Don't tell anyone, but my boyfriend's friend chipped her tooth. She can't get it fixed because it's a non-essential dental procedure. I'm not sure how big the chip is, but it is on her front tooth. Isn't that awful (and just a little bit funny)? Keep this to yourself too: in my boyfriend's friend's Zoom physics college class, a student started yelling and cursing at the teacher! He was frustrated that he couldn't see the problems because she was scrolling too fast. Bit of an overreaction, no? He said some really inappropriate things, the teacher should have muted him.
These tidbits are from me and my boyfriend's nightly gossip sesh—a new ritual we've picked up while social distancing and working from home during the pandemic. As the days have started to blur into a monotonous haze, I demanded one night: "Tell me some goss." My boyfriend's offering wasn't that salacious, but framing it as gossip was exciting, and provided us two minutes of entertainment that wasn't the news or whatever TV shows or books we're filling our time with.
Since then we've kept it up. Each day, I consider what my gossip to share will be, and he does the same. In the evening, one of us (usually the one with the better gossip) will proclaim: "You ready for some goss?!" The other eagerly stops what they are doing, in rapt attention.
Everyone loves gossip. If they say they don’t, they’re lying. There’s nothing more thrilling than hearing that someone is ready to spill some tea. When there's dirt to dish, we’re electrified—eager to be privy to inside information.
“Let’s be honest,” the poet W.H. Auden wrote, in a 1937 essay In Defense of Gossip. “When you open your newspaper, as soon as you have made sure that England hasn’t declared war, or been bombed, what do you look at? Why, the gossip columns!”
Gossiping gets a bad rap ( "If you have nothing nice to say, don't say it at all") but for those of us lucky enough to be safely bored at home, we need gossip more than ever before. An intentional gossip practice, even over video chat, is not only fun, it can help us feel closer to one another. Researchers who study gossip have found that it helps us bond, increases cooperation, and encourages good behavior and self-reflection—all qualities of a good quarantine habit.
“There’s no reason whatever why gossip should make mischief,” Auden wrote. “As a game played under the right rules, it's an act of friendliness, a release of the feeling, and a creative work of art.”
Here are the rules of gossip, agreed upon by gossip researchers. Gossip must be information about another person, not the stock market or the weather. The person can’t be there while you’re talking about them, they must be an "absent third party." And gossip is usually evaluative—meaning it’s making a moral judgement about that person and their behavior, that something they did is either good or bad.
“It’s entertaining,” said Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois who has done a number of studies on gossip. “We can’t look away. It just draws us in.”
Though Eleanor Roosevelt said “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people," the truth is that we are often of small minds—we gossip all the time. Gossiping starts around the age of 5, and one study found that about 60 percent of our conversations are made up of gossip.
Gossip is universal in all cultures and has been around for centuries. When a feature of human behavior is so ubiquitous, scientists tend to think it’s stuck around for a reason—that in some way it’s helped us to survive.
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Robin Dunbar, an Oxford University anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, has proposed that gossip is the human version of primates grooming one another; it's a way of sharing social information, but verbally, and in larger groups than one ape picking bugs off another. Gossip may have developed because early humans needed to communicate and cooperate in order to survive. McAndrew said in early human civilizations, a person wouldn’t have fared well without being interested in what others were up to. We've evolved to care (and talk about) who was best at hunting, who was the best mate, and who would stab us in the back.
More recent research has shown that gossip can bring even modern humans together. Sharing gossip tells a person that you trust them. “That they’re going to be responsible with it, and that now we know something most other people don’t. That really ties us together,” McAndrew said.
Jennifer Bosson, a social psychologist at the University of South Florida, said gossip also communicates our likes and dislikes to others. She has studied how sharing our feelings about another person leads people to bond. She's found that talking about our negative opinions of others can strengthen new relationships more than positive opinions—the spicier the gossip, the stickier it is as social glue.
Gossip also encourages us to behave, since we know if we do something outrageous, others will be whispering about it behind our backs. Gossip is one of the main ways we talk and learn about others' reputations.
The desire to maintain your reputation promotes cooperation with others and also deters people from doing nasty and awful things. It can force us to be good citizens and do the right things—meaning that gossiping about your friends who are violating social distancing rules could potentially be a way to make sure people stay at home. Studies of California cattle ranchers, Maine lobster fishers, and college rowing teams found they all used gossip to enforce their groups' social norms.
Gossip can also protect you from those with bad reputations. Prosocial gossip is when someone shares negative information about someone else, and it helps you avoid experiencing it yourself, like a whisper network. After hearing from a friend that a man ghosts every new girlfriend on the fourth date, you could choose to not go out with him at all. Gossip about other people can also make you think about yourself and your own actions, and want to be better, or be proud of yourself for acting differently.
“I think one of the reasons why gossip is so much a part of who we are is because it is adaptive in so many different ways," McAndrew said.
Gossip can achieve all these things even if it’s about someone you don’t know, like a celebrity. Because we can have extreme familiarity with celebrities’ lives, even without having ever met them, gossip about them matters just as much as the people we do know. In a recent interview in The Cut, Elaine Lui, journalist of Lainey Gossip.com, explained why even celebrity gossip—accused of being shallow—can reveal intimate parts of yourself to others.
We've evolved to care (and talk about) who was best at hunting, who was the best mate, and who would stab us in the back.
“You and I were just gossiping about Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas," Lui said. "To me, our conversation was really about quarantining with someone you weren’t legitimately in love with—about relationships and human connection, and who you want to be spending your time with. Your analysis of Ben and Ana actually tells me something about you: what you’re looking for in a companion, if you even need companionship, and how you want to spend your time. Those are valuable clues for me to understand you as a person better."
Gossipers (especially women) have historically been unfairly punished with cruel contraptions, like an iron cage with spikes from the 1500s, worn on the head, that prevents a person from talking. Or the “ducking stool” from the 1800s: a 12- to 15- foot beam that strapped a person to one end and plunged them into water.
“Given the condition of the bodies of water located in or near towns during this period of history, what the woman was being immersed in was usually not much better than raw sewage, providing a strong incentive for her to keep her mouth tightly closed,” McAndrew wrote in Psychology Today.
But no amount of dunking people in sewage has led to a scaling back of gossip before, so we might as well embrace it now, and figure out instead how to be better gossipers, in ways that bring us together and don't hurt others.
McAndrew doesn't think of gossip as inherently good or bad, but as a social skill—you’ll get in trouble if you don’t do it well. One way of being a bad gossip is if you only share negative information about other people, in ways that obviously benefit you. This would be like constantly sharing gossip about why a co-worker is inferior to you, or how an ex's new partner is worse than you. Good gossip should share information that brings value to the person you’re sharing it with, not just you.
If you’re a blabbermouth repeating everything anyone tells you, then people won’t trust you with any information because they know you’re incapable of keeping it to yourself. Keeping gossip intimate is a way of preserving it as a delicacy, knowing that it’s rare and only shared between a few people.
And it should go without saying that taking your gossip online and making it public removes the positive benefits. When researchers discuss the adaptive nature of gossiping, they’re talking about it as a mode of communication that evolved way before the internet and social media.
Keeping gossip intimate is a way of preserving it as a delicacy, knowing that it’s rare and only shared between a few people.
“Our ability to spread rumors online is really not functional in the same way that two members of the same group talk about whether or not another person is trustworthy,” Bosson said. “That’s serving a different function of gossip than spreading rumors about Meghan Markle. Sharing some information privately with your partner at home as a way of connecting is really different than going and broadcasting something that has a high risk of hurting somebody.”
If you’re struggling to come up with good gossip while quarantined, don't worry about finding huge scoops to share. McAndrew said that since our social lives have diminished, it’s likely that the standards for interesting gossip have gotten lower—even mundane things can now qualify as scintillating.
Some of the gossip I’ve shared with my boyfriend wouldn’t have sparked any interest before, like overhearing that our neighbor found some ants in their apartment or that my sister's boyfriend's dad threw up while they were in the car together.
According to Auden, the greatest subjects for gossip are "love, crime, and money." But when in doubt, remember that good goss is, at its core, about what the people around us are doing.
“All art is based on gossip—that is to say, on observing and telling,” Auden wrote. “Gossip is the art-form of the man and woman in the street, and the proper subject for gossip, as for all art, is the behavior of mankind.”
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