“If you have nothing nice to say…come sit by me.”
The late Alice Roosevelt Longworth did have a way with words, and those words truly were embroidered on a pillow she impishly placed in her Washington parlor.
Most guests didn’t have to be encouraged. Teddy Roosevelt’s willful, sharp-spoken daughter was known for her love of gossip—hearing it and passing it along.
Most of us do it, but don’t own up to Mrs. Longworth’s distinct joy in the art. It’s probably pointless to ask people not to—it’s human nature. And for some of us, listening to gossip and sorting through what’s true and what isn’t is our job. (That’s my excuse, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.)
But maybe we should think about a few things before the next time we have the chance to yap-yap:
1) Is it true? If you don’t know, can you find out before you pass along what might be an untruth? And if it isn’t true, can you say so, to discourage further circulation? I don’t know how it started, but that oft-repeated internet gossip about the late Liz Claiborne not wanting to sell to black women was ludicrously untrue. I’m suspecting it hurt business—or maybe she was launching a preemptive strike—because she showed up on Oprah to refute it.
2) Even if it’s true, is it hurtful? And if it is, are you willing to hurt whoever the target of the gossip is? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” can only take you but so far. Then there’s that karma thing. Think about it.
3) A year, three years, five years from now, will what you’re sharing have had any meaningful impact on your life? No? Then aren’t you wasting a lot of mental energy you could be using to do something else?
Alice Roosevelt Longworth lived before the Internet and cell phones existed. She knew a juicy piece of gossip could burn a path through her social set—but she was probably fairly certain it would stay within a certain circle. For better or worse, we don’t have that luxury.
So we should consider thinking before we speak.
Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).
Etiquette Emergency? Write us at AskComeCorrect@gmail.com. And remember that your letter might be published unless you request otherwise.
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).