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Wednesday 24 Jul 2024

The Up-side of Lies
dr george pollard

Rumours are lies. Gossip's more factual. Mix rumour with gossip, lies with fact, and you get an urban tale. An urban tale is a fancy lie, littered with factual local detail to make it gripping. Urban myths remind us what we hold important. Urban legends advise we be careful. Most urban tales are part legend and part myth.

Rumours are lies. When fact or truth sneaks into a rumour, a change occurs. In half the blink of a cosmic eye, rumour becomes gossip. Gossip is what we do all the time. "How's it going, Jack?" The question begets endless tales of joy or woe, sports analysis or grumblings about life.

Truth, as we see it, reflects in gossip, which is factual. Similar to beauty, truth is in the mind of the beholder. Believe something is true or real and you'll act as if it is; this is a basic premise of sociology.

People, places and events are the stuff of rumours; the content of rumours knows no limits. Gossip is mostly about people. News is thus gossip, and a topic for another column.

Gossip carries essential social information. We find out who's who and what's what when we gossip. "Yes," says Leanne, "you're right; Harper's the son of Satan come to try to destroy Canada." Gossip also gives us a chance to test our ideas or opinions. "Yeah, and shrub junior is the stupid son of Satan," says Kelly. "Wasn't there a movie with this plot? I think Adam Sadler was in it." Gossip, says Robin Dunbar, is the glue that binds our social connections.

Women gossip, but men gossip a lot more than do women. Chatting is mostly gossip. We spice our chat with rumour. Men add facts to their gossip; it makes them seem important.

Blending rumour with gossip, lies with fact, creates urban tales. These are the campfire stories that scare the socks off twelve year olds, on a quiet summer night. Here's a well-known example:"There was my uncle, the one who lives in New York City - you met him summer before last - standing on the subway platform at Bowery Station. Remember, we took the J-line to the same station when we went to "The Fab Faux," at the Bowery Ballroom. Anyhow, a train had jumped the track and crushed a man against the wall. He, the man, was still alive and talking with the cops, but if they moved the train, he'd die. He'd eventually die, anyway, even if they didn't move the train. Nobody knew what to do. Somebody gets his id, calls his wife and she rushes to the Bowery Station. Finally, they decide to move the train. Just before they do, his wife bends down and gives him one last, long kiss goodbye. The train moves; the man goes into shock and dies right there. My uncle saw it all and told my mother. She told me."

The story is hogwash, a version of "The Last Kiss" urban tale. There are a dozen or more versions of this tale circulating.

There's no evidence anyone died this way. The tale always involves somebody talking about what she or he heard. "Hey, remember Jack, from Glynn Street? I ran into him, today. He told me about what his uncle's friend said; he saw a weird accident in the Boston subway, last year." No subway instance is confirmable. It's a storyline for "CSI."

An EMT told a version of "The Last Kiss," in a documentary movie, several years ago. Efforts to confirm the tale failed. When tracked down, the EMT came clean, "the tale was bogus," he said. "The [film producer] told us he wanted interesting stuff from the job. I'd heard ["The Last Kiss"] a lot, and thought it was what he wanted." A version of this tale circulates in every city with a subway.

If you go looking for an eyewitness, you won't find one. Randomly stopping people on the street produces scores of women and men who know somebody who told them about the incident. No one witnessed it. As Nero Wolfe would say, "It is pure hooey." This part of the tale is rumour.

Gossip embroiders rumour in urban tales. New York City is real. It has a subway, with a J-line. The Bowery Ballroom is at six Delancey Street. If you ride the J-line to the Bowery Ballroom, you get off at Bowery Station. "The Fab Faux" often performs at the Bowery Ballroom. The teller of the tale has a mother. He likely has an uncle, too. Fifteen million people live in New York City.

The hearer may have met Uncle Jim, summer before last. He may have taken the J-line to Bowery Station. He may have gone to the Bowery Ballroom to see "The Fab Faux." Who's to say it isn't so?

Rumour packed in trivial local fact is an urban tale. The truth of the facts makes the lies more believable. These tales are fancy stories, and no more.

Local detail makes urban tales compelling. The Bowery Station on the J-line stops in front of the ballroom. The station is in SOHO, the area south of Houston Street. Kenmare Street turns into Delancey at Bowery Avenue. Bowery Avenue turns into 4th avenue, which becomes Park Avenue at Union Square.

Facts pile on fact. Listing certifiable facts tied to "The Last Kiss" likely makes you wonder if the tale is true. Fact distracts from the rumour, the lie, making the tale all the more believable. Cow pies baffle brains is an old saying, with more than a hint of truth.

If you're not from New York City, you likely know of these city markers. Many television shows and movies film in New York City. Any episode of "Law & Order" will refer to one or more of the facts used in this version of "The Last Kiss."

The more detail, the more real the story seems. The more real it seems, the more likely you are to pass it along. When you pass the tale along, it's always to a friend, not a stranger or somebody you don't care for. At the least, passing the tale along enriches a friendship. In addition, you'll usually top up the tale, in your own way.

In this way, urban tales bring people closer to together. Passing along an urban tale is akin to giving a gift. The giver is saying, "You're my friend. I want you to know what I know."

When somebody gives you a gift, you return his or her kindness. The return may be as simple as a sincere "Thank you, it's wonderful," and a big hug. It may be passing along a new urban tale you heard. The constant exchange of these tales helps keep social relations going, and the tales building.

Don't have a subway in your town? Change subway to bus, taxi or trolley. No matter, whomever you tell will likely say, "Holy karumba!" The meaning is in the act of telling somebody the story, not the content.

Gossip blurs rumour with facts. Urban tales combine action and content, rumour and gossip. You tell a friend tells the story; she or he suspends disbelief for that reason. This is fibbing for fun, and social solidarity.

Friends won't sweat the facts. They're happy you're telling them the tale. A good pal is hard to find; scuffling over the truth of the story isn't worth the grief. If they do sweat the facts, you may wish to rethink their friendship.

Urban tales focus on an event. "The Last Kiss" is an event. The event drives the tales and who passes it on to whom, when, where and how.

The event focus carries social messages. Urban legends are about action; do this, don't do that. There are limits to what medical science and services can do to help you is one message of "The Last Kiss." Survival or salvation is largely up to you. Always be careful in public is another warning in "The Last Kiss." The need for closure is another message of this legend.

Urban myths are general and help us mull key ideas and beliefs. "The Last Kiss" is about love. The man hangs on until his wife arrives to express her love before he dies. The wife rushes to show her love, one last time. Love is the stuff of melodrama. We give everything for love. We do anything for love. Love, of course, is why we get in so much trouble.

Urban legends advise wariness. Be careful; don't trust strangers or big companies. Many urban myths retell old ideas about women and men. Caution is the message for women; men are in control and should take risks, but must remain cautious. Naive examples, but the point is clear.

Many tales are about theabduction, torture and sacrifice of children by Satanic Cults. Many believe the claims, deeply. Once in a long while, somebody with slight ties to a Satanic Cult abducts a child. The case gets plenty of media attention. More often than not, the abductor is a parent in a harsh custody battle. The media splash the cult angle, which sticks, and pass on parental concern, which comes out later.

These tales traffic in beliefs. Those who share the beliefs also share beliefs about Satan and God. They chop life into good and evil. Cults exist and are evil. The state is weak, unable to keep children from vanishing without a trace. The tales are never self-critical or skeptic, but preach to the converted. Facts to the contrary get in the way; the rumour is all.

Myths are a basic part of social relations. We tell one another what we believe important. The act of relaying our beliefs preserves and protects our beliefs. The more often heard, the more likely remember. We want to share what we remember. The more likely believed the more likely acted on. Watch an episode of the HBO series, "Rome," to confirm this fact. Telling and retelling myths is a social responsibility.

Most urban tales are part legend and part myth. "The Missing Kidney," is an example. A man travels on business to a large city, say, Miami, and stays in a five-star hotel. Bored, he wanders into the hotel bar for a drink and chats up an attractive woman. When he wakes up, he's in a bathtub filled with ice and covered in blood. The woman spiked his drink. A skilled surgeon removed a kidney, while he was out. A well-timed call to 911 saved his life.

The values stressed in this urban tale are safety, health and fidelity, among others. The advice is wariness, especially in the big city. A fancy hotel is no protection. Drug use is dangerous. Don't travel alone. There are many social clues in this tale.

A responsible friend wants the best for you. She or he tells you what they heard. To do otherwise would be irresponsible. What they tell you shapes and strengthens your connections with them, and your picture of the world.

The message in rumours and urban tales, legends or myths, is who tells whom what. Telling tales reveals we share a social base. You know it's the telling, not the tale, that's important, but others may not. Telling tale is an act of oneness. We don't share with strangers; they lie to deceive us and take advantage. This is the upside of lies.


Jan Harold Brunvand (1999), "Too Good to be True: the colossal book of urban legends. Norton.

Robin Dunbar (1996), "Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. Faber.

dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

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