August 29, 2002
Big Mouth Strikes, Again
A few years ago, the rabbi offered the following challenge to the congregation: Spend one full day without gossiping whatsoever. His definition includes saying bad things about people, things which may happen to be true. It wasn't easy. My sister and I almost made it out of the temple parking lot before we lost the bet. Being good just don't come natural to some people.
I'm surrounded by gossips. The rule at our dinner table is this: If you're not there to defend yourself, you're fair game for us to talk about. I was having dinner with my sister and two old friends of hers, when Julie got up to go to the bathroom. She made all of us go with her. "Come on," she said. "There's just no way I'm turning my back on you guys."
We like gossip because, like any of your other garden-variety vices, it briefly makes us feel good. It appeals to our base instincts, our regrettably true nature. We like being in the know, ahead of the curve. Gossip is one of the little things that defines us as human beings, along with opposable thumbs, salad dressing and the Laker Girls.
An "in-the-loop" Chatty Cathy shared an unconfirmed rumor with me about the state of a certain person's employment status. "How did you know?" I asked after the story broke the next day.
"Isn't there some kind of commandment, you know, the ones actually written in stone, about bearing false witness?"
"Assume the worst," she said, "and you'll be right more often than you think."
Not exactly a cockeyed optimist, but her prognostications are as dependable as the sunrise.
I've noticed that bad news tends to get a little worse once it's placed in our hands. Getting wind of a juicy item can be like experiencing the five stages of grief all at once: denial, devastation, bargaining, acceptance and shiva. "No! That's terrible. He's so young. Well, better him than me! Are you hungry?" It never seems so bad when it happens to somebody else.
Secrets are another matter. Over lunch one day last week, somebody whispered something to me about a friend's wife, admonishing me that it was a big hush-hush secret -- "promise that you'll tell no one" they said. Then they told the next person they spoke with the very same thing. I know because that guy couldn't wait to call and tell me what he'd learned while the news was still hot. If you want to get the word out on the street, you can tell someone it's a secret, then tell them specifically who you don't want them to tell. When you say something behind someone's back, you can be sure that they'll hear it from 20 people. It's more reliable than Western Union and cheaper than taking an ad in Variety.
There are no secrets anymore, and it's a damn shame. It has nothing to do with the Internet or investigative journalists or the tabloids. The problem is, that today, no one can keep their big mouth shut. In the old days, there was a code of honor. The Mafia used to know how to keep a secret. Omerta. You didn't tell nothing to nobody. You shut up, you took the fall, and you did your time. Now every Mafia family seems to have a mole with some colorful nickname like "The Weasel," who spills his guts to the Feds in exchange for immunity and a new face. One guy opens his mouth and that's the end of it for everyone else. Loose lips sink ships.
Lawyers, priests and shrinks used to be safe havens, but everywhere you look there's nothing but rats, finks and whistle-blowers waiting to roll over and blab everything they know, ideally on Fox News. We live in a kiss-and-tell world. Even hookers write books, for crying out loud. I'm sorry, but that's just plain wrong. Is nothing sacred? A secret is only a secret as long as you're the only one who knows it. After that, it becomes "content" and it's not so easy trying to get that genie back in the bottle.
You have to be careful, though, because those who dabble in rumors may some day find themselves the subject of one. With the High Holidays rolling around again, I know I should be reading the Torah, but around here, we seem to look more often to Dorothy Parker for spiritual guidance: "If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit by me, dear."
I begin repenting, as of now.