As we re-enter civilization, it’s OK — maybe even necessary — to dish about people who aren’t present. If done in the right way.
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Go ahead, talk a little trash. Gossip may not be good for you, per se, but it’s deeply connected to human nature. And it might just help in navigating a post-pandemic world — at least in a social sense.
The historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” that gossip helped early Homo sapiens form larger and more stable bands. (This was roughly between 70,000 and 30,000 B.C.E.)
He borrowed the idea from the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized in his 1998 book “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language” that language — and by extension, gossip — replaced grooming, a social bonding practice still seen among our primate cousins.
In other words, humans needed something that would help them keep up-to-date with friends and family as they spread out across distances, and networks of Homo sapiens were becoming too large for everyone to effectively groom everyone else.
Or, to put it another way, humans evolved to gossip.
Of course, no one can know exactly why or how our species developed an ability to think, communicate and transmit social information. But the language of social bonding is thought to play a pivotal part in ensuring our survival and later flourishing.
Gossip’s ability to drive “vicarious learning” and facilitate “social connection” was the subject of a recent study by scientists at Dartmouth’s Computational Social Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, published in April.
Luke Chang, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences and director at the lab, explained that he and his co-researcher, Eshin Jolly, dug into the topic because gossip is ubiquitous but not well-studied. (They define gossip as communication about social topics involving self-disclosure and discussions about others.)
“We found ourselves doing it all the time and were like, why do we do this?” Mr. Chang said about the act of gossiping. “There have been a lot of people who have written about it, but not a lot of people who have done research. It seemed like an opportunity for us to dive in.”
He and Mr. Jolly, a postdoctoral researcher, created a game where individuals received small amounts of money and were divided into groups of six. Each round, an individual could choose to keep the money or put it into a pot, benefiting everyone. To replicate the societal pressures of gossip, they gave the players the option to exchange private communications, which inevitably turned into a way for people to size up who was hoarding or who was contributing. “It’s like being in a neighborhood where everybody is affected by everyone else’s actions, but you don’t get to actually see what people are doing all the time,” Mr. Jolly said. “We tend to find that in certain circumstances where you can’t see what everybody’s doing, the discussions we have tend to be more about what other people are doing.”
What made this gossip useful — and not just fun and petty — was that it allowed a group of people to get on the same page organically. It facilitated learning from others without direct observation. It helped strangers build connections. It increased cooperation by aligning individuals on acceptable behavior.
“Our work suggests that there’s a lot more richness there than we’re willing to think about,” Mr. Jolly said. “When I’m talking with you about somebody, or something I saw, even if it’s negative or positive, it’s this idea that we’ve decided to temperature check how we feel about the social world at large. ‘So and so did this, so what does that mean? Do you think it’s OK too?’”
This is not to say there are not extreme downsides to gossip, and that there aren’t horribly cruel ways to do it. At worst, it can facilitate xenophobia or bigotry on macro levels, and reinforce stereotypes about perceived “others.” Even in more casual social settings, gossip can ruin reputations.
But there are also OK ways to gossip. One of those is gossiping about celebrities, or powerful people that you don’t know.
Celebrity gossip culture began to flourish in the mid-twentieth century, eventually mutating into its present form as a social media monolith, because — as we all know — it is entertaining.
Famed celebrity gossip columnist Perez Hilton acknowledged the innate and, in some ways, aspirational human urge to gossip about celebs. “Even before social media existed, even before we graduated high school, people used to gossip about the captain of the football team, the head cheerleader,” he said in an interview. “We always are drawn to perceived roles of power. It’s just human nature. It’s curiosity.” His website receives eternal scorn for its sometimes meanspirited tone, but its nearly 20-year life span underscores gossip’s functional stranglehold on the public’s imagination. (Just as it is human nature to gossip, so too is it to monetize it.)
The coronavirus pandemic robbed gossip of its richness by keeping many people apart, and forcing most gossip to move into the online arena. But it really can’t be said enough: Gossiping on the internet is a bad idea. Social media offers individuals greater control over their own narratives, but eradicates gossip’s vital nuance, tone and privacy. It can easily morph into malice, or breed distrust. (Even gossip shared within direct messages isn’t really private, given the ability to screenshot and hoard “receipts,” an issue Mr. Chang said pervaded in the Dartmouth lab’s Slack channel last year.)
As humanity re-enters the realm of in-person socializing, we could all benefit from considering: How might we gossip better? How do we harness this evolutionary tool to our benefit — to connect with greater kindness and empathy after a year that brought with it so much suffering?
When it comes to sharing a bit of gossip, it can help to run through the five Gatekeepers of Speech, which are interpreted from Buddhist teachings: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Is it necessary? Is it the right time?
Gossip need not fulfill all these criteria to be worth sharing, but it is probably less nasty if it fulfills some of them. Note that just because information may be negative, it doesn’t mean that the gossip is — an example of this being the whisper networks that emerged from the #MeToo movement.
Mr. Jolly expanded on this: “If you had a bad experience with an individual or a situation, you can help me out by telling me about it.”
He said: “It can feel negative because the subject matter itself is negative, but the outcome can be fantastic, because suddenly you saved somebody from heartbreak or something worse, because of gossip.” (The flip side is when positive gossip has unintended negative consequences, like spoiling a surprise birthday party.)
If the gossip is negative and doesn’t serve any actionable purpose, keep it to yourself. “People love new couples. People love babies. It’s not all negative,” Mr. Hilton said. “Of course, train wrecks — people being very messy or sloppy publicly — do get a lot of attention. I won’t deny that.”
While someone might devour any train wreck gossip you have to share, you may not emerge from the conversation unscathed. And the fact that you shared it at all may color others’ perceptions of you. “It might be that you just don’t like this person, and you’re trying to spread bad things,” Mr. Chang said. “I think people can read on that.”
He elaborated: If “someone told you a secret and you agreed, and you disclose it to other people, people are going to notice. I think the intention, and the outcome of what you’re trying to do, affects your reputation.”
Gossiping is bad when it sows uncertainty or confusion. And any piece of gossip loses its merit as civilization-boosting or as a social lubricant when it’s a baldfaced lie, or even something heard through the grapevine that can’t be substantiated.
Mr. Jolly and Mr. Chang determined in their study that gossip’s beneficial societal function comes from its ability to make things clearer and to help people better understand their environment. If you are actively sabotaging that, don’t pass it on.
That said, when gossiping, remember to exercise some compassion not just for others but for yourself. Everyone gossips — and everyone makes mistakes in gossiping — and you will too. Mr. Chang remarked that some of his favorite conversations with people, as he sees more of them socially, are about “the things they would be ashamed of if people knew they had been doing during the pandemic.”
“We’re all humans, and we’ve all been adapting and surviving in similar ways,” he said. Don’t beat yourself up for falling prey to evolutionary instincts. The best you can do, on your best day, is be kind, keep it positive and stick to the facts.