I co-moderate a large diverse facebook group on intentional communities. Recently someone posted:
Gossip gets embellished as it travels. Things heard second hand should be verified with the speaker. Beware words taken out of context, even if the context is the room next door. Good communities practice all that.
While this is true as far as it goes, it misses the tremendous complexity around the issue of gossip and how important it is to both the culture and success of a community venture.
What is gossip? It is certainly more than an opinion expressed about someone who is not in the room. “Trump is a misogynist racist,” isn’t gossip, unless you are close to him. It is just an opinion. “Cindy is gifted at fixing cars,” almost certainly does not qualify either, as most people think gossip is a negative opinion.
“Paxus is a poor driver.” What if this is something I have said myself and you are simply repeating it? Is it gossip if the target is the source?
Let me propose a harsher definition: Gossip is a critical judgment shared about a person or group, often in conspiratorial or secretive tones, while not directly communicating with the subject of the gossip.
Using this definition one might reasonably be concerned that gossip would have an acidic effect on the fabric of the community. One of the common anti-gossip norms that exist in the communes is if you hear something critical about someone you could ask, “Have you told this to them?” This is the antidote to gossip; being transparent with the subject of the rumor.
Back in the 80s, as I was just becoming aware of community living, when I was making a critical comment about gossip, my dear friend and mentor Crystal replied “Gossip is the fabric of the community,” and it took me a couple of decades to understand what he was talking about.
Even when using the negative it turns out gossip is important for a community to be healthy. Members need to confide in confidants about their frustration with others in the community. Ideally, this is less about spreading rumors and more about seeking advice. “How do I deal with this headachy circumstance?” or “Do you understand their motivations for this strange behavior?” or “I was so upset and they were clueless, what is really happening here?”
In the best light, gossip is the flow of self-critical and self-correcting messages which members share in the lead up to actually addressing the problems. [Where the “self” here is the larger collective one, rather than the individual personal one.] You talk about things which are on your mind with the people who you live with and they help you reflect back on what you should do about it. Recognizing that if you are being critical of another member of your community, you are obligated to get back to them with your concern.
In this way, gossip within a community is different from what happens in the mainstream. If I am being critical or concerned about another member, I have a larger obligation to do something about it than I do if it is a co-worker or random stranger. If you have a substance abuse problem and we live collectively, not only can it blow back on me in a problematic way, but I have made some level of commitment to take care of you. If we are part of the same intentional community and I am worried about your mental health, I can’t casually gripe about it to another member, we have to be considering what our course of action is regarding this problem. Even less dramatic problems other members are experiencing a poor choice of romantic partners or headache with a boss are much more shared in a community setting than when living independently. Gossip in community has more obligation to it.
It is worth pointing out that Twin Oaks does not embrace this culture. In my large commune, if you don’t want to deal with someone you can completely shut down communication with them. This is terrible for clearing gossip but might make it possible for some people who really do not see eye to eye to be able to live together. And because the community is so large these estranged members (including me) just try to avoid each other.
It is worth pointing out that when ex-Oakers founded Acorn with financial assistance from Twin Oaks, this was one of the most important things they wanted to do differently. Acorn (and many other communes) have a communication covenant which makes it the community’s business when members are failing to communicate. When you are designing communities one of the thorniest issues is when do you give power to the collective over the individual members. And gossip is one of the few places you should seriously consider it.