Everybody gossips, but if you’re one of those “rare” souls who don’t actually let salacious tales fall juicily from your lips, you have listened a bit too intensely to gossip at one time. You probably liked it, too. Don’t sit there all high and mighty ready to quote some Bible scripture at me. Just one mention of that high school nemesis (you know, the cute one who stole your boyfriend just before homecoming) being morbidly obese or still living with her mother sends you running awkwardly to the bathroom to high-five yourself in the mirror before anyone sees that smug grin stretch gratifyingly across your face.
Remember when your mom would give you the “stay in a child’s place” speech when you inched closer and closer to her as she chatted with her best friend or Auntie What’s-Her-Name on the phone as she cooked dinner? Remember how those grown up details seemed so fascinating and important even to your eight year old mind? Remember when your mom tried in vain to chase you away as the phone cord yanked her back (those things were strong back in the day)? Remember family parties when you were a new adolescent (too old to play tag, but too young to sit uninterrupted with the ladies), and the adult women would send you to the cooler or to fetch more potato salad because they didn’t want you to hear the tawdrier details about your second cousin twice removed? I do, and I smile on the inside when I see my oldest daughter trying to figure out what Mommy is so engrossed with when I’m on the phone. It’s genetic, see? We all do it or at least want to hear it.
I’ve heard a lot of gossip in my day (and I’ve been gossiped about a lot, too), but my grandma, by far, is the best gossip I know. It’s not that she gossips often; she doesn’t. Her gossiping technique is just so refined and humorously imitable that I had to share it.
1) The Unexpected: Great gossip isn’t prepared for; it just happens. My grandmother isn’t dialing my number, or anyone else’s, intending to share some sordid rumors about people she knows. Instead, her gossip is usually shared in reference to something we are already talking about (i.e., “Grandma, my husband just won’t clean up, even when he is home alone and off from work. I don’t get it.”)
2) The Hook: The key to being an effective gossip is that you have to ensnare your listener immediately. If you wait too long to grab the listener’s attention, you may end up in a room alone wondering why your story hasn’t been told. On the other hand, your opening can’t be so elaborate that it invalidates the juiciness of the gossip. Grandma is a master at this balancing act. She looks around her (to the left, then the right, then back to the left) as if she’s crossing a busy street, leans back as she takes a deep breath, looks to the right again (just for good measure), and exhales as she leans in as close to you as possible and says, “You know Lula’s baby boy, Martin, right?” She knows that you do, especially because you were engaged for six months before you found out he was dating that former high school nemesis of yours, but she waits for you to nod or say, “Yes, Ma’am” before she continues. “Well, you’ll never believe this…”
3) The Dramatic Flair: Griots in Western Africa will insist that telling a story is more than just speaking words before an audience. It takes style. Have you ever suffered through a three-year-old’s retelling of an episode of Dora the Explorer? It’s brutal. Besides facts being horribly misremembered, you have to endure a sea of ands (e.g., “and Dora asked the map, and Swiper tried to take the balloon, and Bennie got stuck in the cave, and…and…and…and”). No style. No flair. Just words. Awful. Unlike me, Grandma isn’t a hand talker. (Whenever I see videos of my lessons or speeches I’ve presented, I cringe. I might as well be landing planes at O’Hare. I have flail, not flair.) She literally whispers the gossip. It doesn’t matter if the people she’s talking about are in California or if they have been dead since the Reagan era; she whispers like they are in the next room. My face is so close to her face that I can’t avoid paying attention. Also, the proximity allows her to read me and my body language so well. She knows when I miss something important, need her to re-whisper a detail, or am not quite convinced about the gossip-worthiness of her tale.
4) The Third Person: Just like any freshman high school English teacher will tell you, avoiding personal pronouns is best when explaining. It lends a sense of credibility to the writing, and the reader knows it’s your thought because your name is at the top, right justified in Times New Roman 12” font. I suspect Grandma’s motives for third person pronouns has less to do with credibility and more to do with her not wanting to seem like a gossip or have the information leaked in the gossip linked back to her. “They say that he was at that woman’s house every night for a month. They say her husband worked nights trying to keep them afloat. They say he came running out in nothing but dress socks and a hand towel over his ‘area’ (this word was almost inaudible).”
5) The Personal Opinion: Being a good gossip means that you have to put just the right amount of sass, salt, and sense into the story to make the listener maintain interest even if a few details are common knowledge. This is where the gossiper gets to add creatively to the story to beef it up a bit. Grandma’s personal opinions are slipped in so quickly and almost unobtrusively that I often don’t realize until near the end of the tale that they weren’t really facts. “Martin, of course, denies being the father, but those triplets are going to have his flat nose and sloped head just like the rest of his babies.They say his wife is saving her money for a paternity test as soon as they are born.”
6) The Listener’s Joke: Perhaps the most important consideration for a gossiper is who is listening to the gossip. You see, every piece of gossip isn’t worthy of retelling to every person. Instead, the gossip shared has to be relevant to the person who is listening. Usually at the end of a gossip session, my grandma tells a quick joke that gives the “moral,” almost like the last line of one of Aesop’s fables. It’s punchy, significant, and funny. Most importantly, it’s designed to make me feel better about myself, my hardships, or my considerations. Sarcastically and no longer whispering, “That butt naked fool running through the streets in dress socks with his junk in a dirty towel getting ready to have triplets with a lying hussy could have been your husband.”