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This is the title of an essay I’ve read recently by Henry Lawson. I have a great admiration for Lawson. Not only is he among the six great masters of the short story written in English, but he is also a great writer of essays. For those who have not encountered Lawson’s non fiction, here is the essay in question, a humorous piece that invokes discussion, and prompts gossip. It comes from a volume called Autobiographical and Other Writings 1887-1922 edited by Colin Roderick and published by Angus and Robertson in 1972. From these short pieces collected here one can learn a lot about Lawson’s frustrated idealism. He was a Utopian socialist and a Republican, and was disappointed and disillusioned that Australians decided to keep the old inequitable British system when they could have started afresh. In evidence in the essays is Lawson’s astonishingly accurate eye for pictorial detail and ear for colloquial dialogue. I’d like to reproduce another piece called If I Could Paint. Perhaps another time. Unjustly maligned for his mastery of sentiment in his stories, here is Lawson the ironically amused observer, watching, despite his title, both male and female behaviour.
“Lady Lygon, in connection with the Press News, published at the bazaar, recently proposed the astounding, but nevertheless truly feminine question: do women gossip more than men?
“Do women gossip more than men? Of course they do! I’m a man myself, and I know.
“If two men talk for an hour – unless they haven’t seen each other for twenty years – the conversation peters out, and they say, “Ah well! I must be going”. And they shake hands and go.
“But if two women meet, for the first time since yesterday, they can gossip for five hours and be going as strong in the end – perhaps stronger. They gossip down to the front door, and out the gate, and, very likely, down to the ‘bus stand, and they gossip more every step. And they’ll miss the ‘bus, or let it go, so they can gossip till the next one comes. Then one will hang on to the ‘bus, and the other one out of it, till the one has promised the other, for the twentieth time, that if it doesn’t rain she’ll be sure to call around next Wednesday and have a chat – when they’ll be quiet, and have the house and the whole afternoon to themselves. And for the next hour each woman keeps thinking of things she forgot to tell the other woman.
“Now, a man never follows another out unless he wants to tell him something that he doesn’t want the wife to hear – or wants an excuse to get out to the corner pub. and have a drink.
“I notice that a woman’s gossip – when it isn’t about another woman – mostly consists of explaining things; the reason why she couldn’t get out and call round for a chat last week for instance. Now, a man hates to explain things, and never does – unless it’s about a debt, a loan, or a black eye he’s got.
“Two men can sit or lean on the balcony rail or the fence and smoke, and think, without saying anything, for half an hour at a stretch. But I’d like to see two women sit across a four o’clock tea, or hang on a fence – especially one on each side – and think for five minutes.
“But let us be thankful! Woman’s gossip gives a man so many chances to sit quiet, or slip out to see another man, on business. I know. I’m a man myself”.
This was written for the Australian Star newspaper in 1899. That’s what women were like turn of the 20th century.
It’s a comment on human nature, so the behaviour is not likely to have changed much in the intervening time. It reminds me of a sketch by Dave Allen made in the late 1980s. Allen has been out for the day with his family, and all through the return trip is aware his daughter is talking volubly to her best friend, a next door neighbour, along for the outing. Once home, and unpacked, Allen misses his daughter. Where is she, he asks. On the telephone, he’s told. He goes to call her for dinner, and finds she’s talking on the phone to her friend, the one she’s spent the day with. No doubt telling her all the things she’d forgot to tell her during the day. For heaven’s sake, expostulates the bewildered Allen. The bloody girl just lives next door!
Anybody who has ever witnessed a group of girls saying goodbye to each other will know that Lawson is spot on. I live in a block of units and see it often. The group come down the stairs talking excitedly. Out they go to the street. The visitors get in the car. Then the day’s hostess thinks of something she forgot to say. She leans in the car window and tells her friends. Sometimes it’s a long telling, and she has to get in the car and sit down. Sometimes she turns to go inside and her friends in the car think of something they forgot to say earlier. One gets out of the car, and the two talk for a while near the front door. They they walk back to the car, still saying goodbye. One gets in, but leans out to confide something else she forgot before. Finally, to a chorus of goodbyes repeated twenty times, the car gets away and the hostess goes indoors. I wonder if she gets on the phone straight away, or waits for a while. All women these days have mobile phones, and can be contacted virtually continuously. There may still be something they forgot to discuss.
Could this be atavistic behaviour, inherited from neolithic times, when women were the ones who formed the community of humans who eventually became a tribe? Men went off with a big stick and got eaten by those large tigers with teeth like a chain saw and meanwhile women learned to bond together and help each other with the children and the food gathering (and to send the men out to defend them). Cementing that group must have been important. Men came and went, but women were the community.
One of my neighbours, a woman, tells me that gossip is important. She says that if men gossip, it is trivial. But for woman it is important. I imagine she means that apart from what they say, women are asserting something else in the mere fact of their companionship. Would it be solidarity, or reinforcement? Well, I wouldn’t know of course. As Lawson says, I’m a man myself.
Perhaps involuntarily overhearing mobile phone calls gives a clue.
Call 1: man calls friend (man). “Hi. What’re you up to?” The caller expects to be recognised and gives no name. Short and sweet: cool.
Call 2: woman to friend (woman). “Elizabeth? (It’s Elizabeth’s bloody phone for heaven’s sake!). How are you? It’s Elsie here (remember me? We met for morning tea this morning?) I’ve just heard from Mary and she can’t come to supper this evening. Harry’s been in a foul mood and she thinks she’d better stay in for once. You know what he’s like! (Poor Harry. Mary’ll be on the phone all evening to see what supper was like and who ate what, and to complain about Harry again).
Like all conversations there’s a lot more going on in these calls than words. For men it’s typically assertion. I’m all right. I’m in charge. The call may result in social interaction, but not necessarily. Still, the call says, you’re a mate. These assertions don’t need to be talked about. Indeed it’s best not to. Anybody making professions of friendship is bound to be insincere. Or a homosexual. Or wanting to borrow money. That’s why the long periods of silence, also observable between old married couples. Some things don’t need saying.
But what women are up to is still unknown. They don’t tell men. Men wouldn’t understand. Women look vaguely embarrassed when accused of gossiping and that’s all. Maybe they don’t know. Women are much more conventional than men (I’m not saying men aren’t conventional. Of course they are!) so perhaps they act this way because other women do. This is how women behave. The most I’ve found out is that they believe men gossip just as much as they do. But it’s different.
Another clue is that women often talk about what they feel. I’m not sure if the dress suits me. Do I look as overweight as I feel? Remember when we went skating that time and you knocked Bill over (her future husband)?
Whereas men often talk about what they did. Tracked down that noise in the engine (technical explanation follows). Put up that shelf for the wife: she was going to but because she’s left handed she was turning the screws backwards (sighs over female ineptitude). How to get from place A to place B. How many beers one man drank on a night out.
The shorter you keep that kind of stuff when talking about it the more capable you look.
Brings up another point. Do women talk more quickly than men when they gossip? Have you ever been at a party and been stuck between two women motor mouths who don’t need to breathe? A man can begin a sentence in this kind of company, but he rarely finishes it. Whereas women fit their sentences adroitly together. It might not make much sense, but it appears to satisfy the requirements of female gossip.
But Lawson’s question still remains to be answered. Do women gossip? Or is it something more? Are women more adept than men at social networking? Could it be the act of gossip itself that’s important, not the subject matter that men so often deride? Are there some things it’s just impossible to tell a man? Intriguing people, women.
Well, I wouldn’t know the answer to the question of course. As Lawson says, I’m a man myself.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.
Welcome. The essays you'll find on this site are my opinions, my attempt to re-evaluate their subjects. I think the ideas, books, films, music, myths and history explored here are valuable just because they continue to be discussed, so let's hear what you think.