It was my 7th birthday party. Twenty little girls clamored to get on swim suits before we drove over to the YMCA to swim on a freezing January day in Virginia. My best friend, Courtney, was riffling through her bag when my arch-nemesis, Molly, walked up behind her and asked if she could borrow a pair of underwear because she’d forgotten an extra pair.
“Why did you bring two pair of underwear?” Molly asked.
“Because I’m spending the night here and I need two.” Courtney responded. Unaware of my presence behind her, Molly began a tirade against me as only as only a 7 year old can, because she hadn’t been invited to spend the night. Who was she to think I was a meanie?!? She is the meanie!
Fast-forward to my freshmen year in high school. As a an awkward, skinny and shy 13 year old, I stood in the back of the bleachers on the stage in our auditorium during our choir rehearsal. On the alto side of the stage, girls started whispering and like wild fire the whispers passed from girl to girl until it reached the soprano side where I stood. The tall girl next to me looked down at me and said, “Missy says you’re a lesbian.” I felt the eyes of 40 girls resting on me for my reaction. I just stared straight ahead. It wasn’t until hours later, on the phone with my best friend, that I allowed the torrid of emotions to be unleashed. I cried for days and begged my mom to let me transfer to another school.
Unfortunately, gossip, rumors and name-calling aren’t something that ends when we grow up. As a teenager and into my 20’s I was always so curious about what people thought about me. I would grill friends on what someone had said about me. I would eavesdrop on conversations that were none of my business. I would wait to open a door to see if people were talking about me. Years of hurt feelings, anger and tears have taught me that listening to what people say about you behind your back is masochistic. And many times they do not even mean what they’re saying.
Of course, I have not only been on the receiving end of harsh words. I will never forget my sophomore year in high school. I was sitting outside my piano practice room with a girl I thought was really cool. I wanted her to like me and be my friend. She asked me about the boyfriend of a friend of mine; my friend was practicing piano down the hall. I launched into a comic description of the boy. Everything I said was truthful but it was also very hurtful to my friend, who, unbeknownst to me, was listening to our conversation from her practice room. Those few misspoken words ended our friendship. She never spoke to me again and transferred schools the next year (not because of me).
There is a sinking feeling when you hear someone say something negative about you. But I do believe it’s worse to find out that a friend overheard or somehow knows what you said behind his or her back. It’s like a ball of lead settles in the pit of your stomach. The guilt is overwhelming. Gossip is painful.
“The sharp tongue is the weapon of
envy and malice. It hides under the
mantle of truth the dagger of
vindictiveness. The trouble with
gossips is that their eyes are never
open and their mouths never shut.”
-Edgar A. Guest
Clove Island has a serious gossip problem. Born out of envy and boredom, it wreaks havoc. Several months ago, I was cooking with two island friends. They were both angry with the women sitting outside our door. They went on a diatribe which culminated in the oh so serious accusation, “Elles sont curieuses!” (They are curious). It’s true. Every time I leave the house I am bombarded with questions.
Where are you going?
What are you going to do? Shopping/work/exercise??
Where is Abby? Etc.
Oftentimes, returning to the house sparks even more questions.
Where are you coming from?
Who were you with?
What did you get?
Did you bring me something?
This seems very normal to me. I am a strange looking, strangely acting foreigner. I’m not married. I don’t live with my family. I don’t have children. I’m pretty old by their standards. Of course they are curious. What does this stranger do everyday? Why is she here? So they watch and ask questions. And they talk…all…the…time. I hear “Jessica” constantly throughout the day. Jessica, blah blah blah. Jessica, ladidadida. I have no idea what they’re saying…yet. I don’t care. They will say what they want to say. If I do something completely culturally inappropriate, I do hope someone will have the courage to tell me to my face. But if they want to talk about how big my butt is (seriously, this was a topic of conversation) or what I ate for dinner yesterday, why should I worry?
I do worry for my island friends, however. Jealously and envy have reached epidemic proportions and spur on much of the gossip. One close friend no longer comes to our home. She gave an innocuous reason but after a discussion with a mutual friend, I am convinced she no longer visits because of the hurtful things she heard my neighbors say about her.
Friends that come must have tough skin. While I can’t understand the conversation that bubbles from outside my windows, they can. And often it concerns them. Women, who know nothing about them, other than they’ve befriended the neighborhood mzungu, pick them apart. Where I used to be quick to invite new friends to visit, I am now cautious.
I am by no means a Clove Island cultural expert after five months here. However, I have gathered the crippling nature of jealously that sparks gossip. It stops an individual from being different; it stifles creativity; it harbors hard feelings and adds to mistrust; it creates an air of secrecy and promotes division. It is not healthy.
“Gossip is the meanest child of an idle brain and a busy tongue. Gossip is the result of the lack of anything worthwhile to say. Gossip is always ready to damn the reputation of him who dares to be different. Gossip is something most folk will listen to but for which no one will assume responsibility.” Robert O’Neal
“Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” James 3:5-8.