»  National Review

September 3rd, 2001

  Do Tell


Scrutinizing the news from Brazil last week, I spotted the following.

SAO PAULO, (Reuters) — Rumor, the great ill born from small beginnings, has been banned among municipal employees in the Brazilian city of Cascavel, the city councilman who drafted the law said on Wednesday. Public servants who gossip may now face official reprimands, obligatory professional sensitivity training and even suspension or dismissal in certain cases.

Lots of luck to that dour councilman and his "sensitivity trainers." A ban on gossip? I fear he is spitting into the wind. The love of gossip appears on anthropologist Donald E. Brown's list of "human universals" — traits found in all human societies (though not necessarily in all human beings) — along with fear of snakes, envy, kinship categories, religious belief, and taboos about sex and the elimination of body wastes.

It is true that gossip has never had a good press, even though the actual press spends vast amounts of money to gather and disseminate it. It seems to have been condemned by Jesus (Matthew 12:36-37), and has suffered by association with its less appetizing cousins, rumor and slander. The word "gossip" brings to mind the malicious nattering of old women, the idle talk of idle tongues, and the obnoxious Don Basilio's aria promoting the efficacy of "La calunnia" in The Barber of Seville. There are snobs who will tell you that gossip is a low and mean activity, beneath the consideration of serious folk. A priggish schoolmaster of mine used to say (or possibly quote — but I have not found any other reference): "First class people talk about ideas; second class people talk about people; third class people talk about things."

Well, that is all nonsense. I have mixed with a good many people who I feel sure are first class — the staff here at National Review come to mind — and there was never one of them that did not listen more keenly to a titbit about Princess Di, Mrs. Helmsley, Donald Trump or Gary Condit than to whatever I had to say about postmodernism, race relations, or the heat death of the universe. I even think I caught a glint of admiration in a colleague's eye when I recently revealed that I have not bought a copy of The New York Times for some years. We are New York Post subscribers here in the Derbyshire household. Why? Three full-time gossip columnists and the Page Six round-up, that's why. Why should I read the Times? I can get all the news I need on the Internet, and I parted company with the Gray Lady's Op-Ed pages long ago.

Nor, in a publicity-crazed society, does anyone mind much being the subject of gossip. This era of insouciance was heralded by Oscar Wilde: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Lawsuits against gossip columnists are rare, and generally taken to reflect poorly on the plaintiff, indicating a lack of sporting spirit.

We generally think of gossip as a feminine activity, but this is not at all the case. Some of the best gossip columnists — Nigel Dempster in London, Neil Travis in New York — are men. Probably the greatest gossip columnist of our time, if he ever felt the need to concentrate on that line of work, would be Taki Theodoracopulos. The best-known practitioner of the trade in literature, Adam Fenwick-Symes of the Daily Excess in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, was male, as was his rival, Lord Vanburgh of the Morning Despatch. Fenwick-Symes got into the habit, when he could find no real socialites to write about, of populating his columns with the products of his own imagination — who were then, of course, taken up by Lord Vanburgh:

Adam began gradually to introduce to his readers a brilliant and lovely company. He mentioned them casually at first in lists of genuine people. There was a popular young attaché at the Italian Embassy called Count Cincinnati … Adam saw him dancing one evening at the Café de la Paix. A few evenings later, Lord Vanburgh noticed him at Covent Garden, remarking that his collection of the original designs for the Russian ballet was unequalled in Europe.

I have often wondered whether actual gossip columnists are altogether able to resist this temptation.

Perhaps under the influence of that silly schoolmaster, I myself disdained gossip for many years, and was late in developing a proper appreciation of it. Gossip passed me by, somehow; or, if I heard it, I didn't connect the dots. As assistant to the Grand Vizier in the court of some oriental despot, my younger self would have been garrotted within a week for not knowing who was up and who was down.

Similar, though less terminal, things did in fact befall me from time to time as a result of my late development in this area. I once worked briefly on contract to a company named Unilever Data Services in London. Soon after I arrived, the firm was taken over by Ross Perot. I was the last to know about this, finding out about it the following Friday lunchtime when I went to the local pub. Well into the 1980s, when this happened, it was the custom for London office workers to take a long liquid lunch on Fridays. To turn up at your desk sober on a Friday afternoon was considered very bad form. Well, Mr. Perot had apparently heard of this fine old custom, and did not approve. Drinking was banned during office hours. On that particular Friday, I ran some lunchtime errands then headed for the pub, expecting to find my colleagues already a pint or two ahead of me. In fact, they were all back at the office poring diligently over project plans. Mr. Perot did not approve of contract employees either, so I was terminated the following week — another surprise. Everybody knew this stuff but me. I had never even heard of Ross Perot.

As this example suggests, a proper attention to gossip (together with some power of discrimination in evaluating its quality) has plain survival value for a social animal. It would not be difficult to work up an evolutionary argument to account for the universality of gossip: probably one of our neo-Darwinian authors has already done so. For myself, experience has taught me that it is wise, when taking up work in a business office, to find out which colleague is most diligent at acquiring and transmitting gossip. The world is somehow organized so that every office has such a one, just as every office has a bore, a lush, a manic-depressive and a case of halitosis.

Make friends with this person — who, again, is at least as often a man as a woman — and you will never be caught napping by dramatic reversals of company policy, mergers and buyouts, sensational firings or the discovery of illicit office romances. You will also have plugged yourself in to a limitless source of entertainment and instruction, for if the proper study of mankind is man, there is no more worthy topic of conversation than the foibles, follies, tribulations and triumphs of our mutual acquaintances.