Just Between Us
“You don’t know this,” Evelyn says, “but Crissy’s pregnant.”
That would be my husband John’s sixteen-year-old niece in Ohio, his sister Jeannette’s daughter.
His other sister Evelyn seems to relish passing on the news, though she adds, “Poor Jeannette. It’s just a shame what those kids put her through.”
“You’re kidding. Is she going to have the baby?”
“No one knows. We’re not supposed to know about this at all, but Crissy told Emma, who told Ginny, who told me. Don’t tell anyone, or let on if you talk to Crissy or Jeannette.”
“So what about the boyfriend? They’re not getting married, are they?”
“Who knows? He’s a born-again, that’s what I hear.”
I’ve barely spoken to Crissy, but I’ve seen her a number of times at family gatherings. Sullen, resentful, with a stocky build and an unfortunate case of teenage acne, she doesn’t impress me as mature mother material. I’m afraid I can picture the kid already. A fussy baby, who puts on too many pounds too fast. “He’s already out of his weight class. Can you believe it?” Jeannette’s going to boast. A fat little boy who eats everything in sight and whines when there’s no candy. “Isn’t he just the cutest? What a sweet tooth!” Evelyn’s going to agree with Jeannette. Then she’ll be on the phone with John’s mom talking about some article she read in a women’s magazine about Type 2 Diabetes and how Crissy should really be controlling the kid’s weight. Next thing you know everyone’s going to be talking about his supposed diabetes in hushed voices. “Isn’t it a shame?”
I’m a corporate communications manager with an MBA and a Masters in Social Psychology. Recently I’ve been putting together a presentation on the role that office gossip plays in companies that are downsizing, and I found this great article in The Journal of Social Psychology. “Research points out that gossip serves to enforce group norms,” they write, “allows for indirect social comparisons, increases intimacy of social bonds, communicates information, clarifies group membership, and enhances perceptions of power, status, or esteem.”
Gossiping, according to one of their sources, is “the core of human social relationships, indeed of society itself.”
I play along with John’s sister Evelyn and his mother, whose gossip definitely enforces group norms, is filled with information and social comparisons, and functions as a form of social bonding. I ask questions, I express surprise, I bond. I’m genuinely interested, even though I never generate new information myself. What these conversations say to me about group membership, though, and maybe to them too, is that I’m not really one of them.
I’m skeptical. They can probably hear it in my tone.
I don’t talk about the same things.
Some of them have pretty good jobs, but the women in John’s family define themselves differently than I do. They have kids, or they’re planning to have kids. They think of their husbands’ careers as primary, their own as secondary, even temporary. They don’t talk about their work. They’re not ambitious. They don’t read. Not even the newspaper, as far as I can see. Correction: they read women’s magazines and parenting blogs.
John’s enormous extended family is mostly Catholic, much larger than mine, which is sort of Catholic too, but not exactly devout. An only child who grew up with no relatives in the vicinity, I’m amazed by his family, which is constantly exchanging confidences, and constantly reproducing.
There’s John’s mother, two sisters and their families, cousins and their families, ex-spouses with more children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, some great aunts, godparents, all in close touch. More children on the way. It’s taken ten years for me just to get all the names and nicknames straight. Even though I do flow charts mapping lines of interdepartmental communication for my job, John’s family is a challenge. I keep a box of index cards by the kitchen phone, with a separate list of birthdays so we remember to send cards—to his mom and sisters and their kids at least. I’ll have to add Crissy’s baby when it arrives.
Have I mentioned that I’m not particularly fond of children? I’m not particularly fond of children. They drool. They’re sticky. They’re noisy. They tend to be demanding. They tend to multiply.
Even intelligent women when they have children start to talk baby talk.
“I just had to tell baby, ‘I’m going bye bye now. Time for worky work,’” one of my colleagues said recently. We were at a meeting, sitting at a conference table with about six men. As a feminist I support maternity leave and child care benefits, but really it’s no wonder that some men doubt whether mothers are suited for the professional world.
I travel a lot for my job. Children and babies on planes are one of my pet peeves. They even show up in business class these days.
One time I was flying from New York to Tucson with a screaming baby in the row of seats behind me. Four hours and forty-four minutes! When the flight attendant finally asked the mother whether walking in the aisle might help, the mother said, “It’s too late for that.”
Can’t they give Valium or Ambien to babies? Something? If not, they should stay home.
A shrieking baby or noisy child should be treated the same as any serious disturbance on a plane. An obstreperous drunk. A suspected terrorist. The plane should land and the mother and child should be escorted off (maybe not in handcuffs). Failing that, the flight attendants should open the back hatch and toss the mother and infant out with a parachute.
John understands my feelings completely, but I’m careful not to make comments like that to his sisters, or to my coworkers. Why start people talking?
The article points out that “negative gossip, not positive gossip, is the more effective ‘social glue’ for the creation of intimate social bonds.” Of course that’s why negative rumors spread like wildfire in an office. Some of our best middle managers jumped ship before the last round of layoffs because of rumors. You want to keep your best employees when you downsize, and stay aware of what information is circulating. Establishing some kind of inner circle in advance can be a useful strategy for what the industry calls “change management.” Be prepared for leaks. Members of your inner circle are going to share information with their inner circles. And so on.
The annual meeting at corporate headquarters is in two weeks. I was working on my gossip powerpoint when John’s mom called. We missed the family Christmas party, as we usually do, because it’s such a long trip and we can’t get away from work. There’s always a round of phone calls the next day, though, starting with John’s mother, who’s right at the center of the family’s web of intrigue.
“So how was it?” I asked her. I saved the powerpoint and closed the file, knowing it would be at least an hour before I could get back to it. I scribbled a note to myself: “Consider gossip and reduced productivity?”
“It was nice.” John’s mom always starts slowly. Noncommittal. She said “nice,” though, as if there were a world of unrevealed meaning behind it. Which of course there was.
“Everyone doing okay?”
“Yes, they’re all okay. Robert’s house was nice.”
“They did some work on it this year, didn’t they?”
“A lot of work. Of course they spent a fortune on that kitchen renovation, and now everything is beige, beige, beige. Trina’s not saying what it cost but, believe me, it was plenty. Pale shiny stone, granite or something, top of the line, and the appliances are stainless steel and show fingerprints. Pale tiles on the floor, real tile, not linoleum like Minna’s. All of it beige, beige, beige.”
“But it’s nice?”
“It’s nice.” Then, after a pregnant pause, “Trina looks absolutely haggard.”
“She looks like hell. It’s probably stress from that job of hers. Not to mention all the money they’re spending. Aunt Minna told me, by the way, that Steven was unemployed for three months before he told his wife, and they are hurting, really hurting for money. He didn’t want Robert, his own brother, to know. Robert earns plenty, and there’s the money they inherited from her father. Adrienne—Minna’s daughter, the middle one—is separated from her husband, you know, but Minna didn’t say a word.”
“John mentioned that. Weren’t they in counseling?”
“I don’t know about that. I just talked to Ginny, and it’s over, papers filed and everything. That will be the second divorce in Minna’s family. It’s a shame, really, those young kids.”
“So was Adrienne there?”
“She was there. Not a word about the marriage, and we couldn’t say anything because we’re not supposed to know. Frank’s working late, she said, and Ginny and I kind of looked at each other. Ginny says Adrienne’s already meeting men on the computer, one of those dating services, can you imagine? Ginny knows it for a fact. Adrienne told Rosalind, who told Marilyn, who told Ginny. Marilyn even looked up her so-called profile online, I don’t know how. Adrienne says she likes long walks on the beach. What beach, I ask you? Of course we don’t know this.”
“I hope she meets someone.”
“I don’t know. She’s been around the block. And two kids. What man would want to take that on? Everyone was asking about you, by the way. They all hope you can make it to next year’s party. It’s supposed to be at Evelyn’s, but just between us, I don’t think she’s up to it.”
I’ve got the powerpoint ready, a footnoted quote from The Journal of Social Psychology article, followed by some bulleted points:
“Since gossip is part of every workplace environment, understanding the dynamics of gossip is important if members of an organization are going to be effective and efficient communicators.”1
•The Good Manager Understands the Dynamics of Gossip •Know Who to Tell •What to Tell •When to Tell •How to Tell •How to Predict Who They’ll Tell Next, and What the Effect Will Be •Manage Your Information!
I’ve got some industry anecdotes. Also some pointers on what kinds of information it’s best to withhold, important in both corporations and families.
For example, John and I have never told his mother that I was divorced when we met. We know she’ll be on the phone within the hour saying, “Well, you wouldn’t know it. But believe me, she’s been around the block a few times.” That information will engender more phone calls, and keep circling the block. You know Milgram’s six degrees of separation theory? There are no more than five to seven intermediaries connecting everyone on the planet. Strangers will be nodding their heads. “John’s wife has been around the block. That’s what I hear anyway.”
They’ve already been gossiping for years about our not having kids. I can imagine what they’re saying about me, but I also get it from Evelyn, always happy to pass on the latest tidbit—whether to commiserate with me or upset me isn’t always clear.
“It must be her fault, don’t you think? Maybe that endio-whatever-it-is you get from premarital sex.”
“She’s an only child. Did you know that? Who knows what kinds of problems run in a family like that. It’s just not normal.”
“Minna says it’s this new generation of girls with their college degrees and fancy-schmancy jobs. I hear she earns more than John. That must be a real slap in the face.”
Evelyn leaves plenty of space for me to respond as she repeats the latest, but I try not to take the bait. I know whatever I say goes straight to John’s mother. I’m always sorry later when I disclose information I wasn’t planning to. John says they’re all too nosy, and I have to agree.
I didn’t say anything when Evelyn sent me an article from some parenting magazine about how to get pregnant when you’re over 30. Cut down on alcohol! Red wine is actually good for you! Take your temperature every day! Join a support group! Use the missionary position!
Finally she asked me. “Did you get the article?”
“Oh, I forgot. Thank you so much,” I told her. “I should look around for a support group.”
Support for what, I didn’t specify. John and I had a good laugh about his sister’s missionary missive for reproduction and the advice in the article about the missionary position.
“Maybe we should start going through the Kama Sutra instead,” he suggested. “I mean if we get tired of the missionary position.”
“Shared secrets are good for a marriage.” I read that in some magazine at the hair salon. It makes sense. If sharing secrets is a potent form of bonding and group membership, then shared secrets must create an unusually strong partnership, right?
Next year they’ll all be descending on our house for John’s fortieth birthday and the two of us are going to have to stick together. I’m planning to get the kitchen done over—white, white, white, with marble countertops and black and white tiles for the backsplash—so I’ll have something to talk about with John’s mom and the rest of his family besides my mysterious infertility.
I’ll frame all the family snapshots they’ve been sending and put them on the mantel. Babies, babies, babies. Crissy will have had hers by then, and the women will spend some time talking about whether the baby looks like Crissy or the father. I’ll take my cue from John’s mother, since babies never look like their parents to me. They look like babies, very similar to each other, though some are fatter than others, and some have more hair.
I can predict what they’ll say about the kitchen.
“What made you choose black and white?” Evelyn will ask, wide-eyed and friendly. She’ll keep her doubts about the choice to herself until I’m not in earshot.
“It’s nice,” John’s mother will say. “Of course it’s going to need extra cleaning.”
I’m not going to mention that we have a woman who comes in to clean every two weeks. Why court trouble?
“Aren’t contractors the worst? They never finish when they say they will.” Evelyn will launch into a series of stories about the experiences of her friends. And the plumber who kept missing appointment after appointment when she urgently needed him.
“I’ll bet this cost a pretty penny,” John’s mother is bound to say. She disapproves of spending money on principle. “So does John like it?” Because of course I’m the spendthrift, and poor John has his hands full.
Here’s something I won’t be talking about. John had a vasectomy for our fourth anniversary, and we celebrated with a romantic trip to Hawaii. Don’t tell anyone. That’s just between us.
1. Sally D. Farley, Diane R. Timme, Jason W. Hart. (2010). “On Coffee Talk and Break-Room Chatter: Perceptions of
Women Who Gossip in the Workplace,” The Journal of Social Psychology, 150 (4), 361.