The Value of Gossip
One of the things humans do is to gossip. Maybe we should think about how to gossip well.
The term “gossip” often means something mean-spirited, speaking ill of others, but what I mean is just talking about people who are not present. In this sense parents gossip about their children, and we all gossip about our friends. There is some plausible speculation that gossip is actually evolutionarily adaptive, that it is one of the factors that have brought about our large brains.(1)
Increased brain capacity certainly has advantages. It enables us to learn from experience and to foresee possible futures and plan strategies accordingly. In both cases, learning from the past and envisioning the future, we think about something that is not immediately present. Gossip is the same, thinking and talking about people who are not present, and is something that humans, but no other animals, do.
We keep track of others in our group by gossiping about them, and the larger our brain the more people we can keep track of. The size of the brain is related logarithmically to the size of the social group. Chimps live in groups of about 30 and spend lots of their time grooming each other. On that scale, humans, with brains two and a half to four times larger, should be able to live in groups of about 150. Sure enough, studies of hunter-gatherers, military units and the address books of city-dwellers show that people can in fact keep track of about 100 to 150 people in the sense of knowing them by name and face and knowing how each is related to the others. But we don’t interact with all of them, and we certainly don’t exchange grooming with that many other people.
Talking about others is humans’ way of grooming. It enables us to know them and place them in a social context by reputation. It enforces social norms, as people love to talk about others’ moral failings and peccadilloes. It requires greater and greater effort to manage your reputation in such an environment, so most people feel an urge to be helpful even to those not likely to be able to help back, and to refrain from taking too much advantage of those who are weaker. Gossip tells us who is helpful and who is not, who is trustworthy and who cheats, who has high status and who doesn’t, without having to interact with them directly. It strengthens social bonds, as we tend to want to reciprocate when hearing a juicy bit of gossip and pass along what we have heard about someone else. All this requires enormous brain-power.
If gossip is part of essential human nature, and if well-being depends on excellence in performing essentially human functions, then what does excellence in gossip entail? What does it mean to gossip in a good way?
The gossip itself, of course, has to be interesting enough to pass on. Moral transgression is a particularly juicy topic because it is the most critical to social survival. The inverse, news of some particularly brave or laudable action, like diving in a river to save a child, is equally compelling for the same reason. The more unusual the action, the more we talk about it, because we take a particular interest in anything unusual. And interest varies with proximity of social connection. The more we care about someone, the more trivial the gossip can be. That our own child or grandchild had a funny interaction with the dog is more gossip-worthy than the same for someone across town we know only slightly.
The social function of gossip is to knit a community together. Interest causes gossip to be repeated, but to help the community it has to be true as well. Lying doesn’t help. If you tell lies, someone is going to find out about it and resent it. When you act on what’s not true, reality gets in the way and thwarts your intention. Lies are self-defeating; if you get a reputation for being a liar, you won’t get the help and cooperation you need from others. (Unless there are factions telling lies about each other; then you’ll get aid from your faction. But factionalism hurts the community as a whole.)
To strengthen the bonds between people, gossip should also be friendly and helpful, newsworthy but not damaging. We should say good things about people and show them in a positive light because in the social realm, unlike in the physical, perception changes reality. Suppose you see Jack kick a dog. You can tell people that Jack is mean or you can tell them that he is having a hard day and needs some help. People who think Jack is mean will treat him harshly, so that he is more likely to act mean. People who think he needs help will treat him in a more friendly way, which will make him less likely to act mean.
We can think of speaking about others as a form of blessing. By speaking well of them, they are benefited, and so are we, because what goes around comes around. By speaking ill of them, we are cursing them – and ourselves – instead. There is a Sufi teaching called the “Four Cs”: Criticize Not, Complain Not, Condemn Not and Compare Not. This is good advice for anyone who gossips (that is, for all of us), and it requires the exercise of another distinctively human faculty: good judgment.
So, gossip away – you can’t help it, you’re human – but do it in a good way. Make it interesting, friendly, helpful and true.
(1) Haidt, Jonathan, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic Books, 2006), pp. 52-55.