Being (A Responsible) Judgy McJudgerson & Keeping Your Friends On the Road to Financial Independence

This is likely the burden of the newly converted everywhere – a zealous urge to spread the WORD! In the recently converted Frugalist, this urge manifests itself in an annoying tendency to tut-tutt our fellow Man’s (and Woman’s) spending habits.

Grasshopper Confessional

There’s a certain guilty satisfaction to gossiping about the latest financial misstep of a friend or an acquaintance. The Grasshoppers found ourselves doing this over the weekend, and it struck me that (a) it did not make us very good friends, and (b) we were likely doing this to pat ourselves on the back for our comparative frugality. Not pretty, but oddly satisfying.

My first urge was to write a sanctimonious post in which I regaled you with my evident failure, and promised to be a better person. I might even share the benefits of such a path to Enlightened Frugality (sans judgey-ness), or discuss the ways in which I achieved it. But, I began to wonder if comparing ourselves to our contemporaries is a form of personal cheer leading that should be encouraged (if done responsibly) rather than smothered.

“Gossip is what no one claims to like—but everyone enjoys.” – Joseph Conrad

(the guy who wrote “Heart of Darkness” for everyone wondering “Who on earth is that?” )

After some feverish googling (I’m using it as a verb based on the undisputed authority of The Urban Dictionary :P) I found an article from Psychology Today confirming my suspicions. Apparently, gossip “is a commentary on our own lives, as it reveals how we assess others. And it is a way of sharing information and judgments upon others. It is talk about others—what they do and why they do it. In gossip we set moral boundaries.”

communication, mobile phone, nokia

In gossiping about how we assess others, we set boundaries about how we want to behave. Fascinating! But, of course, too much of a good thing can go bad.

“A piece of gossip,” researchers argue “is an opportunity to find out how someone did something right, or something wrong, and learn from the example. Learning how to live with others is something that continues throughout life—once you’ve learned not to eat paste, you can graduate to more nuanced lessons of human behavior.”

As the study explains, “by hearing about the misadventures of others, we may not have to endure costs to ourselves,” by making the same mistake. And because negative stories tend to stick better in the mind than positive stories, it makes sense that gossip about people who violated norms would be more instructive than gossip about people who are really great at norms.

Interestingly, another study found that sharing a negative opinion of a person with someone is better for bonding with the listener than sharing a positive opinion with them.

I wonder if by gossiping, Mr. Grasshopper and I are in fact reinforcing our compact to travel this path together?

“With Great Power There Must Also Come — Great Responsibility”

The flip side of the judgey coin is the tendency to get self-righteous about our shiny new frugality, or gossip about friends who don’t reach our ideals of purposeful spending. The obvious damage this can do is to cost the gossiper friends.

Here’s the classic The Gossip, a midrash as retold by Marcia Lane, found in Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope: Stories, Storytelling, and Activities for Peace, Justice and the Environment. A man in a small village was a terrible gossip, always telling stories about his neighbors, even if he didn’t know them. Wanting to change, he visited the Rabbi for advice. The Rabbi instructed him to buy a fresh chicken at the local market and bring it back to him (the Rabbi) as quickly as possible, plucking off every single feather as he ran. Not one feather was to remain. The man did as he was told, plucking as he ran and throwing the feathers every which way until not a feather remained. He handed the bare chicken over to the Rabbi, who then asked the man to go back and gather together all the feathers he had plucked and bring them back. The man protested that this was impossible as the wind must have carried those feathers in every direction and he could never find them all. The Rabbi said, “That’s true. And that’s how it is with gossip. One rumor can fly to many corners, and how could you retrieve it? Better not to speak gossip in the first place!” And the Rabbi sent the man home to apologize to his neighbors, and to repent.

I’m sure the Grasshoppers’ desire to talk to our friends about personal finance with evangelical fervor is tough enough on our relationships without adding to their minds the niggling feeling that we might be judging them.

At the same time, gossip is not going to go away. So, how am I going to gossip for maximum positive effect?

Well, “researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that hearing good stories about others provided motivation for self-improvement; even when the gossip is negative, there is often a positive outcome for those being “targeted.” The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that when people know others may gossip about them, they are more likely to learn from a bad experience and reform their behavior by cooperating more in future group settings.”

Because I don’t particularly want to make my friends and family live in fear of what we might be saying behind their backs, I’m going to try to participate in more positive than negative gossip. Where there’s an urge to gossip negatively, the Grasshoppers commit to being more gentle. But at least now I know that I may inadvertently be helping a pal out even when I’m being snarky. 🙂


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