Why do we love to gossip?

Updated Tuesday, 9th August 2005
Tamara Beckwith is probably best known to most of you for her regular appearances in the gossip columns. As someone who knows the sharp end of this very human form of communication, she’s always wondered why we’re suckers for tittle-tattle about other people...sometimes even people we don’t know. Ever Wondered sends her to dispel the rumour and innuendo and do some digging

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Tamara Beckwith

First stop, she finds out more about an unusual survey conducted by Public Relations Analyst Stephen Forster…

Stephen Forster Stephen Forster is a Board Director of Marketeer PLC. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and the Market Research Society


Stephen Forster: In the Public Relations business it’s very important to control the flow of information and when that information is released to certain people. So we actually do need to know when and where information is leaked as it does affect our business quite a lot.

To do this we’ve compiled a top ten list of the places that people are most likely to gossip… At number 10 – unisex loos; at number 9 – supermarket queues; at number 8 – to their personal trainer; at number 7 – with cab drivers; at number 6 – in crowded bars; at number 5 – at meetings; at number 4 – on mobile phones; at number 3 – friends telling other friends; at number 2 – on train and tube journeys…and at number one – restaurants!

But it’s not only the high-powered business world that takes gossip so seriously – so does the world of academia. Tamara meets up with Professor Nick Emler to find out more…

Professor Emler Professor Emler is head of the School of Human Sciences at Surrey University. His research interests are in social participation and interpersonal perception

Professor Emler: Gossip does have a serious side to it. It’s all to do with being a human being. You simply will not survive unless you can talk about the people you know, exchange information about them and find out more about them. In any kind of organisation, if you’ve got a boss that’s one person you really need to know about – their idiosyncrasies, their peculiarities and their relationships. And so most gossip is focussed upwards – it’s looking up the hierarchy. Tamara : So if all gossip were to stop tomorrow, what would that do to conversation?

Professor Emler: Well to start with then it would be a very imperfect world – the most obvious reason why is that about 80% of the conversation that occurs now, simply wouldn’t occur. That’s about how much of our conversation is gossip. Society would break down, because the information we get from other people is actually fundamental to managing our relationships with them. We need to know who the fools and the scoundrels are. But very little gossip is malicious – only about 5%, if that. And gossip does I think a lot of good, it’s an important way for keeping us all honest.

If you are interested in how people act individually and how they act collectively then have a look at course DD100 An introduction to the Social Sciences: Understanding Social Change.

It may seem hard to believe but certain parts of society revile the idea of gossip. Tamara meets up with Rabbi Y Y Rubenstein as he prepares to make a radio broadcast on the Jewish approach to gossip…

Rabbi YY Rubenstein Rabbi YY Rubenstein is a Lancashire Chaplain. He travels around the region giving various talks.

Rabbi YY Rubenstein: It’s as forbidden for a Jew to gossip as it is for a Jew to eat pork. Bad news for the pig farmers and bad news for the gossips! Basically people gossip because it makes them feel good by saying ‘I don’t have that problem’. Judaism says that society and people are hurt a lot by gossip – it seems a lot of fun and seems juicy, but it causes a lot of damage.

So what are the practical uses of gossip? Tamara meets up with psychologist Professor John Locke, an expert on the subject…

Professor Locke: There are several reasons why the kinds of conversations we have these days are changing. Most of them have to do with the rapid changes in the pace of life, people watching tv and playing games instead of talking. In recent years as you know, the internet and e-mail have come on the scene – and we thought at one stage that these would complement the kind of conversations we would have at home. But it seems they are increasingly competing with oral conversation.

Professor Locke Professor Locke is Senior Research Fellow for Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University and Professor in the Department of Human Communication Sciences at Sheffield University.

As we get to the point where we have fewer and fewer friends in common, the only way we can engage in this biological disposition for people talk is to try to find people who are known to both of us – public figures, sports stars, and media figures of all kinds. I think that to a very great extreme this is likely to produce a society where people are less sociable, less schooled in social graces, less able to adhere to etiquette and sets of rules.

Tamara: So where did gossip come from ?

Professor Locke: Reputations were extremely important 4-500 years ago, even more so than they are today. Women needed their husband to maintain their reputation – if a woman felt she was losing their husband, she would vocally accuse her competitor of trying to take him away by calling her a whore. The punishment was various – but included a scold’s bridle, a metal band that fitted over the head and had a 3.5 inch protrusion which was inserted in the mouth and lay flat against the tongue. One sure way of making sure they did no more scolding.

If you would like to find out more about the role gossip plays in communication you might try these suggestions : Books you can read

Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip, Jeanette Walls, Avon Books,ISBN 0380978210

Managing your mouth:An Owner’s Manual for Your Most Important Business Asset, Roberty L.Genua, Amacom, ISBN 0814478034

Good Gossip, Robert F.Goodman, University Press of Kansas, ISBN 0700606696

Women’s Talk? A Social History of Gossip in Working - Class Neighbourhoods, 1880-1960, Melanie Tebbutt, Scolar Press, ISBN 1859284353

Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language", Robin Dunbar, Faber and Faber, ISBN 0571173977

Why We Don’tTalk To Each Other Anymore: The De-voicing of Society, John Locke, Touchstone Books, ISBN 0684855747

Links You Can Surf

Hollywood gossip

Rabbi YY Rubentsein

Also on this site : You can join sociologist David Goldblatt as he asks are we suffering from information overload? or join Steven Pinder to explore non-verbal communication as he asks do we say it best when we say nothing at all?

If you think you might be interested in studying more about these subjects, find out what the Open University has to offer.

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