Not long ago, I decided to improve myself by doing the unthinkable. I decided to give up gossip. This wasn't going to be a half- hearted attempt to stop chit-chat, but a decision to stop saying anything at all about anyone else. There'd be no mild speculation about friends or colleagues and certainly never any hissing about people behind their back. I could never be accused of being two-faced or hypocritical and my soul would be all the sunnier for it.
I embarked on this project when I was still reeling from yet another catastrophic night out. Something someone said to one friend had been repeated (and so on) until we all ended up drunk, screaming or in tears outside a bar at four in the morning.
Conventional wisdom says that women gossip more than men; surprisingly, a recent study from the University of California claims that men are more talkative. "Gender differences may reflect a tendency among some men to control the conversational floor when interacting with women," the study said.
I believe you can get anyone to dish the dirt regardless of gender. I also believe that my attempt to be gossip-free is very timely. Last July a pastor from Kansas City called Will Bowen suggested to his congregation that they should all try to stop it. He handed out purple bracelets and challenged them to go 21 days without complaining or gossiping. Each time they did, they had to switch the bracelet to the other wrist and start again. Neither Bowen nor his 250-strong congregation had any idea how the practice would catch on. In the past year, nearly five million bracelets have been requested from across the world. Clearly, I'm not alone.
My scheme needed some parameters. Gossip is a concept we're all so familiar with that we tend not to define it in certain terms. It's with us at every moment, from the morning newscaster's political speculation to the glaring-hot headlines of the celebrity rags and the water-cooler conversations about last night's reality TV show. Gossip so pervades the fabric of civilised culture that even the most mundane information is fodder for incredibly lengthy discussion. In America right now, for example, the price of Hillary Clinton's haircuts is receiving attention from all of our major news outlets, while the exact location of where Britney Spears feeds her children ice-cream at the unmotherly hour of 9.30pm commanded a whole page in US Weekly.
My definition of gossip was as far-reaching as it gets. I reasoned to myself, if you're going to kick a habit, you might as well be strict about it. I resolved to entirely eradicate any exchange of information about the affairs of other people, positive or negative, true or untrue.
It was harder than I thought. At work, for example, when my boss asked me the whereabouts of a co-worker who hadn't been at her desk for the past hour, I wasn't able to say she'd run to Bergdorf to exchange an over-priced, but beautiful, pair of suede boots she'd been lucky enough to receive as a gift from her Wall Street boyfriend. I then wasn't able to tell my colleague how much I wish my boyfriend could afford to buy me some boots from Bergdorf because then I'd have commented on not only my co-worker and her boyfriend's affairs but also the financial affairs of my own boyfriend. More frustrating was when a friend suddenly had to move out of her boyfriend's apartment and rebuild her life from scratch, I couldn't tell her what a jerk I'd always thought he was.
"But that's not gossip," my boyfriend would say, rolling his eyes, when I was only able to give him short, curt answers about how my day went. Oh, but it was. I couldn't tell him how the girl on the vegetable stand overcharged me for the tomatoes and had then been a bitch about it when I picked her up on it. And I couldn't tell him that my sister had finally got a job she desperately wanted. I found I could hardly say anything at all. Everything in my life, since I do not live in a bubble, has to do with other people. The entire course of my day is a series of positive, negative or forgettable interactions with other people. What happens is not necessarily important; it's how it happens. "I went shopping for a new raincoat" is a considerably more mind-numbingly boring thing to tell someone than, "I went shopping for a new raincoat with my friend Julia, who told me a juicy story about her boss and a bunch of writers and publishers we all can't stand."
My conversation became severely stunted. Whenever I spoke, I felt like a loser who spouts unnecessary details no one cares to hear. Perhaps I went too far. I was in deep water just having to cut out gossip about my friends and family, but when I decided to stop gossiping about celebrities and public figures, too, I might has well have cut out my larynx. Anyone who has started a new school or job knows the drill. In the early bonding stages, you'll know who is to be friend or foe by their reaction to mentions of Britney Spears, Tom Cruise or Rudy Giuliani. It's how normal people get to know who they can trust in a new environment. How do you try to feel someone out without this spoken device? Could you truly make a new friend? Or would there forever be a gap between you of uncharted territory? What about dating? You might be able to glean political views, values and interests, but you'd never be totally sure of their character. After all, the way we often pass judgement on another is by seeing who they've passed judgement on.
Of all the self-righteous, self-imposed self-improvement schemes I've ever undertaken, giving up on gossip definitely left me the loneliest. Not to mention the quietest. It was only when I was stripped of the ability to talk freely about other people that I realised how much of my incessant commentary had been gossip rather than real opinions about things that actually matter. No one ever says in passing, "I hate it when guys make more money or get promoted faster than women", or "Oh my God, our ecological balance is falling apart and no one even realises it." Two hundred years from now, if someone had a recording of the conversations I'd had since I graduated college, and offered it as the sole document of what life was like in this era, you'd think I'd lived in a peaceful, vapid interlude where there were no wars, riots, inequalities or anything besides minor nuisances that required all my attention.
Before the gossip scheme finally crashed and burned, I found myself mute. I simply had nothing to contribute. "It's painful to watch you," my boyfriend said. "You've become pensive and dull." After a month or two my heart was no longer in it. In the end, gossip crept back into my life so slowly and innocuously at first that I barely noticed it. Then one night, over drinks, it all came flooding back. I found I was running off my mouth about something that was none of my business. I was once again an active participant in a conversation, rather than watching it from the sidelines. I took a deep breath, looked around to make sure none of the concerned parties were standing nearby, and launched into a full stream of bitching.
And you know what? It felt liberating and cathartic. I decided I'd become so staggeringly uninteresting that to be anything else – even a cantankerous, catty bitch – would be preferable. So I returned to my gossip-fuelled social life with relish. "It's good to have you back," my friends told me. "Your valuable input was sorely missed."
The art of good gossip
By Psychologist Dr Sandi Mann
A life without gossip is an admirable quest but one that is probably as unlikely as pledging to live a life without telling lies. Put simply, without gossip, we run out of things to say – and without things to say, we cannot build relationships.
Gossip does more than ensure topics of conversation – it can provide a more powerful bonding experience than any outward-bound course. Exchanging news about another person puts the gossiper and the receivers in an exclusive group from which the victim is necessarily excluded. This makes an " in-group" which, say social psychologists, is the very essence of strong bond formation. Sharing "secrets" with select others, hearing your own views reinforced by your friends and having the opportunity to scapegoat someone else – all these elements of gossip help bolster your own sense of group membership.
That is not to say that gossip should have no boundaries. Malicious gossip can backfire as it carries implications about respect; your friends may be eager to hear your nasty rumour-mongering, but will be less likely to trust you with their news or think of you as a likeable person.
The key is to engage in just enough harmless gossip to build bridges, but tune out of the really bitchy stuff before those bridges collapse around you.
Dr Mann is author of 'Managing Your Boss' (Hodder and Stoughton)