My friend is a gossip. Should I dump her?; Dilemmas

VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

Truly good people don't gossip. I'm certain the Dalai Llama never picks up his telephone, tucking his feet under his robes, and starts: "My dear, I simply must tell you..." Discretion is a sign of saintliness. Recently, I burst out with a torrent of unkind gossip about a friend to a mutual friend who is exceptionally nice and good. At the end of the story, which I'd made very funny, instead of capping it all, as I'd hoped, with another dunghill of bile and indiscretions, all he did was smile and, in a kindly and compassionate way, say: "Dear, darling old Sheila. She never changes, does she?" I felt like a creep.

Gossip, too, is a two-way process, which is also why Karen should be wary of keeping this woman as a friend. You can't take gossip and a) not dish it out, and b) expect the gossip not to gossip about you behind your back.

If you're prepared to listen to someone spilling secrets, she (and it's usually a she) will want to hear you spilling secrets back. You can't have a one-sided goss. Because after the major gossip has sicked out this week's indiscretions, she nearly always snuggles down in the chair, lights up a cigarette and says: "Right, that's me. Now - you." "Oh, er, nothing much" won't wash. You find yourself dredging some mental cesspit in order to give something back. No doubt Karen's been feeling a bit bad herself, playing up to her friend, because she's found herself also behaving like a gossip.

Then, of course, Karen's right. If her friend unburdens to her things that she's been told in confidence, then there's no way that anything she tells her friend in confidence will remain secret for more than five minutes. Protestations of "But you're different, you're my friend!" mean absolutely nothing to a gossip who, like an alcoholic trying to get a drink, will lie with no compunction just to get the fix of another broken confidence. The urge to gossip is a desperate method to try to keep popular. If you always know the inside story, people will want you around.

And your friends will usually be wary of making an enemy of you, because you know all their innermost secrets. Gossip binds your circle to you like unspoken blackmail.

Some people may suggest that Karen has a frank discussion with her friend before breaking off. But it won't achieve anything, except another round of phone-calls to other friends. "Do you know what Karen just did? She told me I was a gossip, isn't that a cheek..." Karen hasn't used the word "compulsive" before "gossip" for nothing. You might as well sit down and have a "good talk" with a paedophile. It won't change a thing.

In nearly all cases, gossip is a betrayal of trust. Trust is the basis of any good relationship. I think Karen will have to move on. You can't have a part-time relationship with a gossip, or try to keep your distance. Just by listening to the stuff you're party, somehow, to the betrayal that is involved.

I'm no saint. Like drinking, I adore gossiping. But sometimes I wake up with a gossip hangover of shame and resolve to try not to do it again. And, like an alcoholic who tries to keep out of bars, the more I keep away from gossips the better, ultimately, it is for me. I think Karen is starting to feel gossip is too dangerous for her. Unfortunately, that usually means withdrawing from the other players in the gossip game as well.

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

Put her on the back burner

Your friend clearly does not understand the basis of "friendship". By her own indiscreet actions in betraying your trust, she has redefined her relationship with you and, in so doing, invalidated the privilege of being close to you.

I'd be inclined to put her on the back burner and let her chew over such confidences as which muesli you have chosen to buy and which colour garment you might wear.

You have known this person for a long time but, sadly, she seems to have become (or continued to be) a gossip. Perhaps the friendship has reached its natural conclusion. Don't try to keep warm a moribund relationship: move on.

MARTYN LLOYD

Waldringfield, Woodbridge

Change your attitude to her

Karen's understanding has increased. She has learned that gossip can be experienced in several ways; some fun, others hurtful and damaging. What is important seems to be one's perspective of the gossip. It must be difficult to have any sort of trust in someone who promises not to tell but is unable to keep that promise. Karen's ill-ease points to dissatisfaction of her own.

Maybe it is time to change her attitude towards her friend in order to move on. Any change may or may not by reciprocated, but what has she to lose? It can be beneficial to meet new friends. The sooner she does meet new friends, the quicker she will have old ones. Diversity could mean less reliance on others who upset her.

NICHOLAS E GOUGH

Swindon, Wiltshire

You need a taste of reality

If we are usually judged by the company we keep, by your comments I see that you are very slow in summing up character. Of course we all talk about another person just a little. It's so much easier to mention things which annoy you to someone else you know, but if I find myself doing this, I feel I should also speak tactfully, or even jokingly to the person concerned so that problems can be ironed out.

Quite different is making silly mischief and feigning secrecy.

Should you move on, you say. For heaven's sake, go and milk cows woman, go and clean someone's windows for them, or go and work with handicapped children who need their bottom's wiping. Dealing with these kinds of dirt will teach you what life's all about, and you might even wake up radiantly happy one morning.

MS RITA SKEELS

(no address given)

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

We have two boys of eight and nine and they're increasingly asked to stay over at friends' houses, which they both enjoy very much.

The problem is that we have very strong views about what they should and shouldn't watch on television, and we never let them watch anything that is on after nine o'clock.

However, the friends that they stay with nearly all have television in their bedrooms which they are allowed to watch unregulated. Recently, my son let slip that he'd watched a very violent film on video until midnight.

Should I ring their parents and explain the situation?

Yours sincerely,

Penny

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside at `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; or e-mail dilemmas@ Independent.co.uk, giving a postal address so that we can send a bouquet

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