The Last Word : Gossip girls
There is a car commercial that invites the viewer to "tell better stories," suggesting that if you purchase this particular model, you'll find yourself on the road to adventure. You'll stop being dull old you and enjoy the life of a carefree youth and become the raconteur everyone invites to their parties. (I may be wrong. Maybe that's a beer commercial, and everyone knows that the best tellers of tales are those half sloshed.)
The commercial may be a bit long on claims, but it does tap into a basic human drive. We like to tell stories. What is it that provokes us to do this? Most of the stories we offer up in everyday conversation are the mundane observations, the little vignettes of ordinary life. Rarely are we in the company of someone who relates the kind of adventures or heroic experiences that are the purview of novels. Those people don't tell those sorts of stories while standing in line at the Reliable. They are keynote speakers. But most of us, car-pooling or walking around the dog park, we tell bits and incomplete pieces of things that have occurred to us, or things that have happened in the standby line, or share versions of a common experience. This time of year is ripe for great you-wouldn't-believe-what-some-tourist-did stories. Ordinary stories. Homegrown, and anyone within earshot can relate to them.
Some of my favorites have to do with battles with inscrutable computer help desk personnel. The number of press 1 instructions given over a 45-minute hunt for a human being, until the circular logic of the madmen who create these phone trees has ended in a dial tone. How I have lavished adjectives on the evil encountered trying to get a mistaken charge off my JC Penney account. Or a friend's story of the perfidy of mechanics. These stories are best told by women. Sorry guys. It's true. Just put together a couple of women and toss in the topic of bad service and even perfect strangers will have a bonding experience. I suspect it's because we take care of things. We deal with the repairmen. We deal with the household economics. We deal with the kids.
I love sitting on the VTA bus and getting smidges of conversations between women who are traveling together. "And I told him I wasn't going to..." or, "then she says you've got to use butter." These conversations appear to the stranger-observer to be of utter interest to the companion who will then offer a complementary observation from her own experience of mothers-in-law or employers.
Gossip. Sweet. Today we still trade in gossip - men and women. I'm not talking about the mean girl stuff, the hardcore nasty business of repeating gossip in the form of faked pity; I'm talking about the exchange of information. In a small town it is critical to know who is related to whom, or to get the play list on who has divorced whom and why (or who else was involved). In every group, be it co-workers, neighbors, quilting circles, when people come together and have a few minutes to kill, there will be gossip. Gossip is a form of wealth. We crave it, not just because we like to feel better about our lot in life, but because it gathers us together under the banner of common experience. It is important to the human animal to know that we are more alike than we are different. So we share not only our own stories, but those of others. How many times have you heard the story of someone's sister's next door neighbor's cousin? We don't know these people, will never meet them, but somehow the story of how they were cheated by a roofer is enough of a common thread to be worthy of repeating until it becomes part of our urban lore. It is the sound of the drums beating a warning across the valleys and canyons alerting strangers bound only by nationality, race, tribe, location, of danger. Or amusement. A funny story translates pretty well no matter whose story it is.
A few thousand years ago the women gathered around the fire pit, set out their corn grinding equipment and bitched about their mates. They came up with explanations for what was going on in nature, and got stuck with organizing the celebrations. The men may have gotten to dance, but the women talked. Did you hear what Emu's kid did the other day? I'd never let my child get away with playing with a club that size. What is she thinking? And did you hear that Eka's engaged to a nice boy? A little odd. Thinks if he can perfect his round invention he'll make a bundle.
I believe that the evolution of language was aided by the need for more words to describe the frustration of absent husbands and poor quality berries. Those
an-sisters of women in the teachers' lounge or gathered on the beach watching each other's children, used language, developed language, to make sense of their surroundings and brief lives. They created emotional language. The language of feeling. They gossiped.