How Gossip Works

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.