The Dirty Laundry Habit
By Rebecca Coates Nee
"We love to cut you down to size. We love dirty laundry."
The reporters at FOX8 in Cleveland shouldn't be too embarrassed
about their "Elvis Presley Lives!" two-part special report
for the May sweeps period, uncovering "substantial evidence"
that the King is not dead. If you believe the latest research
about gossip, they were actually doing us a great public service.
Gossip helps us survive as a species, according to Frank McAndrew,
a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.
McAndrew delves into the reasons we love to gossip in an article
published in the May issue of the Journal of Applied Social
Essentially - like everything else - it comes down to sex.
Caveman used gossip to gather material about their rivals,
McAndrew believes, and those who had no interest in spreading
the dirt were cut out of the social loop. Therefore, they
were unable to get mates - or sex.
Who is the target of our gossip? McAndrew says most of us
still want the goods on potential rivals - celebrities of
the same sex and similar age. I'm not sure who would still
be threatened by Elvis - but if he is alive, he could make
a Las Vegas comeback. One never knows.
"We seek exploitable, damaging information about high-status
people," McAndrew and a colleague write. While people might
share good information about friends and relatives, they "keep
a very watchful eye on friends."
After all, friends can be rivals, too - particularly at work.
That's why gossip also is touted as a good way of moving up
in our jobs - you need to know who's in and who's out. And
- having all the gossip makes us incredibly popular with our
peers, who keep coming back to us for more fascinating tidbits.
So, it makes sense that when I interviewed more than two dozen
ex-broadcasters for my book, Leaving TV: A Guide to Life After
News, one of the aspects they missed most about working in
TV was "being in the loop."
Most people who leave TV do feel an incredible attack of being
nobody, without 24-hour access to news wires, satellite feeds
and a room full of other busybodies. We no longer are able
to captivate people at parties with our insider knowledge.
We now have the same access to information - and gossip -
as all the other unpopular losers.
Indeed, the fear of being shut out of the loop is often the
lure that keeps some broadcasters in the business, even when
they'd rather be out. But not everyone believes gossip is
such a great habit to have. In The Four Agreements (Amber-Allen
Publishing 1997), author Don Miguel Ruiz compares gossip to
a computer virus. Once it enters our brain, it causes everything
else to malfunction. We get so many conflicting messages that
we stop producing good results.
"Gossiping has become the main form of communication in human
society," Ruiz writes. "It has become the way we feel close
to each other, because it makes us feel better to see someone
else feel as badly as we do."
Gossiping breaks Ruiz's first agreement: Be Impeccable With
Your Word. "When we see the world through a computer virus,
it is easy to justify the cruelest behavior," he writes. The
problem is it keeps us down, too.
Next time you feel the urge to gossip about someone ask yourself
what you're really hoping to accomplish. Most of the ex-broadcasters
I spoke with worried less about being in the loop once they
started concentrating on their own lives, instead of focusing
on what other people were doing. Much of the news we spread
is valuable information that the public needs to know. Some
of it isn't.
You may not be able to control whose dirty laundry you air
in your public life, but you can make a choice in your private
world. Your ultimate success may depend on it.