Megan Nicol Reed is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

Megan Nicol Reed: How to know when wagging tongues tell the truth or just hurt

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The Real Housewives  really revealed our propensity as humans for gossip.
The Real Housewives really revealed our propensity as humans for gossip.

Promises I've broken lately:

• Learn to like kimchi.
• Initiate sex more.
• Don't refer to The Real Housewives of Auckland in this column.

Actually until now I'd kept to that last one. Not because I'm particularly opposed to the show. I've rather enjoyed it, to tell the truth. Watching a bunch of mostly silly tits will always have its pleasures. I just figured there'd been enough media fretting over what it said about us as a society. That there was no need to add to the hand-wringing. During the final couple of episodes, though, something occurred to me that caused me to want to break the last of those promises I'd so rashly made. It struck me that what RHOA really revealed about us was not the fact there is a small percentage of the population who can afford to shop at the Gucci store in downtown Auckland, but rather our propensity as humans for gossip.

I used to be scared of gossip. When I partook in it myself or was party to someone else's loose-tongued exchange, I would feel dirty, sullied.

I would vow to stitch my lips together. That I would not lower myself so, would be better than that. And time and time again I would fail. I adore so and so but ... Eventually I realised that not all gossip is bad. That, like most things - politics say, or spray tans - gossip exists on a spectrum, that between the extremes of left and right, light and dark, there are many, many positions; hundreds and hundreds of shades; and that somewhere in among them all lies a happy place.

If you betray a confidence with no purpose besides providing titillation to another, or you maliciously spread a rumour with the intent of damaging reputation, causing ill-feeling, and engendering disgrace, then you are either a bad person or have behaved very badly indeed. There is, however, room in a humane society for gentle talk about the goings-on in the lives of those both near - friends and family - and far - the famous. The grapevine is our way of processing information, of figuring out how things work, and where we fit in the world.

Called in to adjudicate between my small daughter and her friend recently, I thought about that wise old adage: what you don't know can't hurt you. My daughter's friend had told her another girl had said she didn't like her. My daughter was upset, and when I asked her friend why she'd said that, she became upset too. But, she said, I was only telling the truth. And mostly, I said, we should try to tell the truth, but not always. Sometimes it's better to say nothing. The tricky thing is knowing when that is.

It made me think about RHOA and how the agent of so much of the angst that fed the participants' interactions was not actually their relentless airing of each other's dirty laundry, but the strangely infantile compulsion certain housewives felt to tell tales. Because, of course, therein lay the harm.

Following on

Last week I wrote about how best to avoid creating a fussy eater. Katie emailed with her experience of volunteering a few years ago in an impoverished part of rural Italy. "The 2-year-old girl in our host family ate whatever her family ate - everything from stinging nettle soup to barley broth. There was no kids' menu, no whinging, no bribing with dessert." Several readers mistook my appreciation of a staunch approach when it comes to feeding children for a shared sense of dismay at the removal of a parent's right to smack their child. This is not the case.

- Canvas

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Megan Nicol Reed is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

There were many things Megan Nicol Reed imagined she would do in her journalism career. She ticked off feature writer, editor and columnist. She never envisaged agony aunt. Now, when she isn't trying to sort out her own life, she's trying to sort yours. And when she's not doing that she is writing her first novel. In her downtime you'll find her mothering, cooking, running, cleaning and reading. Needless to say she spends much of her life in activewear.

Read more by Megan Nicol Reed

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