They are the terrible duo; the twin cousins that have started wars, brought down governments, destroyed careers, wrecked marriages, destroyed happy lives and claimed countless more. They are deadly.
They are gossip and rumours.
“Men will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken,” says a chilling warning in Matthew 12:36, 37. “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
In 1941, the Soviet Union issued a war poster showing a woman with a forefinger crossing her lips. “Don’t chatter!” the poster warned in big red letters. “Gossiping borders on treason.”
Psychologist Ralph L. Rosnow of Temple University in the US says we should distinguish between rumour and gossip, as each appears to function differently in its pure state.
“Rumours,” he says, “have been described as public communications that are infused with private hypotheses about how the world works, or more specifically, ways of making sense to help us cope with our anxieties and uncertainties.”
On the other hand, as Wert and Salovey noted (A social comparison account of gossip, 2004, page 77), more than rumour, gossip tends to have an “inner-circleness” about it, in that it is customarily passed between people who have a common history or shared interests.”
Popular usage defines gossip as “small talk” or “idle talk,” but gossip is hardly inconsequential or without purpose.
Gossip undoubtedly destroys friendships, marriages, business partnerships and sometimes causes people to kill themselves and others. But much of the time, the damage that is blamed on gossip more rightly belongs on people who have acted badly.
Denying a rumour is like a dog chasing its own tail. Rumours, loose lips and gossip are a formidable combination that has contributed a lot of misery to humankind. They are a social phenomena that cannot be ignored yet the more you try to deny a rumour, born out of gossip, the guiltier you appear.
The Social Issues Research Center (SIRC) says the subject of gossip is increasingly attracting the attention of researchers in social psychology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, sociolinguistics and social history. Even philosophers are being drawn in to the debate.
Although the word ‘gossip’ was originally a positive or at least neutral term (deriving from ‘God-sibb’ ÔÇô a person related to one in God, a close friend or companion), it has more recently acquired some pejorative connotations. Yet most of the research highlights the positive social and psychological functions of gossip: facilitating relationship-building, group bonding, clarification of social position and status, reinforcing shared values, conflict resolution and so on. One moral philosopher goes so far as to claim that gossip, by enhancing our knowledge and understanding of human nature, qualifies as a ‘saintly virtue’.
While gossip forms one of the oldest and (still) the most common means of spreading and sharing facts and views, it also has a reputation for the introduction of errors and other variations into the information thus transmitted.
A rumour, says, Warren Peterson & Noel Gist, (Rumour and Public Opinion, page 57), is “an unverified account or explanation of events circulating from person to person and pertaining to an object, event, or issue in public concern.” This, almost always, happens “without the concerned person’s knowledge or involvement.”
In most cases, the ‘subject’ is always surprised to find out that people know more than he or she would have liked them to know.
Gossip, simplified for kids, is ‘when a simple story gets passed around and changes so that someone’s feelings can be hurt, or someone could get into trouble when she hasn’t done anything wrong.’
“The most pathetic example of gossip that I have ever witnessed was in a Bible study,” says a group leader writing in Rapture Ready, an on-line magazine. “During prayer request time, a woman asked for prayer for an absent group member. In the guise of a prayer request, she gave some very personal, some would say juicy, details about this poor woman’s life. It was terrible. As the leader of the group, I could only imagine that every woman would think that each time she wasn’t there, she would be the subject. I had to ask the gossiper to go to each member of the group and apologize and promise that it would never happen again.”
The problem with rumours and gossip is that, as they make the rounds, they grow shorter, more concise, more easily grasped and do not resemble the original message. Rumours refuse to be contained; and gossip is said to be irresistible.
“Gossip is not a trivial pastime: it is essential to human social, psychological and even physical well-being,” says Kate Fox of the Social Issues Resource Center. “Gossip is the human equivalent of ‘social grooming’ among primates, which has been shown to stimulate production of endorphins, relieving stress and boosting the immune system. Two-thirds of all human conversation is gossip, because this ‘vocal grooming’ is essential to our social, psychological and physical well-being.”
In a research study, the SIRC found that men gossip as much as women, especially on their mobiles.
“Thirty-three percent of men indulge in mobile gossip every day or almost every day, compared with twenty-six percent of women. Men gossip for just as long and about the same subjects as women, but tend to talk more about themselves.”
The study did find a sex difference in ‘gossip partners’, with men more likely to gossip with work colleagues, partners and female friends, while women gossip more with same-sex friends and family. Male and female gossip also sounds different, as women use more animated tones, more detail and more feedback.
We gossip a lot. Most of the much-vaunted human capacity for complex language is dedicated to gossip. Perhaps the most striking finding of recent research on human conversations is that about two thirds of our conversation time is entirely devoted to social topics: discussions of personal relationships and experiences; who is doing what with whom; who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ and why; how to deal with difficult social situations; the behaviour and relationships of friends, family and celebrities; our own problems with lovers, family, friends, colleagues and neighbours; the minutiae of everyday social life ÔÇô in a word, gossip.
But is gossip always bad? I agree that gossip is always harmful but not entirely. While I think gossip in general is wrong, I think listening to office gossip can sometimes be helpful.
“For example, you should listen to rumours about an impending layoff. If these rumours are true, you won’t be caught off guard,” says Dawn Rosenberg McKay (Your Guide to Career Planning). “Rumours about an employee dealing with some personal issues may bring to light why he hasn’t been working to his full potential lately and may allow his boss to cut him a little slack until you can determine if this rumour is true.”
Last August, just before the big October party meeting, China replaced Jin Renqing, its Finance minister, ‘amid reports that he was involved in a sex scandal.’
“Rumours that Jin, 63, was being ousted as finance chief had circulated for days, raising concerns in global financial circles,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a scholar of Chinese politics at the University of Michigan. “It’s a little hard to know what really drove this but I’ve certainly heard rumours that a sex scandal was involved and this is something that has brought down others.”
Gossip is, and always has been, good for us ÔÇô essential to our social, psychological and even physical well-being.
“The mobile phone, by facilitating therapeutic gossip in an alienating and fragmented modern world, is helping us to cope, adapt and survive,” says SIRC. “This is perhaps the most striking and important finding of our study: that a technological advance is helping to counteract the adverse effects of previous technological advances. Mobile phones are re-creating the more natural, humane communication patterns of pre-industrial times.” We are using space-age technology to return to stone-age gossip.
Sources: Psychological Science agenda, Rapture ready, Social issues Resource Center, Internet.