Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Don't Join The Gossip Mill

March 15, 2004

A zoo built a display tank for porpoises. Unfortunately, it did not include a place for the porpoises to be out of public view. Without privacy, they were highly stressed and exhibited abnormal behavior. Rural communities, like the porpoise tank, have an unusual amount of public display. The constant glare of public display can be just as stressful on people as it is for porpoises.

Noel Perrin in his book, "Second Person Rural," comments, "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 you have is a scoundrel, make inquiries about them one town away."

Who gets hurt by the spotlight? Some rural residents benefit more than others from having a few places to hide. Adolescents, young single adults, and the recently divorced need some privacy to sort out life, values, missteps and relationships. The temporary irrationality, development and emotional turmoil associated with transition times in their lives are normal for the position they are in.

When youthful errors in judgment are exposed to the public, the glare of their mistakes doesn’t need more neon signs but shades and shelters to shield the view. Because it is true doesn’t mean it that it needs to be publicized.

It is not just the young that make mistakes. Everyone has some mistakes in their past that would be embarrassing and humiliating if they were made public knowledge.

People change. One of the miracles of human existence is that people can dramatically improve their lives. Old labels and old history need to be discreetly discarded. People who have matured or have learned form their mistakes don’t need gossips and busybodies picking up their burdens and placing them back on their shoulders.

It is ongoing misbehavior and repeated mistakes need to be confronted. By being too tolerant and accepting, evil, stupidity and wrongdoing are allowed to take place under our noses.

Accepting and appreciating differences. Furthermore, innovative and spontaneous people are not appreciated enough in rural communities. Their strengths are often seen as faults. If anything, they are subject to criticism instead of praise for really being themselves and for being true to their individual talents and gifts.

Being different and taking chances might upset a few apple carts. Some of their actions might be a needed breath of change to a stagnant and intransigent situation. Instead of taking potshots, their ideas and strivings need at least shelter and a fair hearing, if not outright support. It takes great courage to push for change in an environment that is used to tried and true formulas for how things should be done.

Constructing shelters. Like porpoises, rural people need a few places to hide from community scrutiny and judgment. Here a few shelters to consider.

- Don’t rush to judgment. Wait until the facts are in. Give the benefit of the doubt. There are two sides to every story. Wait until you know the other side before passing judgment and caution others to do the same. Even if someone’s weakness is exposed, it shouldn’t obscure their true worth.

- Stop it short. Try a well-timed, "I’d rather not hear about it." Insert a positive comment or a defending statement into the conversation. Change the subject. Show little interest or enthusiasm for the topic. Let conversation die by your body language and disdain for the subject matter. What good comes from passing on information that is scandalous or titillating? Judgments and gossip compound the problem. Don’t pass it on.

- Restrain curiosity. Some things, once learned are difficult to get out of your mind. Once negative information is known, it may color impressions and become an obstacle in the future. There is a saying, "What you don’t know won’t hurt you." Some people need to know, others don’t. When people change, the old information won’t interfere with how people regard each other.

- Be charitable. If another’s imperfections are obvious, be grateful that it is a lesson in life you’ve already learned. You and I have other lessons in life yet to be learned. We all are on different paths. We all have different struggles. "He that is without sin, cast the first stone."

- Keep confidences. Friends and loved ones need the protection of confidential and trusting relationships to work through life’s difficult problems. Husbands and wives need to be faithful confidants to each other. Faithful friends provide a buffer and a sounding board to a friend who needs to sort through feelings and ideas without fear of judgment.

Dinah Marie Murlock expressed it this way, "Oh, the comfort, the unexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person , having neither to weigh thoughts, nor measure words, but pouring them all right out - just as they are - chaff and grain together, certain that the faithful hand will take and sift them and keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away."

In rural communities, there is danger in knowing too much about friends and neighbors. People not only get to see the finished product, but also enjoy a bird’s eye view and memory of the steps and mistakes it took them to get there. Everyone would do better, if like the porpoises, there are a few places to hide.