Ethical Wisdom

The examined life.

To Gossip Is Human: Why We Share Secrets

Gossip is natural, human, and indispensable.

       The most painful breakup of my life occurred when four of my best friends dumped me, simultaneously, over an incident involving gossip. Though I meant no harm by this slip of the tongue to a best friend who -- I assumed -- knew this story, too (since he was better friends with the source than I was), I instantly became persona non grata, the big mouth, the scapegoat, the not-to-be-trusted. This group of best buddies shut me out of their lives overnight, sending me into a year of therapy where I questioned my worth as a human being, and someone to whom others might risk telling secrets.
       The hardest part was knowing that I meant no harm. The second hardest part was knowing what gossip hounds each of these ex-friends was, too, and how much we'd enjoyed comparing notes, rarely with malice (because we were friends) but more in the way of a family getting the full 360. We aired grievances behind one anothers' backs, shared concerns and intimate knowledge. We talked about one another for years before they suddenly turned on me, but their tar-and-feather outrage gave them moral amnesia, as if I were suddenly one of Them, and they were Us, and nothing would tear down that wall again.
       This infuriated me. I knew that my exile had less to do with the heinousness of my offense than with the irksome secret I had shared, but I sure as hell couldn't say that now. "They shot the messenger," my therapist told me, explaining that when guilt exists in any group, somebody's head has to roll in order to relieve the collective conscience.                                                                           Consumed by the need for justice, I decided to try to understand gossip: what it is, where it comes from, and why human beings enjoy it so much. The data turned out to be fascinating. According to anthropologists, gossip has been an integral to human survival. In fact, human language developed specifically to enable us to gossip. Since the time of early man, our ancestors have used gossip as a social controlling device to keep one another in line.  Language had evolved as a replacement for physical grooming, originally; the leap from picking each others' lice to biting each others' backs seems to have come naturally to our nosey species. Since then, gossip has been an indispensable method for policing one another, helping us to monitor good and evil as well as prevent physical conflict. That's because gossip is our first line of defense before violence in the exertion of social control. Before we punch someone in the face, or torch his house, we can always ruin his reputation.                                                                                                                Humans use language primarily to talk about other people, to find out who's doing what, who's sleeping with so and so's husband, who cheated whom, who behaved heroically or who caved in. This is because individuals who were able to share information had an advantage in human evolution. Our ancestors surmised that, in a gossipy world, what we do matters less than what people think we do, so we'd better be able to frame our actions in a positive light. As ultra social creatures, we're also ultra-manipulators, fabricators, and competitors for the driver's seat; gossip created "a runaway competition in who could be master of the art of social manipulation, relationship aggression and reputation management" in human society, as E. O. Wilson tells us. We also learned to prepare ourselves for other people's attempts to deceive, compete against, and manipulate us. A good reputation is social collateral, and gossip is key to how we protect it. As a moral controlling device, it allows us to save face and cast aspersions on others. We are not autonomously moral beings, after all. The more closely people live together, the more they care; the more they care, the more they gossip; and the more they gossip, the more language can serve its ethical function. "Gossip paired with reciprocity allows karma to work here on earth, not in the next life," psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written.                                                                                 In other words, gossip is natural, human, and indispensable.  It just depends on how you do it. These four friends apologized to me in the end.  Six months after my therapy ended, they told me that they were sorry for turning me into the scapegoat. I was both happy and sad when this happened, vindicated as well as bereft, knowing that we would never be quite as close again.  I miss it.  

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Mark Matousek is the award-winning author of two memoirs, Sex Death Enlightenment (an international bestseller) and The Boy He Left Behind. more...

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