She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, speaking of Mrs. Bennet
Isn’t this the best, most polite description of gossip ever? “Visiting and news.”
I once read a line by a retired urban reporter who’d moved to a rural place, who said that one of the very first things he had to learn in his new home was how to lean. Most of the conversations between men in his community took place while leaning on a truck fender at the store, or leaning on a fence post while taking a break from field work. A friend and I catch up on conversation every hour or so while we’re splitting wood, in the few minutes that we’re refueling and getting something to drink. A lot of it has to do with our neighbors, as casual conversation often does. A study by researchers at UC Riverside showed an average of 52 minutes a day spent in workplace gossip, with no meaningful difference between men and women.
There are a few people in any town who act as large-capacity gossip conduits. They’re extroverted and like to talk, and they interact with lots of people and thus have lots of source material to draw from. These informal information networks can become something like the small town version of a think-tank: when you have a problem or an issue that’s troubling, you turn to the people you’ve leaned against the truck with for forty years, the people you’ve had church-fellowship coffee with since your grandma was the head of the altar guild. That’s both natural and problematic. It closes us off to new ways of thinking, and deepens the channels already dug.
Our sources of social information are just as much sorting mechanisms as our sources of professional media information. It’s been almost fifty years since Jim Duncan’s famous study of the two communities of Bedford, in which he found that the long-time WASPy residents and the recent Italian-American arrivals kept to themselves in every way. They lived in different parts of town, belonged to different clubs, sent their kids to different schools, and had entirely different values for the appearance and messaging of their homes and landscapes. Our little town is much like that. The people who used to go to Nan’s potlucks and the people who are members of the volunteer fire department are a Venn diagram with nearly no intersection. The people who buy lunch at Grant’s General Store and the people who buy lunch at Sissy’s Kitchen are similarly dissimilar.
The Old Vermonters and the Flatlanders. The pickup and the Prius. The people who shower before they go to work, and the people who shower after work. We have so many ways to divide ourselves into tribes, invisible to the rest of the world but clearly spoken among those who matter, like a twin language, bonding us forever in opposition.
Over the decades, these harden into feuds and grudges. The origins are no longer precisely recalled, but every interaction offers the opportunity for reinforcement, an opportunity to teach our own biases to our kids who will carry them on in perpetuity.
And trust me, I know fully that I’m not innocent of this. I talk smack about people far too often. I make the inside joke, the cutting remark; and it makes me laugh when other people do it, too. As Tip O’Neill famously said, all politics is local, a wisdom born of Boston and its perpetual—often bloody—battles between the WASP academic-finance old guard, the Catholic Italians and the Catholic Irish.
And let’s go back to our originating quote from Jane Austen, its own model of demeaning the morally-inferior other. “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temperament.” You can imagine Jane over tea with her friends, chatting and smiling about the poor Mrs. Bennet and her limited world.
We need to belong. But we often do it through the mechanism of naming those who don’t belong.