As the late, great Eleanor Roosevelt said, “great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” Okay, she might have not said that. But someone said it, and it’s become a frequently quoted phrase for those looking for inspiration or decorative wall hangings. Ever since I heard this quote as a child, I’ve had it stuck in my head and tried to follow along with its message: talk about the higher things in life, not just what’s happening, and definitely not about idle gossip.
I’ve recently had an epiphany: this quote is crap.
First of all, “great minds discuss ideas” is a terrible message. Yes, conversations about ideas are exciting, important, and usually consist of a lot of depth. However, you can’t always be talking about philosophical questions or the next world-changing startup—not only is that unsustainable, you will be completely insufferable. And then “average minds discuss events”—what makes an event less worthy of conversation than an idea? They're what's actually happening in the world. Thinking of someone who discusses ideas but not events calls to mind the “intellectual” who is really into 18th-century German philosophy but turns up their nose at current news.
Finally, “small minds discuss people.” This is the one that really gets me, because the clear implication is that gossip and celebrity news is a lower form of conversation. And, well, maybe it is. Talking about people who you’ll never meet, or the personal business of people around you, isn’t going to change the world. However, it’s in our base instincts to be interested in what other people are doing and to enjoy discussing celebrities—otherwise how could it be such a huge industry? Celebrity conversations obviously can and do go too far, but shaming someone because they like People Magazine seems like a bigger waste of energy than reading People Magazine and letting other people enjoy things. “Discussing people” doesn’t have to be a world-changing endeavor. It’s just fun, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.