Gossip: a natural history

Show me someone who never gossips, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t interested in people. Barbara Walters

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.  This has sometimes been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but without a definite citation.

The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.  Oscar Wilde

No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.  Bertrand Russell

If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me. Mrs. Alice Roosevelt Longworth


Gossip is all around us. And I don’t just mean housewives chitchatting outside the supermarket, tabloid sex scandals or those awful programmes about celebrities on TV. If you could overhear a group of academics chatting in the staff room, chances are that they would be gossiping about their colleagues rather than discussing the latest research findings or the meaning of life. We are gossip machines. Academic research on conversations show that about two thirds of our conversation time is dedicated to social gossip. This has been replicated throughout the world in many different cultures

       Gossip has not generally had a good press. St. Paul called it a sin against charity. We know about its negative connotations but we enjoy participating in this group nastiness. Many people say that all history is basically well told gossip and it is undoubtedly an important weapon of political power. Does it survive because we get pleasure from scurrilous rumours or does it actually serve a purpose?

        Our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small communities where they knew everyone else face-to-face. They had to cooperate in order to protect themselves against external groups. But they also had to compete for limited resources within their own group. Living under such conditions, it was important to be able to distinguish between a reliable exchange partner and a free rider, find a good mate, and navigate friendships, alliances and family relationships. People who were fascinated with the lives of others would enjoy more success, and it is their genes that have come down to us through the ages. It was those individuals who possessed the ability to evaluate the temperament, predictability and past behaviour of individuals who are personally known to you that had an evolutionary payoff rather than those who were capable of abstract statistical thinking about large numbers of unknown strangers.

What is the function of gossip? If you look on Wikipedia, you will find a list of functions that gossip performs:

  1. normalise and reinforce moral boundaries in a speech-community
  2. foster and build a sense of community with shared interests and information
  3. build structures of social accountability
  4. further mutual social grooming (like many other uses of language, only more so)
  5. provide a mating tool that allows (for example) women to mutually identify socially desirable men and compare notes on which men are better than others.
  6. be used as a form of passive aggression, as a tool to isolate and harm others
  7. provide a peer-to-peer mechanism for disseminating information in organizations.

We seek the type of information that will influence our social standing relative to others. We have a predisposition towards negative news about high-status people and potential rivals because we can exploit this to improve our relative position. We also prefer gossip about members of our own sex and age because they are our natural evolutionary competitors.

 We have this prehistoric mental equipment with which we have to deal with the modern world. Modern technology has completely revolutionised gossip. Gossip has moved away from its local roots to be about people we have never met. Our minds are being bombarded with  this macrogossip and our brains seem incapable of distinguishing between these celebrities and people who really have an impact on our lives. In a fast-moving  somewhat impersonal industrial society, celebrities have become our ersatz friends and acquaintances. They provide a common interest and topic of conversation between neighbours and co-workers, people who otherwise might have little to say to one another.

I have to say that this recent exponential growth of celebrities has passed me by. I can enjoy gossip but in very small doses. I can’t stand those sycophantic Hello stories – The Duke and Duchess of York Grant Us the Most Personal of Interviews and for the First Time Ever Throw Open the Doors of Their Home and Invite Us to Share Their Intimate Family Moments. Pass the sick-bag, please! (In fact there is a phenomenon, known as “the curse of Hello!” – a curse so powerful that the minute a couple appears in Hello!, especially if they are talking about how blissfully happy they are, divorce is inevitable.) I want real scandal, preferably with a bit of sex thrown in.

       There is nothing per se wrong with gossip; it depends on the intention behind it. However I do dislike that censorious gossip particularly that which seeks to condemn other people’s sexual mores. I think that it’s bad but that doesn’t mean I will be able to control my natural curiosity to find out more about the scandal. So the next time you find yourself attracted to some inane story about Paris Hilton or David Beckham, relax and enjoy this guilty pleasure. It’s what makes us human.


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