April 4 2010: My own definition of gossip is as follows: Any group of two or more people discussing assumptions and/or suspicions of other people based on superficial evidence. The information is often characterised by having little to no accuracy. We all do it in one way or another. It cuts across racial, cultural and religious differences. The tone of the gossip may vary but from one group to another we all gossip.
It’s the reason that tabloids are now famous in almost every society in the world because the fundamental appeal of tabloids is that they print the kind of stories that people would usually discuss in hushed whispers when there’s no one else around to hear – The type of talk we usually label gossip. It’s also the reason that reality shows of the Big Brother kind have become so popular all over the world. It comes from this perverse desire we all seem to have to look into other people’s lives from the outside and develop our own analysis.
A more widely accepted definition of gossip is rumour or talk of a personal, sensational, or intimate nature. Sociologists, linguists, psychologists and historians are among the people who research gossip and how it functions in society.
It’s a tricky phenomenon to study, though. People usually gossip spontaneously and in private, so it’s almost impossible to study gossip in a laboratory setting. In fact, many researchers study gossip by eavesdropping on gossipers.
Religion takes a highly negative view of gossip.
Judaism considers gossip spoken without a constructive purpose as a sin. Speaking negatively about people, even if retelling true facts, counts as sinful, as it demeans the dignity of man – both the speaker and the subject of the gossip.
Proverbs 18:8 says “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels: they go down to a man’s innermost parts.”
Christianity condemns gossip even more harshly; The Epistle to the Romans associates gossips (‘backbiters’) with a list of sins including sexual immorality and murder, Romans 1:28-32.
However, gossip plays a number of roles within social groups, and some of them can actually be useful.
An article in the US magazine, Scientific American, actually compiled a list of the positive aspects of gossip.
Firstly, gossip normalises and reinforces moral boundaries in a speech community. Moreover, it fosters and builds a sense of community with shared interests and information. Furthermore, it builds structures of social accountability. It also furthers mutual social grooming (like many other uses of language, only more so). It provides a mating tool that allows (for example) women to mutually identify socially desirable men and compare notes on which men are better than others. Lastly, it can provide a peer-to-peer mechanism for disseminating information in organisations.
A lot of the time, people could learn the same information about social rules and standards through observation. However, observing people’s behaviour takes longer and requires more effort than gossip does. In other words, gossip can help people learn how to behave and how to understand social cues faster and more efficiently than direct observation can.
This doesn’t mean that all gossip is good, though. Many people engage in malicious or vicious gossip out of a desire to harm others or as a guilty pleasure. Sometimes, it’s because they enjoy feelings of superiority, smugness, vindication or schadenfreude – the satisfaction obtained from the misfortunes of others.
People often spread negative gossip to increase their own social status at the expense of other people’s. Gossip also helps create a false feeling of trust as shown by the Spanish proverb that says, “Whoever gossips to you will gossip about you”.
You can usually be certain that anyone who is willing to talk about other people in your presence will be willing to talk about you when you are not present.
Religion isn’t the only institution that warns against gossip. Parents, self-help books and counsellors caution people to avoid gossip. Books on business management present gossip as a threat to an organisation’s health and stability because it decreases morale and wastes employees’ time.
In the United States, the non-profit organization Words Can Heal advises people that gossip is dangerous and harmful and offers advice on how to stop.
Gossip is full of contradictions.
People do it even though they think they shouldn’t. Gossip can bolster one person’s reputation while destroying another’s, and it can establish a trusting bond between two people while betraying the trust of a third. People who gossip too much can develop a reputation for being untrustworthy or too talkative but people who don’t gossip can develop a reputation for being distant, uptight or snobbish.
Like it or not, gossip is one thing that’s a reality just about everywhere you go and it’s going to stay around whether you choose to participate or not. There are situations in which it would be best for you to rise above the rumours but then there are other instances in which gossip may be a necessity for you. The trick is learning when and where it’s appropriate to do it and with whom but don’t waste your time wishing for it to go away because as someone once said, “Show me someone who never gossips and I’ll show you someone who isn’t interested in people”.