By Robin Westen, published on July 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
During the past week, I learned that rock singer Rod Stewart prepared for his upcoming world tour with a nip and tuck, O.J. Simpson's co-prosecutors Christopher Darden and Marcia Clark were romantically involved, Mel Gibson faxes dirty to Jodie Foster, and an old college pal of mine is leaving her husband for a man twenty years her junior.
It's been a slippery subject with a sullied reputation. But that's about to change. The latest buzz on gossip is that it's good for us. In fact, when word of mouth stops, then it's time to worry.
This is quite a bounty of eclectic information, but for the average American of the nineties, it's probably not a big haul at all. Gossip, for those millions of us who are interested, is everywhere. At last count, over 40 newspaper columns, dozens of magazines, 50 television talk shows, and three major tabloids are spreading the word. In addition, there's gossip via cyberspace and, of course, good old-fashioned word of mouth.
Although most of us enjoy and engage in it, gossip is a slippery subject with a sullied reputation. The idea of gossip originated with the Old English word "godsibb," meaning "a person related to one in God," or a godparent. Until about the 1800's "gossip" denoted a man who drank with friends and the fellowship they shared, or a woman who was a family friend and helped during childbirth.
Today, gossip is a national growth industry and the dictionary defines it simply as "chatty talk; the reporting of sensational or intimate information." Despite its banal definition, gossip is often perceived as a dangerous weapon, one that can ruin reputations, poison relationships, and halt careers. A gossip can be referred to eruditely as a quidnunc (from the Latin) or colloquially--and disdainfully--as a yenta (from the Yiddish). But social scientists who have researched the subject insist that gossip is more closely related to its seventeenth-century meaning. In the vast majority of cases, they contend, it's beneficial.Gossip serves important social and psychological functions; it's a unifying force that communicates a group's moral code. It's the social glue that holds us all. together.
Gossip is Golden
"If people aren't talking about other people, it's a signal that something is wrong--that we feel socially alienated or indifferent," says Ralph Rosnow, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Temple University and coauthor of Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay.
"For a real understanding of our social environment, gossip is essential," agrees Jack Levin, Ph.D., professor of sociology and criminology at Boston's Northeastern University and coauthor of Gossip: The Inside Scoop. "Its primary function is to help us make social comparisons. For example, if we read bad news about celebrities in the tabloids, or get into the gruesome details of our neighbor's misery over a cup of coffee, our own problems begin to pale in comparison."
You may have to bring the car in for an oil change, get through a stack of laundry, mow the lawn, and pay your taxes, but don't think for one minute that Princess Di has it any better. She suffers bouts of bulimia, is being divorced by a prince, has an ex-paramour who called her Squidgy and a mother-in-law who cringes in her presence.
Not that a little dirt has to hurt a reputation if, like Diana's, it's a good one to begin with. In fact, when someone who's reputable and in a position of power is the target of gossip, he or she may actually gain from being gabbed about.Gossiping about someone humanizes them. They become flesh- and-blood people with whom we can identify.
It's also a way for folks to let you know what the limits on personal behavior are without confrontation, says Rosnow. "If you move into a community and your neighbor tells you how the previous homeowner never disposed of his garbage properly, his gossip is letting you in on something else."
"There is only one thing worse than being gossiped about, and that is not being gossiped about," quipped Oscar Wilde. But there's a fine line between a little dirt and a mudslide. This may be especially true for politicians. "Gossip is the primary reason Bill Clinton is the president of the United States today," Levin asserts. "If he wasn't a womanizer who owned up to his marital problems and claimed he failed to inhale, he wouldn't have won. We understood, forgave, and voted for him. Judging by history and Bush's defeat, Senator Dole could probably use a little gossip to 'taint' his campaign."
However, Levin adds this kibitzing caveat: "There is a point beyond which reporters wilt not permit public officials to go with impunity" He dates this change in attitude to Ted Kennedy's infamous car accident at Chappaquidick.
"You couldn't find a reporter in Washington who didn't want to go for the jugular," syndicated columnist Liz Smith recalls. "They had all been observing Teddy Kennedy for a long time; both Time and Newsweek had reporters on that trip to Alaska in 1969 where he got drunk on the plane and misbehaved quite badly. Nobody reported it because they didn't want to hurt him. But Chappaquidick was the end." From then on, the volume on tattling was turned up full blast and the nature of gossip was never the same.
"In a sense, it's right out of Nietzsche," says Rosnow. "Gossip shepherds the herd, It says: these are the boundaries and you're crossing them. You're not abiding by the rules and you'd better get back in step." This type of chatter control, Rosnow reports, is especially effective in managing the morality and affairs of small groups, especially in an office.
"If you want to know about the kind of insurance coverage your employer offers, look in the company handbook," says Levin. "But if you want to know who to avoid, who the boss loves or loathes, who to go to when you need help, what it really takes to get a promotion or raise, and how much you can safely slack off, you're better off paying attention to the company grapevine."
Gossip also defines who's in and who's out in a group. If you're considered worthy enough to be buzzed about on the grapevine, you're in. If you've got "valuable" information to share, you're also in. But if you don't fit into yourself out of the loop, and out to lunch--alone.
Lips on the Loose
According to researchers, everyone gossips, and we begin almost as soon as we learn to speak. But kids' gossip is decidedly different from adults'; it's more innocent and often more cruel. First, children will gossip in front of the kid they're talking about, using such common bon mots as: "You pick your nose" or "You're a cheater."
"Cruel comments, but effective ones," says Levin, "because the target learns some important information. Namely, that he is not invisible to the rest of the world. The result? This vital piece of information helps him see he needs to change his offensive behavior."
Second, unlike adults, who often gossip to bring someone with power down a notch or two (like celebrities, politicians, bosses, etc.), children, psychologists have found, usually gossip about their marginal peers--the kid who can't hit the ball, or the one in the special class. Rather than bring someone down, they feel more powerful by elevating themselves from the less fortunate and siding with the kids on top.
In his study of gossip among pre-teens, University of Michigan assistant psychology professor Jeffrey G. Parker, Ph.D., found that adolescents blabbed an average of 18 times an hour, with gossip sometimes taking up as much as 50 percent of their time. "Surprisingly," says Parker, "they were three times more likely to gossip about someone of their own sex as they were about someone of the opposite sex, and they were just as likely to talk about other people's relationships as they were about their own."
Although girls and boys traded inside info about the same amount of time each day, Parker says their subjects differed. "Girls were more apt to talk about boys they 'liked'--and the more popular the boys were, the more likely the girls were to talk about them." But even the most popular boys rarely talked about the girls they 'liked.' Perhaps an indication that early on, men are loath to express their emotions.
Similarly, Parker's research also concluded that pairs of boys who were best friends were less likely to spend time gossiping, while pairs of girlfriends disclose more. Much of the young women's scuttlebutt was filled with character admiration; conversations were sprinkled with comments like "She's a great dresser" or "She's so cool around boys."
By college, gender differences in gabbing are even more striking. Levin asked his graduate students to sit in the Northeastern cafeteria and tape conversations. They found that women do indeed gossip more than men and that the nature of their gossip is different. The women gossiped about people in their lives who were close to them: family, friends, roommates, people they knew very well. Men usually engaged in "shop talk," which primarily revolved around sports figures, politicians, and people in their class who they hardly knew. "Gossip is similar to a Rorschach test," says Levin. "If you look at the nature of someone's gossip, you can find out what concerns them."
Age continues to play a role in the dynamics of gossip. Older women who have lived in their community longer gossip less than younger women who are relatively new residents, according to research conducted by Lynette Gochenaue, Ph.D., at the University of Pennsylvania. Her study concluded that one way for neophytes to become part of an established group is to know the gossip and spread it. "Another reason newcomers are more inclined to gossip," Gochenaue says, "is anxiety--perhaps caused by unfamiliarity with a new environment."
Other studies support the idea that worry warts are prattle prone. "We found that people who gossip the most rank highest on the anxiety scale," says Rosnow "Not only do they disclose more, but the anxious are on the receiving end of gossip more often and are more likely than those less anxious to consider information crucial."
Susan Anthony, Ph.D, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., who has worked with Rosnow and conducted her own gossip research with the deaf population, concurs. "Anxious people are not only more susceptible to gossip, but they're the ones who will transmit information to a larger number of people. What's even more interesting is the speed with which gossip travels within the deaf community. It can start on the East Coast and within hours have landed in California. This is much faster than the hearing population, even if you take cyberspace into account."
The reason, Anthony says, is that in any closed culture--as in a small town or office--"news" travels more quickly because there's a small pool of communicators and communicatees to go around.
But contrary to what most of us might think, when a circle of friends gossips about members of its inner sanctum, it's usually a compliment. "It's a way of saying that others important," says Gary Allen Fine, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia. "We gossip about people we care about. We don't bother talking about people who don't matter to us."
But Fine admits this is a shadowy area. "Most of the time, the gossip spread between two people about a third absent friend is neutral news: a pregnancy, a promotion. But gabbing about buddies can also be a breach of the social structure." Often prefaced with the plea, "Swear you won't tell anyone," these are negative tidbits, like someone's being cheated on by a spouse, Obviously, this kind of betrayal is difficult to overlook and many a friendship has ended because of a broken confidence. When it comes to talking about friends, it's probably best to follow the adage: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.
While there's also wisdom in the old Irish proverb, "Who brings a tale, takes two away," Rosnow and colleagues say there's more to it. When Rosnow asked subjects who they "liked," he found gossipees--the people being talked about--were usually not the most popular, essentially because they're different and don't conform. But the people engaging in gossip weren't particularly popular either because of their untrustworthiness. Highest rated were those who could keep a balance between their roles as gossiper and gossipee.
Gossiping also seems to lead to lying, if only because most people want to appear as if they have the inside track. When Levin and other researchers posted notices inviting college students to a wedding that never took place, a surprising 12 percent of the students later questioned claimed to have attended. Some even described the bride's wedding dress.
Psychologists are not immune to the gossip mill, either. Ofra Nevo and Anat Derech, professors at the University of Haifa, Israel, decided to study gossip because during long hours of case conferences it sometimes seemed that colleagues discussing clients were actually gossiping. "We were impressed by the similarity between what takes place in clinical conferences when professionals analyze patients' personal problems and what takes place in social settings when friends gossip about acquaintances," Nevo reports.
After administering a newly developed test called the Tendency to Gossip Questionnaire, Nevo and Derech concluded that there is a correlation between the inclination to gossip and the job you choose. People who are gossip junkies tend to work in people-oriented professions--including psychology. Further, they suggest, therapy can actually be regarded as a sublimated form of gossip. After all, in both cases, people talk and exchange intimate information about other people.
THE BIG BLUR
Although the average yenta doesn't distinguish between gossip and rumor, people who study the subject do. Rosnow says gossip is always about people and can involve either fact or supposition. Rumors, on the other hand, may or may not involve people but are always speculative. "It's a collective hypothesis," says Rosnow. "Let's say there's a rumor that a company's going to be bought. When an employee of that company discusses the rumor with another employee who knows the facts, for that person it's not a rumor. For one individual it's speculative and a rumor, but for the person in command of the facts, it's not." If the employee with information confirms the rumor for the other employee, then it becomes gossip.
Rumors basically deal with people's anxieties and uncertainties, Rosnow says, and he divides them into two types: wish rumors that we hope are true, and dread rumors that we pray are false. Your company is giving a year-end bonus, property taxes are going down, there's not going to be a final exam. These are examples of wish rumors. Dread rumors are on the darker side: there are going to be layoffs at work, a fare increase is on the way, your company is going to be moving.
Frederick Koenig, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at Tulane University and author of Rumor in the Marketplace, says commercial rumors can also be divided into two categories: conspiracy and contamination. In the former, speculation is that some group or movement is thought to have infiltrated a commercial operation. For example, recent conspiracy rumors erroneously alleged that Genesee Beer, Entenmann's Bakery, and Celestial Seasonings Tea were owned by the Unification Church (the Moonies) and that the Church of Satan controlled Proctor and Gamble and Mobil Oil. Contamination rumors run the gamut from worms in McDonald's hamburgers to urine in Corona Beer and spider eggs in Bubble Yum bubble gum.
In 1984, Jean-Noel Kapferer, a dedicated rumor maven and French academic, created the Foundation for the Study of Rumors based in Paris. Kapferer contends that rumors are not just idle speculation. They are based on xenophobic tendencies or our society's fears. He believes far-fetched rumors that refuse to die--like the ones about snakes slithering out of bananas and children's teddy bears--indicate a fear of Africa or South America, where bananas grow, and of Asia, where the teddy bears are manufactured. The rumor that McDonald's burgers were infested with worms coincided with the rising concern in the United States about the deleterious effects of junk food on health. "Rumors," says Kapferer, "are an echo of ourselves. They reveal the desires, fears, and obsessions of a society."
Although Koenig often consults with corporations about how to put a stop to specific rumors, he insists that like jokes, nobody knows who starts them in the first place. "I have no illusions about the free enterprise system. Corporations will do anything to make money But savvy companies know that a rumor can easily be transferred from a competitors product to their own." Case in point: Koenig was originally hired to dispel the rumor that Wendy's hamburgers were contaminated with worms. Weeks later, the worms must have had a Big Mac attack because they'd supposedly moved on to McDonald's.
Directing positive corporate rumors--also known as creating buzz--appears to be easier. When Chrysler wanted to create word of mouth about a new line of cars, it lent them to about 6,000 community leaders as well as top executives for weekend use. Chrysler's strategy succeeded; 98 percent of those who'd been lent the cars said they would recommend them to friends.
There's no arguing that the media are ablaze with gossip. From A Current Affair and the National Enquirer to Nightline with Ted Koppel and even the venerable New York Times, we're inundated with dirt. Scooping has become a national pastime. But Rosnow insists the media's obsession with gossip doesn't necessarily reflect our insatiable craving for it. "You know, one year it's medical shows, the next it's come-dies, and now it's talk shows and gossip."
But journalist Nicholas Lemann disagrees. He believes there's a national longing for gossip and it's something we need and can be proud of. In an article for the New Republic, Lemann said, "Gossip is an appurtenance of a striving, socially unified society. It's worth watching as a barometer of our aspirations. As the middle classes obtain for themselves the glamorous, turbulent lives of the rich and famous, there is real danger that gossip as we know it could whither away We could return to the status quo, ante-Society in which nobody's personal life was considered to be nationally riveting.
"The truth is, the proper time to become alarmed about the role of gossip in American Society is when there starts to be less of it."
Levin believes we have nothing to worry about. He says gossip will never go out of style. Rosnow agrees gossip's not going anywhere because it's "part of human nature." It may sometimes look as if it's reached a fever pitch, he says, but it's cyclical. "At a particular point in the cycle, it seems like it's reached its nadir and is disappearing. But then it starts back up again and ultimately reaches a pinnacle." Because we're coming up on the Olympics and an election season, Rosnow says, plan on lots of chatter; the same thing happens around World Series time.
But is there a point where the dirt we dig up is, well, just too personal? There seems to be only one area where even the most callous columnist wont tread: 'outing' a public figure. But Rosnow suspects that won't continue for long. "As soon as one person breaks a taboo and profits either financially or through notoriety, then other people will jump on the bandwagon."
For those insatiable gossip fiends with a tough case of dependency, that's good news. Spread the word.
Photographs by CHIP SIMONS
THE HIGH-TECH GRAPEVINE
With giant computer networks linking up millions of personal computers across the planet, the grapevine has gone high-tech. Seth Godin, author of E-Mail Addresses of the Rich and Famous, says gossip is easier to spresd, reaches wider audiences, travels at a faster rate thanks to E-MAil. "It's the first new form of communication that combines the weight and measured thought of something written with the speed and instant tenecity of a telephone call."
But Godin says there's no such thing as a carefree ride on the superhighway. Cybergossip is often misinterpreted because it's so flat : no voice inflection, no room for subtleties of language. In other words it may be more difficult to tell whether someone is making a joke, being sarcastic, or passing on the gospel.
That's not the only cyberhassle. It's also extremely easy to copy E-mail and pass it on. "In our office, I'm often around the twentieth person to see a piece of cybergossip," says Godin, "and many times it was intended for one set of eyes. Basically, you're dealing with the world's greatest gossip engines. Someone can start with something that's a fact or a misstatement, and suddenly thousands of people are potentially privy to it."
That's exactly why cybergossip gets top grades from Prashant Bordia, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia, who has studied rumorsd on-line and off. Computer communication, he says, lets social scientists and psychologists study gossip as never before: in its natural state. "With the internet, you get public, informal, and often juicy stuff in an unobstrusive way."
In the more than two dozen on-line rumors Bordia looked at for study of how rumors are transmitted via computer, he found that "conversations" have a typical pattern: First, they're tentatively introduced, generating, a flurry of requests for information. Next, facts and personal experiences get shared and the group tries to verify the rumor's veracity. Finally, the group breaks up or moves on to another topic.
C. Lee Harrington, a professor of sociology at Miami University in Ohio, who's conducted her own cybergossip survey, concurs. She says chat room enthusiasts, like ordinary gossipers, "attempt to establish the veracity of the information they're sharing through references to outside sources. They rely on secondary sources, refer to personal knowledge and relationships, or, as is the case with entertainment gossip, claim to have direct connections to it, accounting for their 'inside information.'"
While many tabloid items are planted and meant to be spread--especially when they benefite their subject--in cyberspace some celebrities have handled their own PR, responding to fans and critics. Others patrol message boards anonymously gauging reponse to their work. Even Vice-President Gore, who popularized the phrase "information superhighway," has answered some unsolicited messages via E-mail.