Is the Tongue the "Sword of a Woman?"

Is it just a stereotype that women are nastier gossips than men?

Posted Jun 02, 2015

Everyone is familiar with the stereotype that women gossip more than men and that women are also nastier gossips than men.  Is this just a stereotype, or is there really something to it?  

The durability of the connection between women and malicious gossip is reflected in an ancient Chinese proverb stating that “the tongue is the sword of a woman – and she never lets it go rusty.” 

Setting aside such inherited “wisdom” for the moment, the important question to ask is whether there are data to suggest that women are more prone to gossip than are men or that women are more likely to use gossip in an aggressive or socially destructive manner. 

The evidence suggests that the answer to both of these questions is “Yes.” 

Studies that I have conducted with several of my students reveal that, in general, we all have a stronger interest in the affairs of same-sex others than of opposite-sex others.  However, this is especially true for females, and women have different patterns of sharing gossip than men do.  Males report being far more likely to share gossip with their romantic partners than with anyone else, but females report that they would be just as likely to share gossip with their same-sex friends as with their romantic partners.  And although males are usually more interested in news about other males, females are virtually obsessed with news about other females.  This can be demonstrated by looking at the actual frequency with which males and females selected a same-sex person as the most interesting subject of the gossip scenarios presented to them in one of our studies.  On hearing about someone having a date with a famous person, 43 out of 44 women selected a female as the most interesting person to know this about, as compared with 24 out of 36 males who selected a male as most interesting. Similarly, 40 out of 42 females (versus 22 out of 37 males) were most interested in same-sex academic cheaters, and 39 out of 43 were most interested in a same-sex leukemia sufferer (as opposed to only 18 out of 37 males). 

Along these same lines, my friend and colleague Charlotte De Backer and her collaborators presented college students with gossip-like stories containing male or female characters.  After reading the stories, the participants were given a surprise recall test for the information they had been exposed to.  Women remembered more about other women than men did about other men, especially details about their physical attractiveness.

Unfortunately, the fascination that women have with other women is not always benign.

Studies show that women are much more likely than men to engage in indirect, relational aggression, and gossip (with the goal of socially ostracizing rivals) is the weapon of choice in the female arsenal.  This relational aggression usually transpires in retaliation for perceived slights or envy over physical appearance or males, and the goal is usually to exclude competitors from one’s social group and to damage their ability to maintain a reliable social network of their own.

As it turns out, this is a highly effective way of hurting other women.

When a workplace bully is a woman, indirect relational aggression is the usual modus operandi and her victim is almost always another woman.

The levels of stress reported by the victims in these situations are extreme, and other studies have confirmed that women are more sensitive than men to indirect aggression and report being more devastated by it.

These findings may be connected to other research results which show that a majority of women who suffer from persecutory delusions identified familiar people such as friends and relatives as their persecutors and what they specifically feared was that they were being “talked about” or excluded from the in-group.  Men suffering from persecutory delusions were much more likely to fear physical attacks by other men who were strangers.

Other factoids uncovered by gossip researchers:

  • Women spend more time gossiping overall than do men, and they are more likely to gossip about close friends and relatives.  
  • The amount of gossiping that occurs between two people is a good predictor of friendship quality in men, especially if the gossip concerns achievement-related information, but the amount of gossip between two women does not predict the quality of their friendship in such a straightforward fashion. 
  • When pairs of friends gossip, it is rare for listeners to respond negatively to gossipy information, and such information usually evokes agreement and supportive responses rather than disapproval.  Females in particular tend to demonstrate highly encouraging responses to gossip that they hear from their friends.
  • There is evidence that it is specifically the gossip that occurs between women that is most likely to be aggressive and competitive. 
  • The nature of the topics that are discussed between women is qualitatively different from those that are featured in gossip between men or between a man and a woman, and the frequency of negative gossip is highest of all gossip between female friends. 
  • Younger women are more likely to gossip about rivals than are older women, possibly because the competition for mates is more intense during the earlier, reproductive part of a woman’s life, and the characteristics of rivals that are most likely to be attacked through malicious gossip are precisely those things that have traditionally been most vital to a woman’s reputation in the mating market: physical appearance and sexual reputation.

In summary, the current evidence about sex differences in gossip, much of it quite recent, indicates that preconceptions about females being more likely to use gossip in an aggressive fashion are more than just anecdotal and more than just a stereotype. 

However, this does not mean that women are more aggressive or “nastier” than men.  Men and women simply differ in their preferred style of aggression, and generalizations about sex differences in aggression have limited usefulness in predicting the behavior of specific individuals.  Men can certainly engage in competitive gossip and social ostracism when the circumstances call for it, just as women can behave in a physically aggressive fashion on occasion.  Having said this, it has been well established that men are more physically aggressive than women, and concluding that women choose indirect relational aggression over physical aggression does not denigrate women any more than discussing the male propensity for physical violence denigrates men.

Suggested Readings

Archer, J. (2004). Sex differences in aggression in real-world settings: A meta-analytic review. Review of General Psychology, 8, 291-322.

Buss, D. M., & Dedden, L. (1990). Derogation of competitors.  Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7, 395-422.

Campbell, A. (2012). Women and aggression.  In T. K. Shackelford & V. A. Weekes-Shackelford (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of evolutionary perspectives on violence, homicide, and war (pp. 197-217).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Crothers, L. M., Lipinski, J., & Minutolo, M. C. (2009).  Cliques, rumors, and gossip by the watercooler: Female bullying in the workplace.  Psychologist-Manager Journal, 12, 97-110.

De Backer, C. J. S., Nelissen, M., & Fisher, M. L. (2007).  Let’s talk about sex: A study on the recall of gossip about potential mates and sexual rivals.  Sex Roles, 56, 781-791.

Eder, D., & Enke, J. L. (1991). The structure of gossip: Opportunities and constraints on collective expression among adolescents.  American Sociological Review, 56, 494-508.

Galen, B. R., & Underwood, M. K. (1997). A developmental investigation of social aggression among children.  Developmental Psychology, 33, 589-600.

Geary, D. C., & Flinn, M. V. (2002).  Sex differences in behavioral and hormonal response to social threat: Commentary on Taylor et al. (2000).  Psychological Review, 109, 745-750.

Hess, N. H., & Hagen, E. H. (2006). Sex differences in indirect aggression: Psychological evidence from young adults.  Evolution and Human behavior, 27, 231-245.

 Hines, N.J., & Fry, D.P. (1994).  Indirect modes of aggression among women of Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Special Issue:  On aggression in women and girls:  Cross-Cultural perspectives.  Sex Roles, 30, 213-236.

Leaper, C., & Holliday, H. (1995). Gossip in same-gender and cross-gender friends’conversations.  Personal Relationships, 2, 237-246.

Levin, J., & Arluke, A. (1987).  Gossip:  The inside scoop.  New York:  Plenum Press.

Massar, K., Buunk, A. p., & Rempt, S. (2012).  Age differences in women’s tendency to gossip are mediated by their mate value.  Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 106-109.

McAndrew, F. T. (2009).  The interacting roles of testosterone and challenges to status in human male aggression.  Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 330-335.

McAndrew, F. T. (2014). The “sword of a woman”: Gossip and female aggression.  Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19, 196-199.

McAndrew, F. T., Bell, E. K., & Garcia, C. M. (2007). Who do we tell, and whom do we tell on?  Gossip as a strategy for status enhancement.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37, 1562-1577.

McAndrew, F. T., & Milenkovic, M. A. (2002).  Of tabloids and family secrets: The evolutionary psychology of gossip.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32, 1064-1082.

Owens, L., Shute, R., & Slee, P. (2000). “Guess what I just heard!” Indirect aggression among teenage girls in Australia.  Aggressive Behavior, 26, 67-83.

Owens, L., Shute, R., & Slee, P. (2000).  “I’m in and you’re out . . .”: Explanations for teenage girls indirect aggression.  Psychology, Evolution, and Gender, 2, 19-46.

Walston, F., David, A.S., & Charlton, B.G. (1998).  Sex differences in the content of persecutory delusions:  A reflection of hostile threats in the ancestral environmentEvolution and Human Behavior, 19, 257-260.

Watson, D. C. (2012). Gender differences in gossip and friendship.  Sex Roles, 67, 494-502.

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