The Bad

Think for a moment of someone you know who you would consider "a gossip."

The image that comes to mind is that of a tale-bearer: someone who gleefully whispers to you the failures of other people in your community. The person who, when they leave your office cubicle, you feel just a little bit soiled from the experience. The individual who seems to revel in spreading dirt about persons whom you previously had a good or neutral opinion of. The man or woman whose specialty is trafficking in personal information about others-they collect it, trade it, and perhaps use it as a commodity to enhance their prestige, advance their own agenda, or feel better about their own moral peccadilloes. In this popular image of gossip, gossip is driven by self-serving motives and is ultimately harmful to the social fabric of the community.

And indeed, there is some evidence that gossip is most often derogatory and slanderous. Social psychologist Charles Walker collected gossip on the campus of St. Bonaventure University in St. Bonaventure, New York, and then categorized it as "shame gossip" or "veneration gossip." Walker found that a much greater percentage of gossip was critical rather than laudatory.

A typical middle school set of gossip statements would constitute negative social commentary such as "Giuseppe dropped out of school and is on drugs!" "Juliet's parents are not very nice." "Anne got pregnant and had an abortion!" Some gossip is positive: "Philomena's grandparents have lots of money and are very generous!" "Dominick is a really sweet guy." Like the motto on Alice Roosevelt Longworth's pillow, however, there seems to be a greater demand in the social marketplace for tittle-tattle than for tribute. Given the characteristically negative nature of gossip, it's not surprising that it is most often told about someone who is not present.

The Talmud

This often-slanderous aspect of gossip is one reason it has been frequently condemned in religious and ethical writings. From the Book of Exodus in the Bible:  "Don't bear vain hearsay." One is not even supposed to listen to gossip: "Don't give others the chance to bear vain hearsay" (Exodus 23:1). The reason is clear to anyone who has ever been the victim of slanderous gossip: a person's reputation-upon which there social standing or even their livelihood depends-is damaged. The thought that one's social community has heard that you are lazy, loose, or that you habitually lie is, after all, very hurtful.

And such stories have harmful effects. After hearing that someone is addicted, abusive, unfaithful, disloyal, dishonest, hypocritical, unbalanced, unlikable, criminal, aggressive, or carries a disease, it is difficult to interact with that person with an open mind and to trust them.

The Talmud speaks at length, for example, of the damage that a person can do by gossiping about a person's vocation, likening it to murder. Jewish tradition also states the matter positively: because people were created good (in God's image), we are to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the best about them. It is a matter of trusting in the goodness of other people and thinking the best of them.

There is an old saying that one shouldn't try to defend oneself against slander; your enemies won't believe you anyway and your friends don't need to hear your defense. And Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir has advocated resisting office gossip by gently advocating for the target. For example: "John wouldn't have done that intentionally-he is a very hard worker," and "I'm sure that she was just trying to be helpful."

The Good

My gossip researcher friends take umbrage at this universally negative condemnation of gossip.They make the point that gossip is often simply gathering important information about the social environment. Indeed, we could not function socially without it.

Mr. Hyde

Nowhere is this most apparent than in gossip's function as a useful warning about harmful people. Telling a new coworker about the boss's hang-ups can help her avoid becoming embroiled in an unpleasant interaction. Telling a fellow professor about a student's habitually slacking behavior can prevent that student from taking advantage of yet another teacher. Telling a troubled couple in search of a marriage counselor about the moral failures of a particular counselor can help them avoid becoming hurt in the same way that she hurt other marriages.  

These objections have some merit.  The free flow of such information does serve a useful social function of guarding against the harmful behavior of particular individuals. Your mother warns you about associating too closely with Lucy because she heard that Lucy does recreational drugs-this gossip is an expression of love and concern; it would be a dereliction in parental duty not to gossip on this occasion. It would be an abandonment of obligation to "believe the best" about Lucy. Gossip, in this case, seems a moral duty!

Dovetailing gossip's function as a warning is that gossip serves also as moral instruction and motivation to the hearer. Gossip informally regulates behavior. Hearing gossip about "Bob's know-it-all attitude" makes me carefully refrain from sarcasm and adopt a humbler, more teachable attitude. Gossip informs us about how to act properly in a given social context.

Wanting to avoid granting others the opportunity to gossip about us may serve as an effective deterrent for engaging in socially unacceptable acts. Even when the gossip is spread with the worst of motives as part of a tale-bearer's gleeful utterances, it has the effect of educating us about what is unacceptable behavior and motivating us to avoid that behavior.

In other contexts as well, gossip may not be so nefarious.It may simply be a way of signifying friendship with another or gathering important social information.

Think for moment about the last time you participated in social chat about an individual who just happened to be absent at the time. Perhaps you were discussing this person's personal history ("Jack is divorced isn't he? Yes, he beat his wife."), her character ("Corin appears to be so sweet but she's a real phoney"), or his finances ("William made a pot of money in real estate"). Who were you engaged in conversation with?

Typically it is with friends, family, or a favored acquaintance and not with someone whom you dislike, distrust, or do not feel safe with. Gossip is something you do with friends-it signals affiliation, closeness, and camaraderie. It says to the participants: "this person is one of my confidantes."

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has therefore compared human gossiping to primate grooming behavior-it is something we do with another furry creature in our clan. Come, gossip with me, and we will be friends. We do not gossip with-though we may gossip about-our enemies.

The Ugly                             

Gossip does bind people together-but it also breaks them apart.

In the final installment of C. S. Lewis's classic science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength, the central characters are a young professor of sociology named Mark Studdock and his wife Jane.

Mark is emotionally insecure and perennially pines to be included in the "inner circle" of whatever social environment he finds himself part of. This occurs at the (both fictitious) Bracton College and the (secretly malevolent) National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E). The inner circles at the College and the N.I.C.E. don't actually like Mark, but woo him in order to capture Jane. This strategy is in hopes that her clairvoyance-initially unknown even to her-will aid them in finding the location where the powerful ancient wizard Merlin will awaken in Bracton Wood.

To get to Jane, they ingratiate themselves to Mark using gossip about other professors. At Bracton, Mark first experiences the warm feeling of being admitted to the inner circle when Dr. Curry, a pompous administrator at the college, denigrates other professors whom he anticipates will oppose him at an upcoming meeting:

"Yes," said Curry, "It [the College Faculty meeting] will take the hell of a time. Probably go on after dinner. We shall have all the obstructionists wasting time as hard as they can..." You would never have guessed from the tone of Studdock's reply what intense pleasure he derived from Curry's use of the pronoun "we." So very recently he had been an outsider, watching the proceedings of what he then called "Curry and his gang" with awe and with little understanding, and making at College meetings short, nervous speeches which never influenced the course of events. Now he was inside and "Curry and his gang" had become "we" or "the Progressive Element in College." It had all happened quite suddenly and was still sweet in the mouth.

In a later conversation another member of the inner circle, the clever criminal Lord Feverstone gossips in turn about Curry behind his back and Mark is (seemingly) even more centrally placed within the inner circle:

As soon as [Curry] had got out of the room, Lord Feverstone looked steadily at Mark for some seconds with an enigmatic expression. Then he chuckled. Then the chuckle developed into a laugh... "It really is rather devastating," said Feverstone when he had partially recovered, "that the people one has to use for getting things done should talk such drivel...." Mark was silent. The giddy sensation of being suddenly whirled up from one plane of secrecy to another, coupled with the growing effect of Curry's excellent port, prevented him from speaking.

Mark continues to feel that his status rises as each new round of "confidential" negative gossip about colleagues and coworkers is used to inflate his ego as being a member of the Important People Group (my term for one's inner circle). This nicely illustrates the use of gossip both to include the hearer into one's clique and to exclude the person not present from the clique.

Gossip is therefore intrinsically political in character in that it forges my-and may weaken the target's-alliances. Note that in Lewis's novel, the gossip is presented in an offhand manner, though in truth it is calculated and deliberate-and effective in eventually drawing Mark into the employ of the evil N.I.C.E.

The passage gets at why gossip is often condemned-once again the motive matters. Recall the last time you went grocery shopping. After collecting your produce, cereal, milk, and staples, you stood in line at the checkout counter. Invariably, your eyes are drawn to the headlines of the tabloids that herald the beginning of the conveyor belt: "Brittany's lover revealed!" "Angelina and Brad break up over affair!" "Oprah's dirty little secret!" Celebrity gossip is a thriving industry.

Note that the content of these statements is often about matters that our culture considers private or personal. Celebrity gossip tabloid headlines appeal to perhaps a voyeuristic impulse in every person. "We want to know!" about other people's private affairs.

And not just celebrities, which most people consider "fair game." We want to know about the personal affairs of people we are acquainted with. Co-worker Jane's sordid past, the secret sexual sins of our neighbor Fred, the youthful antics of our old Aunt Mabel. And especially the undisclosed failures and foibles of those we dislike or who make us feel uncomfortable.

President Clinton

This last desire informs us of perhaps the ugliest motive in gossip, moral rationalization-that feeling of glee to learn that someone else is worse than we are. Relatively speaking, we must be alright then. "What? Bill smoked marijuana when he was younger, even though he rails against it now? What a hypocrite! (I'm not proud of what I do but at least I'm honest...)"

This motive explains the heightened interest in negative gossip about people in positions entrusted with moral leadership-ministers, priests, politicians, professors, parents. The priest's encounter with a prostitute is intensely more socially "marketable" information that the prostitute's liaison with the priest. After analyzing daily diaries of student "people talk" episodes, gossip researcher Holly Hom found that they often felt empowered and more popular after telling critical gossip.

Negative gossip about others is a way of boosting your view of yourself.

Note

Quotations of Curry's and Feverstone's gossip to Mark Studdock are taken from p. 17 and pp. 39-40, respectively, of: Lewis, C. S. (1946). That hideous strength: A modern fairy-tale for grown-ups. New York: Collier Books.

About the Author

Nicholas DiFonzo

Nicholas DiFonzo is Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors.

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