I want to talk about gossip and prejudice.
There’s no room for either of these things, in improv or in real life.
I vehemently hate gossip because I’ve seen it hurt people too many times. Even “good” gossip is bad. (A friend was saying to me that gossip can be advantageous – for example, in the case of a new couple that doesn’t have to go around telling all of their friends that they are dating because the gossip will do the work for them. Then again, this article argues a quite convincing case for “good” gossip.) Gossip is talking about people behind their backs, and often saying things that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to their faces.
This past weekend, gossip flared its ugly teeth. The context was such: I threw a party for my graduate program and our prospective future students. A mass email went out to attendees expressing concern about the “safety” of my part of the neighborhood. I was a little bit uncomfortable that this email had been sent to everyone, because, I mean, I live here. I may be on a student stipend, but I wouldn’t live somewhere where I didn’t feel safe, and I don’t want others to form a negative association about me/my home. To be fair, I do live close to areas where there are high incidences of crime, but I live in a city. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go to bed with their doors unlocked. Still, it was clear that the email was sent in a rush (receipt was spelled “recipe”!) and I wasn’t going to take personal offense to it. The message sender was entitled to her own opinion, and my friends are capable of assessing the situation and forming their own thoughts on the matter.
Shortly thereafter, a mass reply email went out from my friend, Z. She meant well, calling everyone’s attention to the slip, citing statistics invalidating the comment, addressing possible implicit racism/classism which may have caused it, and cautioning us to be careful of the impressions about our neighborhood that we convey to others (particularly potential future students). All in all, I appreciated that she had the guts to say something that, frankly, needed to be said. However, she chose rather strong language for public discourse. I know that she is impassioned by the issue, but sometimes context should preclude passion.
Needless to say, countless responses (some more tense, some more jokey) followed and that email thread was a buzz topic that evening. The thing is that people were saying one thing to Z’s face, and different things to each other! GOSSIP! The worst thing is that I was guilty of it, too! When Z asked me what I thought of the email, I responded sincerely that I appreciated her sending what needed to be sent and that I know she’s passionate about the issue, but chose not to mention the inappropriateness of the strong wording. I am such a people pleaser sometimes I disgust myself! EW! There was nothing wrong with expressing my honest opinion to her. And yet, I didn’t (but I made sure to express it to everyone else who asked me). Yuck. (Dear Z, if you read this, sincerest apologies for not being more upfront in the first place.)
What did I learn from this gross feeling of having facilitated gossip? First, I’m a bit hypocritical (hating gossip, and then perpetuating it). But also, respect is tantamount to conveying delicate and important information to an uninformed recipient. If we had all been respecting one another’s legitimate passions and concerns, the prospective students would have seen a more cohesive program. (And in improv, don’t we want to present a cooperative group to the audience? Don’t we want them to sense that group mind, that we are all on the same page? That’s where the magic happens.)
But I learned more from this situation. If we had all been respecting the different upbringings that our neighbors have had, or the different choices that we’ve all made, wouldn’t we see that even an area that is physically/visually distinct from the rest of the neighborhood is no less safe? For that matter, wouldn’t we see that people are still people regardless of if they live in a “safe” or “unsafe” part of town? The gang members that may live in surrounding neighborhoods still have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, etc. I’m not saying that I’d want to hang out alone near those gangs at midnight (or put myself in obviously unsafe circumstances), but I am saying that if we respected the power of the situation, and the power of the human condition, wouldn’t we be less prejudiced, or at least more aware and more able to consciously check ourselves? Wouldn’t we be more compassionate?
Perhaps I’m being idealistic. Some social psychologists would argue that our prejudices rely on an evolutionarily adaptive aversion to outgroup members, or people unlike us, because they might pose a threat in prehistoric times to our tribe’s safety. They even argue for the automaticity of these prejudiced cognitive processes. But most research conducted on the issue today is inherently confounded by the cultural context in which it is conducted.
I guess my point is this:
“It was Del’s belief that performers needed to have the utmost respect for one another- that if they treated each other like geniuses, poets and artists, they could become that on stage.” In improv, if we respect one another, we can trick audiences into thinking that the crazy flub mistake that just happened on stage had been planned all along, and that the whole group was in on it! We can make people forget that there’s not a script. By treating each other like we’re brilliant, we become brilliant in the audience’s eyes. The audience takes their cues from us, and if we don’t treat any idea as a “bad” or “wrong” one, then bad and wrong ideas simply don’t exist.
It’s the same way in real life. Most of our reality is what we’ve constructed for ourselves. If we respect everyone and every situation as we construct that reality (if we respect Z’s right to know our opinion up-front), then maybe we can avoid “bad” or “wrong” misconceptions about our world. And we can avoid that icky-post-gossip feeling.