When we were young, our mothers would tell us what to do in nearly every situation. Depending on how old we were and the potential of getting hurt, the matronly warnings would be loud and foreboding. As we got older, our mothers would want to “hear about what’s going on” and, skillfully, they would figure out a way to provide insightful commentary–always in a non-judgmental and neutral way–to control our teenage behaviors. After a decade of good advice–which evidently keep us from being killed, kidnapped, struck down by childhood disease, or hit by a car and permanently maimed–it seemed reasonable to be open-minded to at least hearing what these wise women had to say.
Sitting in Women’s Studies 101 my sophomore year in college, I was asked a hypothetical question about arranged marriage. In essence, the provocative inquiry regarded whether I trusted my mother enough to let her pick my future spouse. My classmates all recoiled in the idea. I was the one stand-out who said, “After two decades of knowing me, I think she’d do just fine selecting the right person for me.” I watched as the professor made a mark in her grade book presumably next to my name. I imagined it was the symbol for Venus, but recorded upside down.
(Imagine that turned on its head.)
I got a B+, though I think I probably earned an A. I can’t be sure how that answer of mine factored into my final grade, but I am confident that it affected how my hairy-legged peers saw me for the balance of the semester. Looking back, I suppose it could have been worse: The professor’s hypothetical could have been about my father making the choice for me. For the record, I would have been fine with his choice, too. However, were I to have said so, back in the early 1990s, I think I wouldn’t have been looking at a B+ at the close of the term.
Now that I am a full adult, I oftentimes hear peers making comments of doom and warning about others. Whether it concerns the “butcher” who cut a friend’s hair and the “bleed-you-dry” lawyer who represented a friend’s ex-spouse or whether the focus is on the “win-even-if-you-have-to-cheat” youth sports coach or the “treats-her-friends-as-doormats” busybody, these sorts of comments are mostly dismissed as “rumor.”
It seems to me that the word “rumor” is employed when the listener concludes that the storyteller is saying something that contains uncertainty of the truth. Yet if the storyteller had an experience with this complained-about hairdresser/lawyer/coach/busybody, it seems as though the storytellers’s story is worth listening to. In the same way that, as children, we would hear our mothers’ words of caution, why wouldn’t we be appreciative of the deterrent offered up by someone who’d lived through a bad experience and was forthcoming enough to advise us to “steer clear.”
Too easily we judge and discount the experiences of others with a wave of the hand and a casual comment about “spreading rumors.”
I’m no fan of gossip. When it starts, I physically remove myself from where it is happening. I’ve had to resign from several book clubs where the book wasn’t discussed (perhaps it wasn’t even read) and the flowing wine led to ready complaints about husbands, neighbors, and teachers. All of it made me feel uncomfortable and those bells, once sounded, couldn’t be unrung.
But the accounts of someone else’s poor experience with the terrible hairdresser, greedy lawyer, unethical coach, and ungrateful busybody are worth listening to. In the same way that my mother knew more than I did, these storytellers–who usually are seen as “gossips”– are not gossiping at all. They are telling others what happened to them. They are not spreading rumors. They are using themselves as examples of how not to end up getting hurt. That collective knowledge is valuable because life is too short for bad haircuts and lousy friends.