Brain Pickings

Barbara Walters on Gossip

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“You’re never just a spectator: unless you put a stop to it, you’re a participant.”

“It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table,” C.S. Lewis remarked in reflecting on the mealtime reading portion of his ideal daily routine. “What one wants is a gossipy, formless book.” And yet this is perhaps the only instance in which anything “gossipy” can have even a marginally fruitful function. Gossip, by and large, is as easy to go down as candy and just as bad for us in the long run — the kind of social malady that infects all parties involved with toxic poison under the guise of sugar-water.

From the out-of-print 1970 gem How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything (public library) — the same witty, perceptive guide that gave us Walters on the art of conversation and what Truman Capote teaches us about being interesting — comes a section on the perils of perpetuating gossip, which rings with tenfold the poignancy four decades later, in the age of constant social web chatter and clickbait entertainment “journalism.”

Walters admonishes:

Gossip can be fun when it’s gossip about famous people who’ll never hear of your discussion and couldn’t care less if they did. For me, gossip about Liz and Richard [Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton], or Jackie and Ari [Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis], is entirely fair, enormously interesting, and probably completely untrue. But gossip about people you know is not only morally wrong, it is also tactically wrong because it almost always gets back to the person involved.

And don’t kid yourself into false virtue because you kept silent when others were lacerating someone’s reputation. You’re never just a spectator: unless you put a stop to it, you’re a participant. Change the subject in a firm voice; say, “I like Jane very much and I’m sure none of us here is glad that she’s having problems. Let’s talk about something else…”

When all else fails, Walters suggests a clever counterstrategy of the reverse-psychology variety:

There’s always the classic line when someone is running down a mutual friend. You look amazed and say, “Funny, she always speaks so well of you.” I dare the gossip to go on after that, especially if you follow up your line with a compliment that the friend actually paid the gossip in your hearing.

Conversely, if you meet someone who you’ve heard has made a bitchy comment about you, try to be big about it. We all have said unkind things that we didn’t really mean, tricked by something nervous in the situation or in ourselves.

Her most heartbreaking observation on the culture — or, rather, culturelessness — of gossip comes as an almost throwaway remark:

Sometimes people gossip just because they feel they must in order to be interesting.

Noting that if the person who gossiped about you is someone you know and if there’s a grain of constructive criticism in the comment, you might be able to learn from it, Walters nonetheless makes room for our fallible humanity, which she illustrates with a disarming personal anecdote:

You’re only human though, and there are times when it’s a strain to be civilized. I had an experience with Joan Rivers before we ever met that made me doubt we could ever be polite, much less pals. She was being interviewed by The New York Times on the subject of femininity among female television performers. As examples of tough women, she quipped, “I’d love to put Barbara Walters and Jacqueline Susann in the same room and see which one came out alive.”

By a quirk of fate, I had just written Joan what amounted to a fan letter. She was about to do a brand-new interview show on NBC and I wanted to welcome her to the network. She received my note the day before her comment about me was to appear in the Times and although we’d never met, she telephoned me in agony to apologize.

I had written the note in all innocence, but I later thought that it was the perfect variation on the “funny-but-she-always-speaks-well-of-you” ploy. Anyway, Joan and I both felt so terrible about the incident that we’ve been friends ever since.

Joan Rivers and Barbara Walters, 2011 (Photograph: Rob Rich)

How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything, should you be able to track down a surviving copy, is well worth the read — rather than dated, most of Walters’s points of advice, aimed at helping you “get beyond the superficial forgettable small talk that most people use as a substitute for communication,” ring with all the more resonance in today’s vastly more public, many-voiced, conversation-based culture.

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