Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Life In A Fishbowl - Pass It On

January 2, 1995

"Country people may be more charitable in other parts of the United States, but in New England there is a simple rule to follow - if you don't want to conclude that every neighbor is a scoundrel, make inquiries about them one town away." -Noel Perrin in "Second Person Rural"

Gossip in small communities is a fact of life. Lifelong rural residents usually understand and accept rural gossip as normal. The scrutiny is both good and bad. People from urban backgrounds are usually put off by the lack of anonymity and destructive quality of the gossip without recognizing the way gossip serves important community functions.

The bad part is easy to grasp. What is the good part?

Gossip can be good. There is a delicate social fabric within a rural community. People cross paths frequently and function in many different roles with each other. To avoid conflict, anger, embarrassment, or hurt feelings, people share their observations of the right and wrong way to do things. When people live by the same homogenous code of values, uncomfortable social situations are minimized.

People also want inside information on business dealings and opportunities. Keeping track of what is going on in people's lives may ultimately benefit the pocketbook.

The collective wisdom of the community and farming is exchanged through gossip. "There was the mistake. This is why doing it the other way doesn't work out. This story illustrates that point." Positive and negative management practices are grist for the community mill.

Through talk and gossip, people find out about each other's troubles and dilemmas. Underlying this gossip is a concern for others and their Lives. People are helped and supported quickly without even having to ask.

Rural communities are wonderful laboratories in human nature. A person's whole life history is known to the community plus that of his or her parents and grandparents.

When you know that much about people, it is fun to be an armchair psychologist or sociologist and try to predict reliably how people behave or react to life's circumstances. People grasp any new tidbit of information as a fascinating piece in the puzzle they are trying to solve. Gossip has entertainment value in a community where entertainment is at a premium.

Gossip can be bad. Gossip is bad when it goes beyond being morality lessons and tears down the character of others. Rural people often judge each other harshly and critically as a way of enhancing their own status in the community.

Envy and jealousy drive gossip. Successful people invite scrutiny and delicious discovery of chinks in their armor. When people's lives aren't going as well as they want, bringing someone else down to their level makes them feel better. People who engage in malicious gossip generally have low self-esteem and take comfort in other people's problems.

Gossips need to have a life of their own. They need to be busy with their own lives and being better themselves instead of being distracted by the foibles of others.

Who is talked about? Targets of gossip often include teenagers, young adults, divorcing couples, family problems, people who are having a crisis in their lives, anyone with a secret to hide, conflict between people, successful people. Everybody is talked about - unless their life is unremarkable both literally and figuratively. You have to live your life in a straight jacket to be not talked about.


Rising above malicious gossip. How do you avoid taking part in character assassinations? By not responding or showing interest, sticking up for the party being talked about, leaving the conversation, reminding others that there are two sides to every story and by not repeating what you have heard. By not joining in or by throwing a wet blanket, people won't seek you out to share their new juicy tidbit.

Even if a story is true, telling it can still harm the parties involved. Sometimes human beings need shelter to hide their weaknesses, not a spotlight trained on their every move. Truly charitable people protect others' reputations as best they can.

Coping with life in a fishbowl. Have good self-esteem. Look upon yourself as a growing, learning human being who occasionally makes mistakes. Joke about your mistakes and weaknesses. By doing this, you beat gossips to the punch and take away their fun.

If you try to protect your reputation by keeping a perfect image - pretending to be something you're not - you'll be more interesting to people when your flaws and discrepancies show up. Be yourself and let them talk. If you don't care, they won't either. Learn you can't please everyone.

Much of what passes for gossip are inconsequential differences, not serious flaws. It is OK to be different. Let your personality come out and people will go on to more inviting targets. Have your own circle of trusted confidants where you can give honest opinions without having them come back to you in a negative way.