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01 - 07 Sept, 2012

The New Word On Gossip

From cocktail parties to family reunions, the water cooler to the professional convention, we all enjoy the guilty pleasures of talking about other people. But gossip is more than just idle chitchat; it's also how we arrange our world as social animals. In this article we discuss the evolutionary reasons why humanity is a The New Word On Gossipbeehive of communication.

We've All Seen Both Sides Of Gossip
One side is the warm feeling you get from spending time with a friend and sharing stories about mutual acquaintances. The other side is the stomach-churning anger, shame and frustration you feel when you realize someone is spreading bad news about you. We want to be on the right side of gossip, but sometimes it illuminates while other times it just burns. When it's good, it binds people and communities together. As anyone who has lived in a small community knows, gossip is something that people who share a collective identity do naturally. But rampant individualism, the fragmentation of our lifestyle and the pervasiveness of competitive striving can drive gossip and rumour down more poisonous channels.
If you want to gauge the health of an organisation, tap into its grapevine, taste a sample or two, and test the toxicity. Companies that think they need to eradicate the rumour mill to clean up the culture have got it the wrong way around. Gossip is inevitable and blameless – the problem lies instead in its content, which reflects precisely what is going on in people's minds.
Our psychological architecture as much as our physical form – was shaped to survive and reproduce under a particular set of conditions. This was the existence of clan-dwelling primates, who subsisted by foraging and hunting. It is only in recent biological times that we left the world of clan-dwelling primates for the world of agriculture, city settlements and, eventually, business organisations. We inhabit our high-tech world with Stone Age minds because there has not been enough time to change our psychology to match our environment.

As social animals we are status-conscious, and for good reason. Navigating the social pathways of the tribe requires a good understanding of its complexity. There is extensive research showing that among humans, being of high rank confers an important array of benefits: health, wealth and happiness.
But attaining these benefits and avoiding failure is difficult. One reason is that social hierarchy is multidimensional. People deploy a wide repertoire of talents to compare themselves with others. What's more, social structure is dynamic; it changes all the time. Various media keep us in touch not only with the fate of the notorious and celebrated, but also with the ever-shifting ideas and fashions that form the currency for social discourse. The media give us material to discuss and tell us about our own location within this labile lattice of relationships. It is no different on the local level. The position and importance of people in your circle of influence are constantly shifting.

The second function of gossip is influence. Even when our social position is apparently immobile, we retain an active interest in making sure we do not lose it. When we find an opportunity, we try to advance a good opinion about ourselves to those who can help us. However, it is not enough to do good; you need a reputation for doing good for it to count in your favour. Like it or not, we all are confronted with the task of selling ourselves and making sure other people have a positive impression of us. Self-promotion is not always a conscious strategy. We do it whenever we meet a stranger. It's in the way we engage in small talk and mobilise our facial expressions to convey interest and sympathetic sentiments. I once spoke with the leader of a music band who told me that many superb musicians don't get the recognition they deserve, while there are many high-profile stars of lesser talent. Not everyone is equally good at self-promotion – or equally motivated to put the effort into it. Introverts have figured out that if they leave The New Word On Gossipsocialising to the extroverts they'll end up at the bottom of the pile. So they learn how to practice the arts of self-promotion, though it doesn't flow as naturally for them.

Often times we use gossip for the sake of what seems to be pure one-on-one pleasure. This pleasure derives from the third function of gossip: alliances. Human gossip follows the same asymmetries as a monkey picking lice from another's fur; the weak groom the strong more than vice versa. People supply information to whom they are attracted and with whom they wish to align themselves. When I give you a tidbit of gossip – "remember, it's a secret" – I am also telling you that you are valuable enough to be a recipient – and that you should think well of me for doing so. We use information to form advantageous alliances that we hope will provide some stability, and ideally an upper hand, to our place in the social hierarchy. When we gossip, of course, all three functions are being served at the same time. Go to any professional conference – which are huge circuses devoted almost exclusively to official and unofficial gossip – and see how people move among their networks seeking both influence and alliances. To experience a sense of powerlessness and exclusion, go to one as a complete outsider.

The Dark Side
Many people link gossip with malice; indeed gossip can be vicious. Ali can raise his own status with Alina and boost Alina's own sense of self by telling her something bad about Javeria, a known enemy of hers. Javeria, without even knowing this is happening, can be damaged. But Alina is also likely to go away thinking that Javeria's predicament could happen to her. Although gossip can strengthen the bonds within a community, sometimes it becomes a covert contest between winners and losers. In an ever-shifting matrix of alliances, people will always be looking for an advantage, which leaves others at a disadvantage. Negative gossip about third parties, who of course have no opportunity to defend themselves, is a dangerous game that can rebound on the gossiper. To be good at malicious gossip requires a high degree of subtlety and skill. The trick is to appear to be sympathetic to the victim while holding him below the waterline with implicit denigration.
Most people find this distasteful. Much malicious gossip is conducted unconsciously, an act that requires self-deception. But humans are especially adept at it; it helps us to maintain consistent social performance. In the world of gossip, self-deception often takes the form of genuinely believing one is on the high moral ground of charitable sympathy, looking down on one's slowly sinking victim.

Men Do It Too
It is said that women gossip more than men do. Perhaps they only do it better. Men just call it "networking."
What does tend to differ by gender is the content of gossip. Men are much more interested in who is up and who is down (hence sports-page obsession), as befits their predilection for competitive game-playing. Women tend to gossip more about social inclusion and moral alignment – who's in and who has merit.
A key element of gossip is storytelling. We have a narrative instinct that is an essential aid to social insight and action, and a great vehicle for learning. Children are irresistibly drawn to stories, and we use them to instill all the most important ideas about the human community, its daily dangers and rules, plus moral fables about how to succeed and be happy.
In daily life we ruminate in narrative voice – telling ourselves moral tales in which we are the hero or innocent victim of some chain of events. In so doing we consistently make attribution errors-placing a human agent as the key element in a chain of events, when in reality the true cause was something impersonal or random. Collectively the same thing happens in organizations – especially when management becomes defensively tightlipped at a time of impending crisis. Nature abhors a vacuum and the gossip rushes to fill it.
Leaders and politicians have to be reminded that openness costs less, ultimately, than the impact of false stories and the time it takes to rub out the stain they leave. But the silence of public figures and the public's appetite for news stem from the same hardwired motive to avoid loss and safeguard our interests. It requires a community of trust for gossip to be good for us all.


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