In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Darling, Do You Think That We Should Gossip?

Gossip displays your interest in other people.

"The nice thing about egotists is that they don't talk about other people." (Lucille S. Harper)
"There isn't much to be seen in a little town, but what you hear makes up for it." (Kin Hubbard)

Typical gossip is an idle, relaxing activity whose value lies in the activity itself and not the achievement of external ends. It is effortless and, like games, often helps people to relieve their daily tensions. As my high-school literature teacher used to say, "Gossip is not that bad; at least it shows that you are interested in other people."

One reason for the relaxing nature of gossip is being able to talk about what is really on our minds. People indulging in gossip do not want to ponder deeply on the content or consequences of what they say. Sometimes gossip seems to be talk for the sake of talking. When people are involved in serious, practical, and purposive talk, they are not gossiping, since gossip is an idle frivolous talk. Aldous Hugley described a gossip as a professional athlete-if the tongue.

It is important to distinguish between gossip and spreading unsubstantiated rumors. When recounting a personal affair that one has witnessed, one is engaged in gossip, but the information conveyed is substantiated. Since the typical content of gossip is usually behind-the-scenes, intimate information, it is indeed hard to verify it. Lack of substantiation is not, however, an essential element of gossip, but a byproduct of the confidential nature of the information conveyed. This unsubstantiated characteristic is more typical of rumors; indeed, it forms part of their definition. Moreover, unlike gossip, spreading rumors is essentially a purposive activity having mainly an extrinsic value. The derogatory connotation of gossip is by and large due to the failure to distinguish gossiping from the spreading of rumors.

Gossip satisfies the basic need to acquire information about the personal and intimate aspects of other people's lives. Such information is very interesting and gives rise to emotional attitudes, and there are very few other ways to satisfy this need. Although intimacy plays an important role in our lives, we remain quite ignorant about how it works in other people's lives. Candid and open self-description is rare and limited to very few close friends. Gossip is an enjoyable way to gather information that is otherwise hard to obtain, and it satisfies a personal curiosity concerning people who are of particular interest to us.

Gossip satisfies a tribal need, namely, the need to belong to and be accepted by a unique group. (One meaning of "gossip" is indeed "being a friend of.") The sharing of intimate and personal information and the intimate manner of conveying this information contribute to the formation of an exclusive group with intimate and emotional ties between its members. Most people like to gossip now and then: it is a form of enjoyable social communication that usually revolves around information not yet widely known and therefore intriguing. The information, which is sometimes negative, generally concerns people who are not there to hear it. (As George, in the television series Seinfeld said: "I'm much more comfortable criticizing people behind their backs.")

Both emotions and gossip express our interest and involvement in the lives of other people, albeit in a more profound way in the case of emotions. In the same way that abolishing emotions means abolishing both negative and positive emotions, abolishing gossip would mean abolishing all types of conversations about other people. Emotions and gossip express our sensitivity toward other people; abolishing them would lead to our indifference toward other people. I would rather live in a society whose members have positive and negative attitudes toward me than in a society whose members are indifferent to me. Caring about someone does not always mean showing a positive attitude toward that person's deeds.

The enjoyable and interesting elements in gossip stem not merely from acquiring novel information, but also from the content of this information. Like emotions and jokes, gossip often includes unexpected features. Thus, the sexual life of a priest, or even of our next-door neighbor, makes for juicier gossip and more intense emotions than the exploits of a prostitute. Likewise, the romance between a very old woman and a very young man is more likely to arouse interest and emotion than that between two people of a similar age. This gap between reputation or conventional behavior and actual behavior is what makes gossip interesting.

One important difference between emotions and gossip concerns the practical nature of emotions and the nonpractical nature of gossip. Gossip is typically relaxing and effortless, since it relieves us of daily tensions; emotions are typically tense and require most of our resources, since they deal with changes with which we are not sure how to cope.

Contrary to its popular reputation gossip is not basically concerned with detraction, slander, or character assassination. Negative information may be better remembered, and hence the illusory impression of its dominance. In some cases, gossip may indeed involve exaggerated or distorted information, but usually the gossip does not deliberately convey false information. This, however, does not mean that gossip is a virtue.

Undoubtedly, gossip has a bad reputation. Although such moral condemnation is not entirely groundless, it is most valid in extreme cases when a person or group of people constantly occupy themselves with negative gossip. The Jewish prohibition against all forms of gossip, including that between husband and wife, stems from the assumption that loose talk may easily become loose living; just as idle talk about sex may turn into loose sexual conduct.

To a certain extent this fear is justified, though the same can be said of literature and movies. If my view that typical gossip satisfies basic human needs and is mostly harmless is correct, then gossip cannot be very reprehensible from a moral viewpoint.

Such a view can be encapsulated in the following view that an imaginary beloved might express: "Darling, from time to time please gossip with me. Gossip involves social interaction between us and in this sense it is better for us to gossip together than for you to sit by yourself, watching football and drinking beer. On the other hand, perhaps there are other activities that we can do together, beside gossiping and watching television."

Adapted from The Subtlety of Emotions and Good Gossip

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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