It gives me great comfort to know that the reason I spend so much time gossiping about who Harry Styles is dating is because I need it to survive.
Our brains are built for gossip: According to evolutionary biologists, the survival of our species depended on information sharing. In our prehistoric past, humans lived in small groups dependent on long-term, consistent cooperation. We needed to know who could and couldn’t be trusted, who had the juiciest mammoth marinade, who was sleeping with whom. “In short, people who were fascinated with the lives of others were simply more successful than those who were not,” says anthropologist Robin Dunbar, “and it is the genes of those individuals that have come down to us through the ages.”
Evidence seems to support this: Children start gossiping at the baby-cheeked age of five, and some studies estimate that more than two-thirds of conversation could be tagged as gossip (i.e. talk between at least two people about absent others). So why, then, do we think of gossip as a vice, the province of mean girls and bullies, lipstick-smacking burn books and watercooler terror? And if it is so bad, why does it feel so good?
When Good Gossip Goes Bad
Gossip is biological; it’s also often unquestionably problematic. Our brains didn’t know they would need to adapt for the wealth of connections made possible through social media and the accessibility of pop culture, which is why gossip today is infinitely more loaded than it was in the past. Our social groups are larger and more diverse; we can spread light-speed rumours with the push of a button; we can troll strangers and dissect the intimacies of lives over which we presume ownership simply because we follow them on Instagram.
This kind of malicious rumor-spreading is what caused Camila, 27, to include “stop gossiping” on her list of 2019 resolutions. “I’ve gossiped and I’ve been gossiped about, and now I just feel like I’m getting too old to be a part of it,” she tells me. “It’s time-consuming, energy-consuming and, honestly, it just got boring.”
Anjalika, also 27, feels the same way. “I’m specifically trying to stop the ‘venting about friends’ gossip that somehow always devolves into smack-talking,” she says. “I often do this when someone in my life hurts my feelings, and I choose not to address the issue in order to keep the peace.” Now, she says, “I’m trying to be more direct with my friends from the get-go.”
While gossip can, in theory, provide us with important information about our peers, like Anjalika points out, it’s also the easy answer to honestly and openly addressing issues. There’s nothing productive about shit-talking a friend’s outfit, and rumor spreading can have truly dire consequences. Our world is far more complicated than it used to be — so is gossip still necessary for negotiating our surroundings?
Get On My Good Side
In a word, yes. At its most fundamental, gossip is essential to building strong communities. In one study that examined the effect of gossiping on social norms, people were more apt to gossip about negative behavior — in this case, littering — than they were about good behavior, because it helped them to clarify and strengthen moral foundations. These participants, as a result, felt more socially bonded to the other participants, and, by extension, to their community.
That’s what gossip, at its best, can do do: provide a shared language and a platform for deep, communal understanding. Think of online networks that form around obsessing about Kate Middleton’s wardrobe or interrogating Olivia Benson’s queerness. While the anonymity of these sites can be a hotbed for cruelty and criticism, in kinder corners, they can foster intense bonds.
Alexandra, 33, says that knowing when (and when not) to gossip has been foundational in most of her closest friendships. “I crave intimacy and trust,” she says.”Plus, I’m a Scorpio — I fucking love secrets. It’s pathological!” This ability to share and protect information is what she believes makes her friendships stronger. “I don’t like flighty relationships, so how can I earn that trust without giving something in return? What I can do is take information — good, bad, scary, upsetting — and hold it for my friends.”
Gossip’s Feminine Edge
Something to chew on: If less than five percent of gossip is malicious, how did it get such a bad rap? Despite evidence showing that men gossip just as much as (if not more than!) women, gossip is coded as female — and, like many other facets of our society that are the perceived purview of women, that implicit relationship has contributed to its negative connotation.
“Men gossip and call it networking,” says Kate, 30. “Women do it and we’re tagged as catty bitches.”
As Kate puts it, “Gossiping with friends or coworkers is often my way of contextualizing information. It’s an incredibly helpful way to process difficult situations, or to figure out a course of action. But people view this kind of sharing among women as being inane or superficial, whereas for men, they actually gain power from being seen as the holders of information.”
Jordy, 28, learned the value of gossip early — “My mom has four sisters, and there was always some sort of scandal going on” — and leveraged it in her job. “I’m a costume designer, and my trailer is known as the ‘House of Hot Goss’ because everyone from actors to producers use it for venting or commiseration.” The ability to trade and hold information has created intimacy with her coworkers, and established her as a person of trust at work.
Women share information in order to gain a clearer understanding of, say, workplace dynamics, or to establish loyalties at work. In fact, open conversation with coworkers is shown to be a key to reducing the gender wage gap. We might be apocalypse-stockpiling information, but we’re doing it in order to better argue for ourselves in a world that tilts towards male advantage.
A friend in Toronto once told me that every woman in media knew to stay away from Jian Ghomeshi before his transgressions were publicized; they had a whisper network, a web of support that tried, in the absence of any meaningful legal or professional sanction, to keep women safe. Gossip was all they had, and they used it the way humans have been using it for millenia: To protect those they could, and create walls around those who violated the trust of the group. Gossip may be a vice, but it can be a mighty one.
Do you think of yourself as a gossip? Are you trying to stop? Spill the tea, please.
Collages by Madeline Montoya.