Curiosity about gossip seems to center on one question: What “counts” as gossip? Talking about who in Hollywood is heading to the altar? Discussing the odd behavior of a friend at a party? Criticizing a friend’s choice of attire? Taking bets on how long a common friend’s latest love affair will last? Confiding in a friend about another friend’s bizarre eating habits? Discussing news stories about presidential candidates’ service records? Mulling over whether one’s favorite baseball player uses steroids? This curiosity is not about the definition of gossip per se. It is about categorizing instances of talk about people who are not present in moral terms, innocent talk or sinful slander, purposeful or idle, truth or lies. Not gossip or gossip.
The definition of gossip, for most of us, implicitly includes a moral dimension. And this is precisely what makes gossip difficult to define, especially for those who wish to study gossip. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I-know-it-when-I-see-it” approach (to defining obscenity) won’t serve social psychologists. Most social psychologists agree that gossip is conversation about people who are not present. And most agree that conversation about people becomes gossip when evaluations, particularly negative ones, creep into the discourse. Saying “John got into every school he applied to” is probably not gossip. But if it were said with a roll of the eyes, it might be gossip. If it were followed by “His parents have a lot of money,” we would now be in a conversation thick with unflattering evaluations of John. This, to most of us, is gossip.
Gossip can be defined, behaviorally, as informal evaluative comments about people who are not present. One may wish to add to this definition that the comments are negative or unflattering of the person being talked about. However, a deeper appreciation of what gossip is may come from understanding its purpose. Those who have considered the adaptive benefits of gossip point to two main purposes: transmission of information and social bonding. Information about who is doing what and with whom serves us as we plot our own moves through the social landscape. We could get into serious trouble if we didn’t know who was romantically interested in whom or who had aspirations of leadership or who was taking more than their share of community resources, for example. Gossip is also a source for learning, and even defining, social norms. This is evidenced by a meta-analysis of anthropological studies that found that the main topics of gossip were “personal qualities and idiosyncrasies, behavioral surprises and inconsistencies, character flaws, discrepancies between actual behavior and moral claims, bad manners, socially unaccepted modes of behavior, shortcomings, improprieties, omissions, presumptions, blamable mistakes, misfortunes, and failures.”
Another chief function of gossip, many believe, is to forge and maintain social bonds. The social bonding benefit of gossip may even have been the carrot that drove the evolution of language, according to Robin Dunbar, evolutionary psychologist. He believes that language evolved for the purpose of talking about other members of the social group and that this allowed our early ancestors to form allies who protected them from harassment from other group members, an inevitable part of group living. It also allowed for the discovery of “freeloaders”—group members who take more than they give—something that would have benefited most everyone in the society.
But why should gossip be negative talk about people? One possibility is that, through negative gossip, people trade valuable social information. It is as though they have given each other a little gift. Another possibility is that because they engaged in an activity that many find morally questionable—speaking ill of others—they may have felt like “partners in crime.” Talking negatively means that one is sharing a confidence, a private opinion, and hopes that it will stay secret between the gossipers. Talking positively has no such implication. Sharing a secret with someone builds intimacy because it carries with it the implicit message that the listener is trusted.
Yet another possibility is that sharing negative opinions about other people is a form of self-disclosure, and self-disclosure is known to make people feel closer. Feelings about the actions or character of another person may be considered very private to some people, and sharing them may feel like an act of self-disclosure.
A definition of gossip that satisfies everyone may never be achieved. Part of the problem is that the definition of gossip seems to change with perspective. When we talk about people who are not present, we take into account our intentions (a moral consideration) when we decide whether or not what we are saying “counts” as gossip. But from an outsider’s perspective, it is impossible to know the motives and intents of the gossipers, so using moral terms to define gossip from this perspective is problematic, particularly for researchers. This entry has suggested a behavioral definition of gossip to address this problem. But a definition of gossip that makes black and white the vast moral gray area in the universe of people talking about other people is left for you to make.
- Wert, S. R., & Salovey, P. (2004). Introduction to the special issue on gossip. Review of General Psychology, 8, 76-77.