Women use gossip for good.
We are more familiar with its image as a nefarious force that harms both individuals and communities — witness Judaism’s rule against telling or hearing tales about third parties. But there is more to gossip than that. It helps enforce community norms and strengthens relationships.
Let’s start with gossip’s evolution. Scholar Robin Dunbar argues that language evolved to enhance the cohesion of large groups. While other primates bonded groups together through mutual grooming, human communities grew too large for that and developed language to facilitate relationships instead.
Dunbar also concludes that gossip helps to create and enforce the rules for human interaction. By “talking to one person, we can find out a great deal about how other individuals are likely to behave, how we should react to them when we actually meet them and what kinds of relationships they have with third parties. All these things allow us to coordinate our social relationships within a group more effectively.”
David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University, agrees, according to The New York Times. He says gossip is “important in regulating behavior and defining membership in a group.”
This idea fits well with the perception of women as both gossips and as social butterflies (at least compared to men). It also gives women one of their few powers in society: they can establish and enforce some rules of interaction.
(It is not just unfounded prejudice to say that women gossip more than men: Dunbar confirmed that groups of women are more likely to talk about absent people, while groups of men discuss themselves.)
Gossip, a book by Joseph Epstein, also identifies gossip with the less powerful in society, though he sees it more as a survival mechanism than as an instrument of power. Gossip, he writes, is “for the disenfranchised a means of reconnaissance, a way of acquiring information crucial to their status and survival. It’s not for nothing that the two groups most notorious for trafficking in gossip have been women and gay men.”
Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post supports the idea of gossip as a way of acquiring information necessary for social survival. He writes that the “gossip that most interests me, and apparently Epstein as well, is gossip either about people whom I know or about people whom I do not know but who move more or less in my own circle.” This gossip is most interesting because it communicates his friends’ expectations of him, and warns him about people to avoid or behavior to be wary of among his acquaintances.
Gossipers also list “gathering or checking information” as “the most important reason” for their conversations, and report that their “main motive” was “to protect their group.”
But Yardley also embraces the worst beliefs about gossip. He believes, and quotes Epstein to the effect, that “the most basic motives behind gossip” are “to do dirt to” the subject of the gossip and to enjoy prurience and naughtiness. But he distances himself from the usual critique of gossip, and of women as gossips, by saying that his description has “almost nothing to do with evil and a great deal to do with fun.”
Which doesn’t mean it isn’t constructive, even in a business context. According to Susan Adams at Forbes, “a paper by two professors at the University of Amsterdam has found that gossip helps identify employees who are shirking their responsibility, making the office a more efficient place.”
The lead author of the Amsterdam study summarized that “gossip may not always be as negative as one might believe at first,” because it “allows people to gather and validate information, to enjoy themselves with others, and to protect their group.”
Medical News Today agrees that gossip is good, adding that it helps your health. It discusses a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in January 2012 that found that gossiping can be “therapeutic.” Volunteers’ “heart rates appeared to increase when hearing gossip, but lowered again once they passed on the information to someone else.” If gossip is a game of hot potato, it is no wonder it spreads so fast: people must unload what they know to lower their own stress levels. Robb Willer, a coauthor of the study and social psychologist at U.C. Berkeley, said, ”Gossip gets a bad rap, but we’re finding evidence that it plays a critical role in the maintenance of social order … Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to make people feel better, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip.”
Willer’s colleague Matthew Feinberg, the lead author of the study, said that a “central reason for engaging in gossip was to help others out — more so than just to talk trash” about someone.
Gossip can protect people by warning them about bad apples, people who break the accepted conventions and thus undermine the group’s well-being. But it can also be a major force in shaping those conventions, and the fact that it is primarily the province of the less powerful in society makes it a back door for those who often go unheard to influence their communities.