Gossip has a bad name, as does rumor, innuendo, leaks and many of the other quick and dirty ways we have of disseminating information. We reject the idea of gossip because it is irresponsible. But that’s just another way of saying that it is not subject to the usual restraints we impose on our social discourse.
When we gossip we don’t check for accuracy, or think through the consequences. We don’t stop to examine our motives or reflect on our goals. We disregard collateral damage. It’s like a garage sale of the mind, allowing us to impulsively put on display the facts and feelings we want to get rid of.
All the advantages are with the seller. The object of gossip is exposed and vulnerable, while the source is protected. The “news” spreads anonymously, enjoying the privilege of always seeming inside information. That makes it dangerous. Not only can the facts be wrong, but also the intent can be malicious. Speculators can manipulate this unregulated information for their own ends. And they can settle old scores with impunity.
But researchers now are exploring another side, the benefits to the consumers of gossip, as reported recently in The New York Times</span>. A sociologist at the University of California found that “gossip can play the role of protecting others from being exploited by passing on information about bad behavior to warn others.” (See, “The Virtues of Gossip”) According to the author of the study, “We sometimes need to trade information with third parties about people who aren’t around.”