“There’s a man living locally, an expat man, and rumour has it that he’s holed up here because he’s on the run from the authorities back home. Apparently he was involved in some heinous crime. Theories abound as to the nature of his alleged crime – ranging from fraud to a bank heist – with some people assuming that his shaven head is a clear indicator that there was violence involved in the crime he undertook.
Actually, he’s an innocent man – neither charged with nor guilty of any crime anywhere in the world. He’s not ‘holed up’ here as a result of being on the run, and he is also blissfully unaware of the rumour mill that went into overdrive the day he inadvertently got the chief gossip-monger’s back up when he snubbed her fairly obvious flirtatious advances at an expat party. Oh and his head is shaved because he’s going bald by the way.
How do I know all of this? Because I am his wife! I have also managed to make friends with some very decent expats who warned me all about the rumour mill that turns in this town, and who the chief suspects are when it comes to gossip creation..”
The above scenario is an extract from an email sent to me by an Escape From America Magazine subscriber who was clearly very distressed at the misery being caused by the spreading of false information about her family. Sadly the above story is not unique – neither to where this family lives, nor to expat communities the world over. In fact, I would like to throw a theory into the mix today, and discuss why expat communities are seemingly such a hotbed of gossip and rumour, and whether ‘tittle-tattle’ is an innocent way to pass the time of day, or a malicious and manipulative way to win friends and alienate people.
Why Do We Gossip?
Gossiping is a way of communicating and of passing the time of day with friends and acquaintances. In small doses and about innocent or positive subject matter it can be a fun thing to do. I like to gossip, I also like to read about celebrity gossip as a means of escapism – but I know that there is a very definite line between passing around stories that are a) factually correct and b) not nasty, and making things up or passing on half truths that are bitchy, negative or hurtful.
Unfortunately, not everyone knows the difference and this is when gossiping becomes potentially bad for your health.
Gossip can be used by some people who have an inferiority complex as a way of gaining one-upmanship – along the lines of ‘I know something that you don’t know, which means that I am more important than you/smarter than you/closer to the action than you.’ Such people will use gossip to their advantage, and even be tempted to make things up or embellish the truth to make themselves seem more interesting. Behaviour such as this is very telling about the person spreading the rumours, and it can be quite easy to spot what’s going on when this is the person’s only way of communication.
Gossip can be a direct way to manipulate as well – you come across children who will make things up about other children they don’t like to alienate that child and to manipulate others into disliking that child too. Unfortunately, some people don’t develop socially as they grow up, and they can continue this sort of behaviour into adult life. It is these sorts of people and the gossip they spread that are the most damaging. These people have an agenda that is outside that which ‘normal’ and well-adjusted people are aware of, and so when the gossip starts flowing and people begin to be manipulated by it, they are less likely to know what’s going on.
Do Expats Gossip More Than Most?
When an expat moves abroad for the first time they are cast adrift and they can feel vulnerable because they have left their social support network of family and friends behind. This often leads the expat to make friends quickly with other expats in their community. These may not be the sort of people they would necessarily befriend back home – but the shared expat experience means that they at least have something in common, and any friend is better than no friend when you’re a stranger in a strange land.
Because these friendships form quickly, there is little substance upon which to base communication – there are no shared histories and experiences for example, and so gossiping about the local community is a way for these new friends to bond. The longer established expat may be able to play one-upmanship by providing all the gossip – alternatively they may be able to manipulate their new ‘friend’ into avoiding other people by making up stories about them. Of course, the gossip may just be an innocent way for the longer established expat to introduce the new expat to everyone in their new community, but whatever the reason behind the gossip, it is a form of communicating that is rife within expat communities.
In a scenario like this, gossip can be a powerful tool for the established expat if they want to gain status and the respect of their new friend, and it is certainly a way for these new friends to communicate when they know very little about each other and perhaps have very little in common other than the fact that they are both away from ‘home.’
This sort of behaviour always occurs in an expat community, and I strongly believe that expats gossip more than most as a way of communicating and possibly vying for status.
Is Gossip Always Damaging?
Gossip that undermines, defames or casts another in a negative light is always damaging. And within a small community such as an expat community where perhaps no one has an extended support network of family and friends to lean on, such damaging gossip is even more cruel and dangerous. Those who have an agenda, who like to gossip to gain attention or who will manipulate the truth about others to alienate them will find it much easier to do this in a small community where their voice is more likely to be heard by the majority of people too.
As expat communities the world over are quite close knit with everyone at least aware of the other expats around, such gossiping is very powerful and can create havoc quickly. Additionally, as I have suggested that expats are more predisposed to gossip so that they at least have something to say to one another, such Chinese whispers can be passed on and around and adapted and manipulated and spread like wildfire.
Before you know it, an innocent man is labelled a criminal with a violent past and people are avoiding him on the street. And if that wasn’t bad enough, his children are being gossiped about in school by their peers and teachers who have overheard others talking about the man, and bullying and alienation become issues born from this malicious ‘tittle-tattle.’ It happens – all the time.
How to Handle Gossip
As I have mentioned, I like to gossip – most people do. When it is an innocent exchange of information about a celebrity or a stranger it is relatively harmless and can be a way for acquaintances to pass the time of day, or friends to find a way in to a light hearted conversation over dinner or a coffee. However, if the gossip you’re being exposed to is cruel, damaging, incorrect or perhaps being spread by someone with an agenda, what should you do?
The first thing to note is that further passing on the gossip makes the situation worse. The second thing to note is that if you know the information is untrue or you’re concerned about the effect the gossip may have, you should speak up there and then. If you can stop the lies before they spread, you can perhaps save someone from getting hurt. However, by speaking up or making it apparent that you don’t think these stories should be being spread, you make yourself vulnerable and a potential target for the gossip-monger once your back is turned.
No one likes to be undermined or challenged, and by speaking out that is exactly what you will be doing. However, all you have to do is think about what you would want someone to do if you were the subject of malicious gossip. Wouldn’t you hope that someone would speak out and stop the lies spreading about you?
Gossiping is all about communicating and passing on information – some people do it innocently, others do it because they feel inferior, they are bullies, they want to manipulate others or because they have nothing else to do with their time. As socially well-adjusted and mature adults it is up to us to know when gossiping is acceptable and innocent, and when it is being used by another person for the wrong reason.
We shouldn’t spread stories if we’re aware that they could cause damage to another person – and if in doubt the easiest way to work out what to do is to reverse roles and imagine if we were the person being gossiped about or manipulated by the ‘tittle-tattle.’ Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world where everyone is considerate and thoughtful towards others; we live in a world made up of complex personality types and people who have agendas far away from our own, therefore damaging gossip continues to be made up and spread, and all we can do is our best to ignore it, not spread it further, and help others to see when they are being manipulated by another’s fabrication of the truth.
Finally, if you find yourself tangled up in the inevitable web of gossip that abounds in small communities such as an expat enclave, remember that this week’s ‘news’ will be next week’s history, and that those who lie and manipulate are usually eventually found out – it’s just unfortunate that they can wreak havoc in the meantime.