The scandalous origins of gossip

December 10, 2019

Out of the blue, their voices changed. The streets are quiet, there’s hardly a soul in sight, and yet I can’t quite hear what they’re saying. The tone is incriminating enough — someone’s ears are likely on fire — and it grabs my attention away from the book I’m reading. They huddle around a table outside a small café, leaning towards each other, whispering, peeking around to see if anyone’s listening.

No one was. No one knows more about the conversation they were having than they do about the first words we ever spoke to each other fifty-thousand years ago. But we know we didn’t just start talking to each other. Somewhere along the way, we started talking about each other. Who was sleeping with whom. Who could be trusted, who was a cheat.

“We’re the descendants of busy bodies,” said Francis McAndrew, a social psychologist and professor at Knox College who has been researching gossip for years.

“Do you agree with Dunbar’s theory about gossip?” I asked.

“I don’t disagree with it. I think that it isn’t the whole story, but yes.”

Robin Dunbar is almost a celebrity in the world of academia. He is currently the head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. He’s been awarded the highest honors from the Royal Anthropological Institute. He’s given three Ted Talks. When you type Robin Dunbar on Youtube, there’s over 50 videos dedicated to the exploration of his ideas.

Most people first get to know his work through Dunbar’s number, a concept he coined in the nineties. After noticing a correlation between primates’ brain sizes and their average social group size, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain no more than 150 genuine, stable relationships. Or, as he puts it, “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

Evolution of language

But in his years studying primates, he noticed something else. In his 1996 book, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, Robin Dunbar proposes that language evolved as a way for us to share information about the world around us, and about ourselves.

Primates bond and maintain friendships though what we call social grooming. They pick fleas, ticks, and other insects from each other’s fur, keeping the broader community clean and happy. Social grooming allows them to establish group hierarchies, and dictates access to food, social support, and even sex. It’s impressive what social grooming accomplishes, given that it involves no words whatsoever.

This behavior can also be seen in humans, although it (usually) doesn’t involve picking fleas. We give each other makeovers, we hug each other, we run our hands through our lovers’ hair. But grooming is fairly time intensive, and equally inefficient — there are only so many backs you can scratch at once. Even primates, our jobless evolutionary relatives, can’t be grooming all day long — they need sustenance, sleep.

Dunbar claims that the maximum amount of time that individuals can devote to grooming is 20% of their waking hours, and, to keep social bonds, group size can’t be larger than 80. And so Dunbar’s number makes an appearance again — our prehistoric ancestors may have lived in small groups, where grooming was effective, but most of our communities nowadays have a natural group size of 150. We must have found another social glue. And that, Dunbar says, is gossiping.

This hypothesis is just one of the theories explaining language evolution, but it’s not without its gaps. For instances, it’s not clear how we went from meaningless grunts to highly structured language, let alone how we went from picking fleas off one another to actually using our voices.

Nevertheless here we are, commenting on the French professor who was sipping eau-de-vie in-between classes. Even the way our language is structured presents a strong case for storytelling — our grammar, like a game of Clue, follows a whodunnit structure. To our knowledge, there’s no other language like ours. Certainly not computer languages, which are otherwise highly efficient for storing and conveying information. And although primates can warn each other if there’s danger nearby — a key aspect of survival — no other animal can talk about something that isn’t there.

Did you hear?

To McAndrews, that’s what gossip is: talking about people who aren’t there. “It’s often information you can make moral judgements about,” although that’s not always the case. And that’s where gossip gets a bad reputation. We’re told we shouldn’t care ourselves with the noise of other people’s lives. That we should discuss ideas and philosophy, not baseless rumors. As if the conversation at the loftiest of dinner parties wouldn’t eventually devolve into breathless discussion of which teacher slept with a student, or who was awarded a research grant in exchange for favorable study results.

We think of gossip as a noxious thing, but actually, according to a study of British conversations, most gossip is harmless — only 3% to 4% of the gossip sample was malicious. Obviously, jokes about British politeness aside, there are some cultural differences to take into account. But even so, we typically think of gossip as something vile, and like to think of ourselves as being good. And so the one thing we love more than engaging in idle chat is claiming we’re above it.

I asked McAndrews: “Why do we say we don’t like gossip?”

“What we don’t like is bad gossipers. Because people who are good at it are very popular.”

“How so?”

“We don’t like when people don’t know which information to share and which to keep quiet. It’s not that we hate gossip. We just hate bad gossipers.”

Because of its reputation, we always describe gossip as something that other people do. “When they’re talking, they’re sharing important information, or expressing concern. When others do it, it’s gossiping,” says McAndrews. So naturally, when we hear a juicy tidbit, we don’t broadcast it to the world. That would be rude. We will share it with a close friend, though — it’s too good an opportunity to pass — and why shouldn’t we? It’s just one friend. And it’s not like he’ll tell everyone.

And so it circulates, sloppy, boundless, across a network that’s older and more important than many of us care to think. And those networks can be very beneficial — a lot of gossip actually serves the greater good. “It’s one of the things that makes us be a good citizen, if you know other people are monitoring your reputation. It’s also a way of uncovering behavior bad for the group. If there’s somebody stealing from the community, or somebody’s cheating, the gossip network is a way of finding that person out,” McAndrews tells me.

It’s also a way of socializing people into a group. When I’m sharing information with you, what I’m saying is I trust you. I trust you to handle this information. And surely, gossip can get out of hand very quickly. If you just tell a juicy tidbit to one close friend, who tells a close friend, who tells a close friend, by the end of the week, only 8 people will know. If you tell two friends, however, and they tell two friends, who also tell two friends, by the end of the week, 128 people will know. By the end of the month, over two billion people. Or, to be more precise, 2,147,483,647. That is, of course, assuming everyone knows two different people that haven’t heard the titillating chatter, and that people from the other side of the world who have never met you are interested in hearing how Karen said she’d be working remotely but is knee deep in a Friends marathon.

Half the world — possibly more — doesn’t care whether Karen is working or not, because idle chatter serves a real purpose. We care about the lives of others because we have to.

“To be socially successful, our ancestors had to know what other people were up to. You have to know whom you can trust and whom you can’t,” McAndrews explains. “And if you didn’t care about that stuff, if you were totally uninterested in other people, you just didn’t do very well. I think we’re wired to be fascinated with the lives of other people.”

But not all people. McAndrews research shows that besides high-ranking social members who can have an impact on our lives, we’re primarily interested in information about people in our social sphere, of our gender and around our age, “because they’re our natural competitors.”

He has also found that we care mostly about information which is socially useful to us — anything that can advance our status within the social sphere, namely scandals and misfortunes of our rivals or people of high-status. Their fortunes, coincidently, don’t interest us much. But we pay a great deal of attention to those of our friends, relatives and partners. It remains to be seen whether that’s out of genuine altruism or just because it most likely advances our cause as well.

We’re also fascinated with the lives of people way out of our social sphere — if we didn’t care about the latest scandal in the royal family, tabloids would be long gone, and yet they’re extremely popular. But according to McAndrews, that’s just the inevitable outcome of the collision between 21st-century media and our primitive minds.

“Celebrities trick us because we read about them, we see them on television and we know a lot about them. And because we know a lot about them, we’re tricked into thinking they’re socially important to us.” Rationally, we know they’re not our peers, and have no influence in our lives, but we can’t help ourselves.

And tabloids are very aware of that. They play right into our feelings of righteousness, designing covers with thrill-seeking headlines and compromising pictures, telling you whether you should feel pity or contempt. “No one’s ever gone broke in America serving up a woman who makes other women feel superior,” Aaron Sorkin wrote for the TV show The Newsroom. It’s not that men’s insecurities can’t be toyed with for entertainment, but tabloids are heavily marketed towards women. In fact, gossip is almost exclusively branded as a female flaw. And in a way, its history is deeply intertwined with that of women’s.

Ancient chatter

Gossip comes from the Old English word god-sibb, or godparent. It was a term given to a woman’s close female friend after the birth of her child, a word reflecting the powerful bond between them. But somewhere along the way, it gained a bad connotation. Silvia Federici, teacher, activist, feminist, has investigated how gender oppression played a role in the notion of gossip, and its transformation. Last year, in 2018, she wrote a book called Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, in which she writes about the institutional violence against women. She believes it’s not a coincidence that witchcraft accusations started to become more popular as women’s position deteriorated during the 16th century. It’s also not a coincidence that it was around this time that gossip went from meaning a strong female friendship to “women engaging in idle talk.”

“While in the Late Middle Ages a wife could still be represented as standing up to her husband and even coming to blows with him, by the end of the sixteenth century she could be severely punished for any demonstration of independence and any criticism she made against him. Obedience—as the literature of the time constantly stressed—was a wife’s first duty, enforced by the Church, the law, public opinion, and ultimately by the cruel punishments that were introduced against the “scolds.””

One possible punishment for nagging was the scold’s bridle, a metal contraption that enclosed a woman’s head, with an iron muzzle designed both to humiliate and prevent the wearer (almost exclusively a woman) from speaking and physically torture her, piercing her tongue if she dared to talk. Curiously, the scold’s bridle also went by “gossip bridle,” Federici notes.

The message was loud and clear. Women were not to gather in guilds, in public taverns, to drink and chat and enjoy each other’s company. They were not to share stories; they were to be quiet, subservient. In 1547, a proclamation was issued “forbidding women to meet together to babble and talk,” ordering husbands to “keep their wives in their houses.” If women didn’t rejoice in their newfound captivity, they would put themselves at risk, and could be accused of being a witch. And during trials, they were encouraged (under the penalty of torture) to snitch on their friends, sisters, mothers, daughters.

“Female friendships were one of the targets of the witch hunts,” says Federici. “It was in this context that ‘gossip’ turned from a word of friendship and affection into a word of denigration and ridicule.”

Even in the Bible, we’re greeted with cautions of women gossipers, followers of Satan, as if they were a cautionary tale to be avoided like the plague.

“And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not. I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. For some are already turned aside after Satan.”
– Timothy (5:13-15)

In his research, McAndrews found an ancient Chinese proverb: “The tongue is the sword of a woman — and she never lets it go rusty,” which also suggests that not only is gossip a female affliction, but that it’s used as a weapon, something to be feared. This was the theme of his research paper The “sword of a woman”: Gossip and female aggression.

Although proverbs aren’t peer-reviewed, McAndrews believes his research shows that this one doesn’t stray far from the truth. “It’s not that women gossip and men don’t, but they gossip differently and they’re interested in different kinds of gossip,” he says. And there is a lot of evidence that women are more likely to “use gossip in a malicious, aggressive way of ostracizing each other.”

McAndrews points out women prefer to use indirect aggression, or gossip, whereas men prefer to dish things out through actual physical confrontation. According to evolutionary psychologists, this is because indirect aggression is a relatively low-cost strategy, which maximizes the harm inflicted, while minimizing the dangers. The ones spreading rumours often remain anonymous, so the risk for any counterattacks is very low. Some researchers even suggest that because women have greater parental investment, direct aggression would be too much of a risk to take.

And if information is power, gossip can be one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal. In fact, for women, whose status in society has hardly equalled that of men, it’s perhaps one of the few we’ve always had.

We’ve seen the benefit of this network effect in the #MeToo movement, where women, discouraged from using formal channels of communication, used these networks to protect themselves from powerful assaulters, support one another, and eventually gain enough strength to tell their stories and fight back.

We’ve seen it as far back as in Ancient Greece, where not only women, but non-citizens, slaves, or otherwise low-status people turned to gossip for what little recourse they could hope to find in the courts of Athens (where they weren’t even allowed to appear). They would start whisper campaigns to discredit their oppressors, knowing that court cases were heavily based on the character of those involved, and gossip could make their case for them. Gossip was powerful, and they knew it. We still do.

Maybe we’ve used gossip as a weapon because, historically, it’s one of the few we’ve always had. Shunned from power and influence, gossip networks have helped women fight back. And although the word has been used to demonize and isolate women, we can reclaim those networks as a source of empowerment. Even if we never get rid of its bad reputation, they’ll always be there, just waiting to hear all the sordid details.

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