Is There Anything Good About It?

Gossip has a bad name, as does rumor, innuendo, leaks and many of the other quick and dirty ways we have of disseminating information.  We reject the idea of gossip because it is irresponsible.  But that’s just another way of saying that it is not subject to the usual restraints we impose on our social discourse.

When we gossip we don’t check for accuracy, or think through the consequences.  We don’t stop to examine our motives or reflect on our goals.  We disregard collateral damage.  It’s like a garage sale of the mind, allowing us to impulsively put on display the facts and feelings we want to get rid of.

All the advantages are with the seller.  The object of gossip is exposed and vulnerable, while the source is protected.  The “news” spreads anonymously, enjoying the privilege of always seeming inside information.  That makes it dangerous.  Not only can the facts be wrong, but also the intent can be malicious.  Speculators can manipulate this unregulated information for their own ends.  And they can settle old scores with impunity.

But researchers now are exploring another side, the benefits to the consumers of gossip, as reported recently in The New York Times.  A sociologist at the University of California found that “gossip can play the role of protecting others from being exploited by passing on information about bad behavior to warn others.” (See, “The Virtues of Gossip”)  According to the author of the study, “We sometimes need to trade information with third parties about people who aren’t around.”

In addition, the threat of gossip can act as a restraint.  Fearing exposure, people will sometimes stop themselves from acting badly, never knowing who in the anonymous crowd of onlookers might turn them in.

Given the dangers of gossip as a kind of toxic by-product of our social lives, many think it should always be discouraged, if not prohibited.  But that won’t happen.  People enjoy it, and it serves several purposes as these studies show.  Not only does it often spread useful information, it is a way to feel effective.  The bearers of gossip enjoy the sense of being insiders, the first to know what is really going on, and they offer that status to others.  Moreover, in a world awash with disinformation or news that is doctored and spun, gossip can even seem more reliable than official statements.  Not having been approved or sanitized for public consumption can make it appear more authentic and, even, more true.

Better, then, to accept it and find ways of working with it.  Timothy Hallett, a sociologist at Indiana University, noted that aware leaders can be alert to the cues. “If someone is sarcastic, you can jump in and say, ‘What do you mean?’”

Robb Willer, a sociologist at Berkeley, sums it up:  “The trick is to learn to navigate between helpful and malicious or unreliable gossip.”  If you can’t regulate it, at least you can be clever and alert in dealing with it.