Nobody is untouched by gossip. We dish it. We listen to it. Or, least desirably, we are the subject of it.
One definition of gossip is “bits of news about the personal affairs of others.” We gossip about many things from appearances to habits. The best gossip, however, is usually found in the intimate secrets of others.
In Joseph Epstein’s book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, he explores the ever expanding roll gossip plays in our lives—from trivial pursuit to political weapon—and how the internet has, once again, changed everything.
The most enticing gossip is that which is highly feasible, often uncheckable, and deeply damning of the person who is its subject.
Gossip requires “two or more people telling things about a third that the latter would prefer not to be know.” In case you’re wondering, it matters not whether the gossip is true – if it is, so much the better.
The Uses of Gossip
Gossip does have its uses. Sociologists, for instances, have found much meaning in gossip.
In certain settings—the workplace, in large corporate offices, in government, in universities—gossip, as a source of funneling rumors recounting what is happening in the inner sanctum of an institution, may be the only way that workers have of finding out beforehand decisions that might have momentous effects on their future. Gossip can also be a relatively efficient way in which to acquire knowledge of the character of colleagues.
Gossip gives us a sense of what’s happening and allows us to feel integrated into the organization. According to Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University, “gossip appears to be a very sophisticated, multifunction interaction which is important in policing behaviour in a group and defining group membership.”
It also helps educate us to our cultural and social world. Sarah Wert, a psychologist at the University of Colorado adds: “We all know people who are not calibrated to the social world at all, who if they participated in gossip sessions would learn a whole lot of stuff they need to know and can’t learn anywhere else, like how reliable people are, how trustworthy. Not participating in gossip at some level can be unhealthy, and abnormal.”
Gossip can enforce community norms and discourage bad behavior. “Although this is rarely its motive, gossip can act as a potential barrier to bad behavior, and in this sense can be a useful deterrent to such behavior. Some people will be restrained from acting badly if only because they fear that their conduct will be talked about behind their backs. Everything here depends, of course, on the quality of the community’s norms. If these norms are far from admirable, gossip of this kind turns naturally ugly. Illustrations of the effects of this kind of gossip are available in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and, much later, in Sinclair Lewis’s novels Babbitt and Main Street, where conformity to a community’s norms is crucial to one’s adjustment to adult life, though often, as both Hawthorne and Lewis make clear, at the exorbitant price of the loss of one’s true spirit and authentic personality.
Alternatively, gossip can work the other way, and work to loosen community norms.
Reading about the behavior of the famous in gossip columns, people begin to think that their behavior, though it goes beyond established boundaries, perhaps isn’t so terrible after all.
Gossip can also be used to calibrate and elevate your status within the social circle. In 1944, C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture called “The Inner Ring.” In it, he describes that we can tell gossip for social approval:
I don’t believe that the economic motive and the erotic motive account for everything that goes on in what we moralists call the World. Even if you add Ambition I think the picture is still incomplete. The lust for the esoteric, the longing to be inside, take many forms which are not easily recognizable as Ambition. We hope, no doubt, for tangible profits from every Inner Ring we penetrate: power, money, liberty to break rules, avoidance of routine duties, evasion of discipline. But all these would not satisfy us if we did not get in addition the delicious sense of secret intimacy. It is no doubt a great convenience to know that we need fear no official reprimands from our official senior because he is old Percy, a fellow-member of our ring. But we don’t value the intimacy only for the sake of convenience; quite equally we value the convenience as a proof of the intimacy.
But Epstein argues there are rules to gossip. For instance, “No matter how deep his delight in gossip, the originator of it must never seem as if he worked hard at acquiring the information he is passing on. … Were he to do so, he would come across as the most miserable of creatures, a damned busybody.”
The best gossip, for Epstein, is “That which confirms my own views of the essential fraudulence of certain people, especially people who present themselves as a touch — and usually more than a touch — more moral than the rest of us.”
We All Have Secrets
While we might prefer to hear about gossip concerning those in power or celebrities, we all have secrets. The English writer William Donaldson wrote in his diary:
The version of ourselves we present to the world bears no resemblance to the truth. If we knew the truth about each other we could take no-one seriously. There isn’t one of us who could afford to be caught. That’s all life is. Trying not to be found out.
Gossip, of course, is everywhere in literature.
Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontes, Edith Wharton, and Henry James, novelists who had a strong interest in gossip and made good use of it in their fiction, understood both gossip’s attractions and its literary value.
Commenting on having made an appearance in a novel, with a different name, Isaiah Berlin wrote to a colleague “To appear in a novel of this kind is rather like appearing in other people’s dreams: and one cannot exactly avoid doing so, nor is one responsible for the shape one takes, and yet the results inevitably offend one. I wish people left one alone.
The Internet is Changing Gossip
A character in The Last Puratin, a novel by George Santaynana, who was accused of a crime, and later acquitted, says “Being acquitted is nothing in this world. Being accused is what makes all the difference.”
“The Internet,” writes Daniel Solove, a legal scholar interested in the questions, problems, and issues of privacy, “is transforming the nature and effect of gossip.”
In his book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, Solove recounts the story of an insensitive remark that appeared online, supposedly spoken by the clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger: “If I had known that African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice.” Hilfiger is also supposed to have confirmed that he made this most impolitic remark on Oprah, causing Ms. Winfrey to throw him off her show and tell her audience not to buy his clothes. The effect of this caused Hilfiger’s business to slump drastically. The problem is that Tommy Hilfiger never made the remark, nor had he ever appeared on Oprah. But the story was out there in cyberspace; you will find it is still out there today.
The internet has given us splendid freedom to express opinions and thoughts. This is part of its tremendous benefit. But there is another side to that freedom, “the freedom to libel, to invade privacy, to wreck lives—that has got so little, though greatly needed, attention.”
Professor Solove remarks that the Internet is, historically, in its adolescence — and it is precisely as an adolescent that it now tends to act: wildly, thoughtlessly, destructively. Lars Nelson, of the New York Daily News, has called the Internet, in this aspect of its young career, “a vanity press for the demented,” and this is more than an amusing phrase.
“Gossip has its good qualities,” writes Epstein, “in supplying important information not available in any other form. … But on the harmful side, the Internet has quickened, and much intensified, the harm that gossip can do to its victims.”
The combination of malice with the Internet’s speed and permanency creates a nuclear weapon.
In the end, Epstein concludes, “Once a secret vice, gossip threatens to become the chief way we obtain our information, and there doesn’t appear much we can do about it.”