Shh ... here's the truth about gossip

By Suzanne Harrington

We devote up to two-thirds of our daily conversation to gossip. But is swapping tidbits about your neighbours, co-workers or friends really that bad? Suzanne Harrington thinks not.

There are three kinds of gossip - positive gossip, negative gossip, and industrial gossip. Photo / Thinkstock
There are three kinds of gossip - positive gossip, negative gossip, and industrial gossip. Photo / Thinkstock

Joseph Conrad got it right when he said that gossip was something we all profess to dislike, but secretly enjoy. Truman Capote said that all literature was gossip, and Hugh Leonard went one further, saying that people prefer gossip to literature - which explains why sales of People magazine tend to be higher than, say, Booker Prize-winning novels.

We have always been drawn to gossip. Back in 1728, Henry Fielding wrote that the best sweeteners of tea were love and scandal. More recently, chat show host Graham Norton declared that a problem shared is gossip. Or, as legendary New York gossip columnist Liz Smith puts it, "Gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress."

There are three kinds of gossip - positive gossip, negative gossip, and industrial gossip. The first kind is the stuff of tea-and-cake conversation, exchanging news about others, asking about their lives, passing on information, exchanging details about people you both know who has just had a baby, who has been promoted, who has gone where on holiday, that kind of thing.

This kind of positive gossip is the glue of human communication and is what separates us from robots and root vegetables.

Sharing confidences is a different matter, in that you are not talking about yourselves, but about others who are not present. As in, "have you met Auntie Madge's new toyboy yet?"

Negative gossip is the same conversation, but toxic. Whose new baby looks like a frog, who slept with who to get their promotion, whose holiday choice is vile and tacky. Negative gossip - a polite way of saying "bitching" - is the twisted sister of schadenfreude in that it involves malicious pleasure derived from the misfortune of others, except it is opinion-based and created by you and your co-gossiper. Sometimes it can be cathartic and bonding to let off steam about a third party, but it pays to be wary. If someone is willing to gossip negatively about someone else with you, then what are they saying about YOU when you leave the room? Exactly. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The third kind of gossip is also the toxic variety, except it has been de-personalised, formatted, glossily packaged, and sold back to us for profit. It is the celebrity magazine, the gossip website, the reality television show; it is humanity dehumanised, magnified ("spot the cellulite!") and forensically picked over with a hugely negative slant. We are not talking the reverential gush of Hello! magazine, but the rapacious misogyny of the low-end gossip industry, kept afloat by our insatiable appetite for gawping at women too fat (Jessica Simpson, Kirstie Alley), too thin (Victoria Beckham, Angelina Jolie), or too crazy (Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Naomi Campbell, etc). Even gorgeous, successful women like Jennifer Aniston are pitied and infantilised ("Poor Jen") for not being in a long-term relationship (though her status has changed of late), while their male counterparts are revered. You never hear about "Poor George Clooney", do you?

I had never really thought about this before. I read gossip mags, I watched telly, the same as everyone else. Then in January 2007, I had a sudden and irreversible anti-gossip moment. Watching Celebrity Big Brother, there was a sudden revelation inside my head. It seemed to be the voice of my inner-self, saying "enough already" and telling the rest of me it was time to stop passively watching other people being horrible to each other in the name of entertainment.

What I found a bit weird about my own reaction, however, was that I kept reacting. When I turned the television off that evening, I didn't turn it back on again. Ever. It drives my kids mad that I have no clue about Celebrity Apprentice or X-Factor or Next Top Model.

This doesn't mean I have replaced television viewing with embroidery or bible studies. I watch box sets instead, like The Wire, and love political satire and disaster movies but I have eliminated the junk, the reality shows and soap operas, because I can no longer bear watching people being hideous to each other, even if it's all made up and they're being paid a fortune for it.

Anyway, my epiphany didn't stop there. I was suddenly unable to stomach celebrity magazines either. Initially I found this development quite disturbing, because I used to love lying in the bath reading them, getting my weekly fix of celebrity bitchery as I flicked through the pages of cellulite, eating disorders, inflated cleavages, toyboys, sack-the-stylist, nervous breakdowns, messy divorces, kiss-and-tell affairs, 10-minute marriages, plastic surgery disasters and who was sleeping with who. But all of a sudden I went off it. Couldn't bear it.

"Your bathroom is no fun anymore," complained a friend recently. "Where have all the gossip mags gone?" In their place is a giant stack of blokey Q magazines and National Geographics. What was so strange was that it all happened so quickly. It was not a slow awakening as much as a swift slap in the chops - the message, which came entirely from internal sources, seemed to be: "Stop polluting yourself!"

The only thing I can put it down to is that I had recently stopped drinking. I think my epiphany during Celebrity Big Brother was the crystallisation of brain-fog clearance. It was a kind of internal shudder, followed by a wake-up moment. My inner feminist was shouting at me to stop buying into the bitchfest. So I did. End of.

Not to over-analyse - well, not too much anyway - what I think it must have been was that I was no longer physically toxic, which meant I was no longer able to blithely inhale the toxicity of the celeb mags without giving myself brain damage. I suddenly saw them through what I imagine were clearer, less befuddled eyes, and realised that they were not the harmless comics I had thought they were, but were working on a not-so-subtle basis to harangue women to remain insecure, acquisitive and compliant, by shoving lurid pages of female body judgment in our faces, interspersed with adverts shouting at us to buy this or that or we will never be happy. Did I want to drag that negativity into my shiny new life? Um, not really. Sorry. I know that probably sounds a bit evangelical, but I love women and womankind, and the gossip industry doesn't, even though the weird thing is we daily collude with it.

Anyway, moving away from industrialised gossip was easy. I have no idea who anyone is anymore (Kim Kardashian? no idea, not interested), and only hear about the private lives of others when the gossip goes over the top into mainstream media, like when sexually incontinent footballers make it from the Twittersphere to the front pages of newspapers. Which makes you wonder when does gossip become news? And what is gossip for? What function does it serve?

Quite a few functions, according to quite a few academic studies on the subject. You might dismiss non-industrialised gossip - that is, the human variety conducted on the phone, over coffee, during lunch, face to face - as insignificant background noise, but actually, it serves several purposes, in terms of boundaries and hierarchies, and has even been attributed to playing a part in human evolution. (More of which later).

Whether it's intimate or businesslike - where it is called "networking" - gossip is society's bush telegraph, our informal way of exchanging information about the lives and deeds of others, often to our own advantage. The academic definition of gossip is straightforward: "evaluative talk of others who are not present". From cosy chat to toxic bitching, it has two simple rules: you cannot gossip about yourself, or about the person to whom you are talking - gossip always involves a third party or parties. Nor can you gossip about animals or inanimate objects (unless, of course, you're deranged); the subject matter is always other people, even if you don't know them and are unlikely to ever meet them. You know, like the people in Hello! magazine in their gracious homes.

According to Dr Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School, the functions of gossip are threefold. The first is networking, where you exchange information about others which may be beneficial to you and your co-gossipee in terms of maintaining or improving social status; the second is influence, where small talk and shared confidences may change the way a person feels about you within the group; and the third function of gossip is forging alliances, where the intimacy resulting from "remember, it's a secret" serves to form a bond between the divulger of information and those to whom they are spilling the beans.

The most recent research into gossip, conducted by a team led by Eric Anderson from the psychology department of Northeastern University in Boston, shows how gossip imprints on our brain. Not only do we better remember and recognise faces associated with negative gossip, but this recognition operates outside conscious awareness.

The details of the research, reported in Science magazine, are horrifically dull, so I'll be brief. A visual effect known as binocular rivalry was used, with volunteers looking into a device that presented an image of a person's face to one eye and an image of a neutral object - a house - to the other eye. Visual information from one eye at a time reaches consciousness, with the brain alternating between bringing face and house images into the mind's eye for varying amounts of time. Although each face was neutral, it was the face associated with negative gossip rather than positive or neutral gossip which remained longest in the mind's eye.

"Information acquired through gossip influences vision, so that what we know about someone influences not only how we feel and think about them, but also whether or not we see them in the first place," say the research team.

In other words, we remember the bad stuff. For example, my sole knowledge of British band Girls Aloud is that Cheryl Tweedy, before she became people's princess and X-Factor judge Cheryl Cole, once thumped a loo attendant. The other members of Girls Aloud could have found a cure for cancer, but I only remember that single negative detail.

But there's more to it than that. "Gossip is a vital thread in human social interaction," say the study's authors. "As a type of instructed learning, gossip is a way to learn socially relevant information about other people's character or personality without having to directly experience their triumphs and misadventures. Whether delicious or destructive, gossip is functional. It provides human beings with information about others in the absence of direct experience, allowing us to live in very large groups.

"It is believed that gossip was important for social cohesion during the course of human evolution. Scientists speculate that instead of establishing and maintaining relationships by plucking fleas off of each other, we exchange and digest juicy tidbits of chit-chat, hearsay and rumour."

Gossip, therefore, has been around longer than Heat magazine or TMZ. While the atomisation of modern life means that these days we use things like Twitter to gawp and gossip, Grace Dent's book How To Leave Twitter looks at celeb-stalking, twitter cliques, trolls, and "twitchfork mobs". The formal gossip-led publication has been around since 1709, when Della Manley launched Female Tatler.

In his 2002 book Scandal: A Scurrilous History of Gossip, Roger Wilkes examines three centuries of gossip, from Elizabethan pamphleteers to Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report, although as one reviewer pointed out, a history of gossip is almost an oxymoron. "Gossip should bring something new to the party,"' wrote Sebastien Shakespeare in the New Statesman. "History is about tidying up after the party is over."

Newspapers have always employed gossip columnists, from Hollywood's legendary Hedda Hopper, who played herself in Sunset Boulevard before her death in 1966 and who named her Beverly Hills home "The House That Fear Built", to the New York Post's infamous Page Six and the Mirror's 3am Girls. Gossip keeps people in the news, unless they are so powerful that they no longer need to be; but on the way up, gossip is essential to fame. Or as Errol Flynn said, "It isn't what they say about you, it's what they whisper."

It must be emphasised that gossip either in print or in person is not, and never has been, a female thing, despite all the Hilda Ogden/Sybil Fawlty stereotypes. It is a human trait, no matter how reluctant some men are about owning their fondness for it. W.H. Auden, in a 1937 interview, spoke robustly in favour of gossip. "Who would rather learn the facts of Augustus' imperial policy than discover he had spots on his stomach? No one."

- NZ Herald

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