Introduction to How Gossip Works

Catherine the Great
Public domain image
Catherine II was Empress of Russia for 34 years until her death in 1796.

Even if you've never taken a class in 18th century Russian history, you've probably heard the story about Catherine the Great. According to the lore, Catherine II, Empress of Russia, died under questionable circumstances involving a horse. If you ask someone who has a fondness for history or urban legends, though, you'll learn that the story isn't true. Catherine II really died of a stroke, and no horses were present.

The story of Catherine the Great and the horse isn't a recent invention -- it started out as gossip more than 200 years ago. It's not just a juicy story; it's a good illustration of the nature of gossip:

  • It's almost impossible to figure out who told the story first. Historians believe that the French upper class created the rumor in an attempt to destroy Catherine's reputation.
  • It started as a malicious attempt to slander someone and possibly to improve the social standing of the people who made up the story.
  • When people repeat it today, they believe it is true, in spite of its inherent outlandishness.
  • The tale is persistent and widespread. It's stayed around for hundreds of years, and no matter how many historians refute it, people still pass it on.
  • It's the kind of tidbit most people can't help spreading around, even if they've resolved to spend less time gossiping.
  • Even though some of the details might have changed, the core of the story is the same as it was 200 years ago. In this respect, real gossip is different from the "telephone game" often used to teach children about its hazards.

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However, unlike the story of Catherine II, not all gossip is malicious or untrue. Like swearing, another use of language many people try to avoid, gossip plays a number of roles within social groups, and some of them can actually be useful.

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.

In the next section we'll look at the characteristics of gossip.

Characteristics of Gossip

Gossip vs. Rumor
Rumors and gossip have similarly distasteful connotations, but researchers disagree about whether they are the same thing. Here's a rundown of different views on gossip and rumor:
  • They're the same.
  • Rumor is a specific type of gossip.
  • Gossip is based in fact, but rumors are based in hypotheses.
  • Gossip is a tool for maintaining social order, but rumor is a tool for explaining things that people do not understand.
  • Gossip relates something people believe has happened, but rumors express what people hope or fear will happen.

When researchers study gossip, they don't all use the same definition. Most start with the same basic idea: Gossip is a conversation between two people that concerns a third person who is not present. Different researchers then add a range of stipulations, such as:

  • The conversation takes place in private.
  • The people talking are transmitting information as though it were fact, but they have not confirmed the information as factual.
  • The people gossiping and the person being gossiped about know each other in real life. By this definition, celebrity gossip is not really gossip unless the speaker and the listener are friends with the celebrity in question.
  • Something in the speaker's body language or tone of voice suggests a moral judgment about the information being relayed. For example, the sentence "Clara got a puppy" sounds pretty neutral. But if Clara lives in a college dorm that doesn't allow pets and the person speaking sounds scandalized, the sentence becomes gossip.
  • The people gossiping compare themselves in some way to the person being gossiped about, usually considering themselves to be superior to the subject.

For the purpose of this article, we'll use a fairly basic definition. When two people talk about a third, absent person and the conversation includes undertones of judgment or secrecy, it's gossip. We'll look at some of the basics of how gossip governs social groups next.

In the next section we'll look at gossip's bad reputation.

Gossip's Bad Reputation

The Basic Law of Rumor
In "The Psychology of Rumor," G.W. Allport and L. Postman describe a basic law of rumor. According to the law, a rumor’s strength is approximately equal to its importance to the person concerned times the ambiguity of the evidence: R ≈ i x a. However, critics point out that Allport and Postman have no empirical evidence for the law and assert that they ignored factors like the emotional context of the rumor.

Gossip has a pretty bad reputation. Nearly every major world religion cautions against gossiping and spreading rumors. For example, the book of Leviticus, found in the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah, states, "Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people" [ref]. Gossip is also contrary to the concept of right speech, which is part of the Eightfold Path to enlightenment that is central to Buddhism. Many Islamic texts forbid both speaking and listening to gossip [ref].

In general, the secular world looks down on gossip as well. Parents, self-help books and counselors caution people to avoid gossip. Books on business management present gossip as a threat to an organization's health and stability because it decreases morale and wastes employees' time. In the United States, the nonprofit organization Words Can Heal advises people that gossip is dangerous and harmful and offers advice on how to stop.

A woman gossiping about her boyfriend's stinky feet on the telephone
Although adults spend up to two-thirds of their conversational time gossiping, only 5 percent of it is spent on negative gossip.

But most people gossip anyway, and in spite of its nefarious reputation, gossip doesn't always involve spreading untruths or malice. Research suggests that adults -- regardless of gender -- spend between one fifth and two thirds of their conversational time gossiping but spend only 5 percent of that time on negative gossip [Cohen, Dunbar].

primate societies
Image courtesy Mike Swope/MorgueFile
Some researchers theorize that gossip works in human societies the same way that grooming does in primate societies.

In general, researchers haven't always been interested in gossip. Many have thought of it as background noise -- or, in some cases, as foreground noise. Gossip is so prevalent that some people do it without realizing it, and this prevalence has made some researchers view it as something to be ignored rather than studied. In other words, linguists and social scientists have viewed gossip as nothing more than idle chatter, the conversational equivalent of static.

However, when scientists have studied gossip, they've come up with some pretty interesting theories and conclusions. Some researchers believe that gossip started as a way for early humans to learn about their neighbors and determine who they could trust, making it a necessary tool for survival. Robin Dunbar, author of "Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language," theorizes that gossip works in human societies the same way grooming does in primate societies, but more efficiently. Dunbar goes so far as to theorize that language evolved so that people could gossip and more effectively establish and defend social groups.

In the next section we'll look at the benefits of gossip.

Gossip Benefits

Failsafe Against Lying
Most people believe that lying is wrong, and that's one of the reasons so much gossip begins with "I heard" or "someone told me." Attributing a statement to someone else takes the responsibility for its accuracy away from the person speaking. But this technicality doesn't make it ethical to gossip. In "The Ethics of Gossiping" in the International Journal of Applied Philosophy, Emrys Westacott uses flow charts to help people decide whether their gossip is ethical.

Dunbar's idea might sound a little far-fetched, but researchers report that gossip has a lot in common with grooming, besides the stereotype of women gossiping in a beauty parlor:

  • Gossiping is enjoyable. Many people gossip just for fun or to blow off steam.
  • When you gossip with someone, you and the person you're talking to are displaying reciprocal trust. The people you chose to gossip with are people you trust not to use the information that you're sharing against you.
  • Gossip encourages social bonding. The people you gossip with become part of a group -- everyone else is outside of your group.

Regardless of whether it is just an advanced form of grooming, gossip can play a lot of different roles in social interactions. When gossiping, people:

  • Entertain each other
  • Influence one another's opinions
  • Exchange important information
  • Point out and enforce social rules
  • Learn from others' mistakes

A lot of the time, people could learn the same information about social rules and standards through observation. However, observing people's behavior 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 also spread negative gossip to increase their own social status at the expense of other people's.

Because of all of this, it's hard to support gossip as a necessary social tool or discredit it as an unnecessary social evil. Next, we'll examine these complexities more thoroughly using some specific examples.

Juicy Tidbits

Happy People, Happy Gossip
In general, happy people spread positive gossip more often, and unhappy people spread negative gossip more often. In addition, people generally spread negative information about their enemies and positive information about their allies [References: New York Times, APA].

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. These fictional examples explore the different sides of gossip and its moral implications.

Malice with a Purpose
Mickey, Amy and Joey are in elementary school. Mickey tells Amy that Joey failed a test. With this piece of gossip, Mickey establishes that he's smarter than Joey and implies that Amy is, too. Amy and Mickey position themselves as better than Joey, which can raise their social standing compared to him and the rest of the class.

This isn't a particularly kind piece of gossip, since it's likely to cause classmates to tease Joey and hurt his feelings. In addition, Mickey and Amy may have to continue to gossip about their classmates in order to maintain their more popular place within the social group. This is a common use for gossip -- people compare themselves favorably to others, raising their own status within a social circle while lowering someone else's. False or slanderous gossip usually works in much the same way.

Two girls checking out a mean phrase on a chalkboard after another girl wrote it

Us Versus Them
Mirabelle is a member of a choral group, and after being named one of the group's section leaders, she starts to slack off. She skips rehearsals, arrives late and leaves early. Two other members of the group, Gina and David, generally come early and stay late to help other members. They've also volunteered to organize and store all of the group's sheet music. One day, a new member named Michael joins the group. After rehearsal, Gina and David take Michael to dinner and fill him in about Mirabelle's habits.

This conversation allows all three people involved to form a bond -- in general, people who are united against a common hardship or enemy become closer to each other. In fact, the group as a whole might become stronger as it compensates for Mirabelle's shortcomings. This is another common use for gossip -- one study has even shown that the amount of gossip in a team environment peaks when the team views one of its members as inefficient or inept.

This piece of gossip also makes Michael aware of Gina and David's expectations of him. He gets advance warning of issues he might have with Mirabelle. However, some would argue that Gina and David are simply bad-mouthing a colleague rather than taking steps to address the problem.

The Ethics of Gossip

One woman showing gossip to another

Delicate Information
Jason is suddenly terminated from his job. His co-workers begin to worry about their own job security -- Jason was well-liked and efficient, and his being fired came out of the blue. Morale begins to suffer as people wonder whether they will be next. Soon, people learn through the office grapevine that Jason had been stealing money from the company's charity fund drive, which he was coordinating.

Jason's co-workers need this information to feel secure in their own jobs, but it would not be appropriate for the company to broadcast it. In this kind of situation, a company's official sources of information can't answer employees' questions, so the employees turn to unofficial sources. For this reason, gossip is often prevalent in businesses that do not communicate well with their employees.

Spreading this information could be considered a violation of Jason's privacy or an assault on his character. In addition, it can be argued that people's confidence in Jason is more important than their sense of job security.

This example also demonstrates something that's typical of a lot of gossip. Most people would probably react to the news of Jason's theft with disbelief. However, everyone trusts that the source of the information is telling the truth -- they suspend their disbelief. Although the idea that someone as kind and responsible as Jason could be a thief can seem absurd, people will pass it on if they believe it to be true.

Being Prepared
Amanda lives in an apartment. One night, someone breaks into the apartment upstairs. Amanda learns that her upstairs neighbors were drug dealers and had recently been arrested. Her landlord evicted the neighbors, but they'd left most of their possessions in the apartment. Police theorize that the thief had bought drugs from the neighbors and had broken in looking for drugs or money.

Amanda is surprised, since she thought her neighborhood was a safe one. Her landlords clean out the upstairs apartment and rent it to a family who has a young daughter. Concerned for their safety, Amanda tells her new neighbors about the previous neighbors and the break-in.

Gossip and the CIA Leak Scandal
In 2003, a newspaper column exposed Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA operative, which was classified information. The ensuing investigation and the media's response became known as the "CIA leak scandal." It took about three years for the source of the leak to be uncovered. According to the September 4, 2006 issue of "Newsweek," the source was Richard Armitage, who spread the information as gossip [ref].

Most people think of gossip as negative, but in this situation, Amanda could feel morally obligated to gossip. She's giving her neighbors information that they need to have to ensure their physical safety. She and her neighbors also develop a bond of trust during the conversation, which can make it more likely that they will be able to trust and help each other in the future.

As these examples show, gossip and rumors have some similarities to urban legends. All three can make people aware of typically unspoken social rules and offer a warning of what could happen if the rules are disobeyed. Gossip and urban legends can also take on a life of their own, spreading far beyond the social circle in which they originated. Finally, people often adamantly believe rumors and urban legends they hear, in spite of evidence that they are not true.

For more information about gossip, rumor and urban legends, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

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