live their own. Blogs are by nature"self gossip" columns.I don't care when you sell your car, when your kids are toilet trained,what they said today,etc etc. Do let me know when something of importance or major happens in your life(negative or positive) and I will laugh,weep,or pray with/for you.Blogs have limited value at best(ie travel blogs)and even "christian" blogs usually end up being a waste of time. Your negativity towards our community and others comes through more than once.
Bryan Dueck

Mark said...

(Arghh! My whole response got wiped out for some reason. Sigh, maybe my response wasn't that great. I'll try again).

Hey Bryan, thanks for stopping by and for sharing your opinions honestly. I appreciate you voicing your thoughts directly to me. I'd hope that if others feel this strongly about what I said that they too would so honor me by telling me so directly (and not discuss them behind my back of course!). I'm not going to say I agree with you thoughts on blogging (though there is some truth in them)or respond to the negativity thing. Instead I think your comment brings me back to my original question: what is gossip (and slander) and did I do so?

Some have said "no" and others have said "yes." Honestly, I had thought that I was above board before but now I'm not so sure. I'm trying to read past the emotion in people and go deeper. What specifically in what I said made it wrong (if it was)? Did I, in talking about gossip/slander engage in the very thing I was preaching against? It wouldn't be the first time of course . . .

Bryan (or if someone else is out there who leans towards the opinion that I was gossiping/slandering), what makes what I said gossip or slander? Which part (or all of it)? I'm wondering if maybe it was that I was too general with some things? Or is just mentioning someone's name/a community's name and associating it with something negative enough to label it gossip?

According to Terry's definition, I would be gossiping if someone was violated by what I said. I'm not fully in agreement with that, but maybe it is because I just don't like it. What do you think?

Lee said...

Trying again as my last comment got wiped out.

I didn't think it was gossip Mark. I will read it again and substitute the name of my home town for Mennville and see if that makes me feel differently but to be honest, your post echoed my own thoughts about my hometown. Gossip was (is) rampant in the community and in the church. I don't think it lessens my love for the people and my relationships there to admit that.

I do agree with Bryan's opinion about Facebook - I always leave there with a bad taste in my mouth, as if I have been peeking in others windows at night...
I don't feel the same about blogs though - at least the blogs I keep coming back to are those that challenge, encourage or entertain me.

I did think it was ironic Bryan that you found Mark's blog on gossip through gossip. :)

Anonymous said...

being tipped off and gossip are two different things leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
colton dueck

Lee said...

Perhaps you're right Colton - I don't know the spirit of the tipping off :)

I do know from reading Mark's blog regularly that he has communicated a love and value for the community of Mennville. (I'm not here to defend Mark - I think he's quite capable.) So, that is the spirit in which I read his post.

By the way, I spell my name with two e's, brother. :)

Mark said...

Wow, this is the most amount of comments any post by me has ever generated!

Colton: Yup, I agree with you (and Lee). Being informed about something isn't necessarily gossip. As Roland (I think it was Roland) said not everything is gossip and we shouldn't go overboard and let the fear of gossip stop us from everyday conversation.

I must admit that I'm a bit at a loss as where to go in this conversation. I am trying to understand it - and what's gone wrong with it.

The facts (my view of them):
1. If you read over my blog for the past year you will find almost all of my mentions of small towns and living in the country are positive. I have mentioned several times that I would like to move back to "the sticks" and miss the wilderness and people there a lot. I lost something of myself the day I moved to the city.
2. Gossip is a concern of mine. I've watched it derail several faith communities, businesses, relationships, etc in the past years. It's also something I see in myself and so I blog about it.
3. I mention some examples of it and that my experience of it was the strongest in one particular place (a small town). I give one concrete example. Besides this I say nothing bad about that place in general (a place which I love dearly!). I ask the question: is gossip really worse in small towns? I hope to hear a little healthy debate and spark discussion.
4. Some people seem quite upset about my comments about the community and small towns in general. This truly surprises me. Really? I'm open to being corrected (honestly). OK, I ask, what part of what I said seems slanderous/gossip? I throw out a few theories. I don't get any specific responses.
5. Still a bit confused on the matter and unsure what to think.

I was rereading people's responses and was intrigued by Alyssa's thoughts (thanks for commenting by the way). The end of her comment:

"Anyways, I do think you're a bit misguided on this one, and maybe a bit narrow minded when it comes to small-towns. That's the drift I've been getting lately from reading your blog. A bit disappointing, I must say. Keep up your blogging:) It's guaranteed to put me right out of my comfort zone! Thanks:)"

This got me thinking. Somehow I'm coming across as narrow minded and anti-small town. Whatever message I intended to get through came across quite differently to some! I tend to see my posts and islands of individual thoughts, but some people seem to be putting them all together and getting ONE central message. I assume this core message is different to everyone reading it but it happens to be a negative one for quite a few. This might help explain why no one has come forth and said "Mark, you slandered the community when you specifically said _____." Maybe it's not as much the specifics but the whole. What do you think of this theory?

Now I'm not going to say that I'm not responsible for how people interpret my posts. Quite the opposite. I think that writer and reader share responsibility but that most of it rests on the writer. As I hear more and more responses I can better understand how some people interpreted what I said and I wish I would have written things differently, added other things in to balance certain thoughts, and left some things out completely. I am truly sorry that to many I came across as slagging Mennville - that was never my intention. Yet, if I put myself into your shoes, I can see how you might have gotten that message. My apologies.

I only wanted to raise the issue of gossip and get people thinking and talking (and maybe even praying) about it. I thought using a "hot button" question like "is gossip worse is small towns?" and then using some examples would be great. Whether it was or not could be debated, but I think my execution of it was not always helpful. I've also realized the limits of the blog medium as it relates to being able to work through tension and misunderstanding (look for a future post on this).

By the way, thanks to everyone who was gracious and honest in sharing their thoughts and responses.

Anonymous said...

Mark,I am coming back one more time. I came out of the gate hard in my comment when you threw out the challenge to show some back bone. Glad you have thick skin.
Lee,I often discuss things I read in all kinds of magazines, newspapers etc. Surely you were not serious in saying that it is gossip to talk about something written in someone's blog when it's out there for the world to read...and written solely to generate discussion.

Anonymous said...

this has probably been said already but i think small town gossip is just noticed more because everyone knows one another.
I feel there is just as much in cities its just that cities have the advantage of way more people so its not as obvious...
does what i just typed make any sense haha cuz i can barely understand what i just typed..

lee i thought i spelled it with two e's
haha jk ill remember that bud
colton dueck

Mark said...

Hey folks, I removed a couple of comments recently because it seemed to me that they were maybe getting a wee bit too personal. As always this blog is about the sharing of ideas - and the challenging and testing of them. But if in the challenging of people's ideas things get too personal or comments could be/are interpreted as personal attacks then I will choose to remove them, just to be on the safe side. Will I always do it appropriately? Probably not. Sometimes I probably am too conservative and do it when it may not be needed, other times I might let too much go. Of course I am only human as well. I'm only trying my best to make this a place where ideas, thoughts, and feelings can be shared authentically, safely, and with respect (even if we fiercely disagree with each other!). Hopefully you will be gracious with me as I attempt to do this. Peace to you all and Happy Mother's Day!

Anonymous said...

happy ma's day yo!

Michele said...

No worries Mark! You do what you think is best with your blog. Sometimes we write things because we are emotionally charged and it's not always the most appropriate or respectful thing to say. I'm glad you feel comfortable enough to delete when necessary.

Have a great day!