June 02, 2016

Gossip

Just a couple of gossips. Credit: Indo_Girl2010 / Flickr Creative Commons

There’s pretty much nothing worse than someone talking behind other people's backs at work. When Karl says mean stuff about Cindy’s marriage, or when Karl tells everyone intimate details about John’s personal life. Or even when Karl won’t stop talking about the new round of layoffs.

When you look at it like that, gossip is a pretty terrible thing. But it’s not something that we can really get away from.

“Everybody gossips to some extent,” says Frank McAndrew, a Professor of Psychology at Knox College who has written extensively on the science of gossip. “If you had no interest in what was going on in other people’s lives, you’d be totally clueless in social situations. You wouldn’t know who you could trust or couldn’t trust. You’d have trouble forming bonds and relationships with people because you’re not sharing information with them and that’s a sign you don’t trust them.”

McAndrew says that gossip is an integral part of everyone’s life. And even if you think you don’t gossip, you’re probably mistaken.

“I find it interesting that people talk about gossip as if it’s possible to not do it. They usually think of gossip as something that other people do. When they’re talking about someone else, they’re sharing information or they’re expressing concern… I think you might as well ask people to stop breathing as stop gossiping, because it’s part of who we are.”

But the way that McAndrew sees it, gossip isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s learning about the people you come in contact with. And it’s crucial to know what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.

Gossip, McAndrew says, has also been a big part of shaping our humanity. “I would think that as soon as we had language, we had gossip. Some people have even proposed that one of the main drivers of the evolution of language is our need to keep up with other people.”

When you think about how our ancestors lived, that makes sense. They tended to spend their lives in relatively small groups of about 150 people, which meant that knowing who was sleeping with whom, who had powerful allies, and who had access to resources was critical. “And if you didn’t pay attention to that stuff,” McAndrew says, “if you had no interest, you quickly got outcompeted by people who were on top of things.”

So, even if Karl won’t stop talking about Nancy’s haircut, at least he’s part of a long, important, human tradition.

Frank McAndrew, Kara Miller, Gossip

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