Like many social practices historically associated with women, gossip and the people who take part in it get a bad rap. As many of us are taught in our school-aged years, gossip is mindless and mean with no place in polite society. That derision continues into adulthood, as evidenced by the various “Science says gossip might have benefits?!” articles that inevitably get published every year or so.
As a lifelong busybody, I don’t need scientific studies — like the one that was reported on (and widely re-reported) early this year linking gossip to elevated oxytocin levels in women — to tell me that gossip can be a force for good. Consider your own experiences, and you probably don’t either. Nevertheless, articles extolling findings that “gossiping makes you feel good” or “gossiping can help self-improvement” are continually presented as quirky revelations, part of the type of feel-good-but-ultimately-inconsequential news that is supposed to absolve readers of the guilty part of their guilty pleasures.
What’s more often overlooked, though, is how, even in a world where organizing and community-building are facilitated by technological tools like social networking platforms and communication apps, gossip, whether online or in real life, is still, and will forever be, the main resource many communities have for regulating, protecting, and preserving themselves.
Without gossip, the femmes in my old music community would have never been able to compile a list of serial abusers in the scene. Without gossip, a friend never would have learned she made less than her male coworkers and should ask for a raise or find another workplace. And without gossip, I may have never learned when another friend’s partner was in the hospital after a bike accident. Gossip inspired me to send them a note of support.
To be clear, when I use the word “gossip” I don’t mean the kind of personally distant celebrity gossip that can sometimes feel delicious but ultimately has little impact on one’s life. I also don’t mean bullying, what happens when information about others is spread maliciously and largely without purpose. I mean the type of resource- and knowledge-sharing that people take part in every day, the informal information networks that small communities use to survive. Because as much as gossip and talking about others in absentia is condemned, society would be worse off without it.
Indeed the best examples of why gossip is important come from situations involving young girls, the very people our society most often characterizes as gossips and then condemns. But consider that without the uncorroborated whispers that germinated amongst young black girls in Chicago, the world may never have learned that celebrated R&B star R. Kelly may actually be a monster that sexually abuses young black women and girls. And, say what you will about celebrity news publications, but gossip columns in the city were among the first to ever report on an alleged victim’s lawsuit against Kelly in the ‘90s.
Without gossip, a friend never would have learned she made less than her male coworkers.
At my own all-girls high school, “gossip” circulated all four years I attended about a male teacher who allegedly had sexual relationships with students. When those “rumors” reached the administration — with the help of a Facebook page — we were called to assembly and told essentially to stop being gossipy mean girls. Years after I graduated, the gossip we spread was finally deemed fact when it was reported by a local newspaper and, eventually, the Boston Globe. These are just two of infinite examples of the work gossips do to bring truth to light. (Not to mention that the gossip’s close cousin is the leaker, a more modern, high-minded iteration of the same thing.) And these examples illustrate what gossip really is today: information that comes from people our society neither respects nor protects.
This isn’t to say that all gossip is inherently noble or good. When we gossip, we are participating in the kind of community preservation exercise that I’ve described and the type of social “grooming” that the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar explains in his 1997 book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Millions of years ago when groups of apes were getting larger, picking bugs out of each others’ fur became a less and less effective means of bonding. “Vocalizations began to acquire meaning,” Dunbar writes. “But the content was largely social: gossip had arrived.” And while we all have an innate need to bond with a community, many of us, like myself, are also just uncontrollably nosy. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just true — humans are social animals, and we crave information to learn about each other and ourselves. And as in any social interaction, cruelty can creep in if parties involved allow it. Gossip can ruin relationships and lives. But then again, so too can excessive focus on oneself and a complete lack of interest in others’ lives — the opposite of gossip.
The continuous hand wringing over if gossip can be good, combined with the need for scientific proof of that possibility, is tired and old-fashioned at best, if not just horribly misogynistic. So, before the next “Some gossip might make life better” article appears to promote the latest scientific study, let’s just get the truth out there in the open as all the best gossip does: Gossip is good. It’s people who hate gossip who are bad.