Gossip is idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. It forms one of the oldest and most common means of sharing (unproven) facts and views, but also has a reputation for the introduction of errors and other variations into the information transmitted. The term also carries implications that the news so transmitted (usually) has a personal or trivial nature, as opposed to normal conversation.
In the last decade, gossip has been researched in terms of its evolutionary psychology origins. This has found gossip is an important means by which people can monitor cooperative reputations and so maintain widespread indirect reciprocity. Indirect reciprocity is defined here as "I help you and somebody else helps me". Gossip has also been identified by Robin Dunbar an evolutionary biologist as aiding social bonding in large groups.
The term is sometimes used to specifically refer to the spreading of dirt and misinformation, as (for example) through excited discussion of scandals. Some newspapers carry "gossip columns" which detail the social and personal lives of celebrities or of élite members of certain communities.
The word is from Old English godsibb, from god and sibb, the term for godparents, i.e. a child's godfather or godmother. In the 16th century, the word assumed the meaning of a person, mostly a woman, one who delights in idle talk, a newsmonger, a tattler. In the early 19th century, the term was extended from the talker to the conversation of such persons. The verb to gossip, meaning "to be a gossip", first appears in Shakespeare.
Functions of gossip
Gossip can serve to:
- reinforce, and punish the lack of, morality and accountability
- be used as a form of passive aggression, to isolate and harm others
- build a place for social grooming and a sense of community with shared interests, information and values
- provide a courtship that helps one find decide on their desired mate, by counseling others
- provide a peer-to-peer mechanism for disseminating information in organizations
Mary Gormandy White, a human resource expert, identifies workplace gossip by factors or "signs":
- Animated people become silent ("Conversations stop when you enter the room")
- People begin staring at someone
- Workers indulge in inappropriate topics of conversation. She suggests "five tips ... [to] handle the situation with aplomb:
- Rise above the gossip
- Understand what causes or fuels the gossip
- Do not participate in workplace gossip
- Allow for the gossip to go away on its own
- If it persists, "gather facts and seek help."
Peter Vajda identifies gossip as a form of workplace violence, noting that it is "essentially a form of attack." Gossip is thought by many to "empower one person while disempowering another" (Hafen). Accordingly, many companies have formal policies in their employee handbooks against gossip. Sometimes there is room for disagreement on exactly what constitutes unacceptable gossip, since workplace gossip may take the form of offhand remarks about someone's tendencies such as "He always takes a long lunch," or "Don’t worry, that’s just how she is." TLK Healthcare cites as examples of gossip, "tattletailing to the boss without intention of furthering a solution or speaking to co-workers about something someone else has done to upset us." Corporate email can be a particularly dangerous method of gossip delivery, as the medium is semi-permanent and messages are easily forwarded to unintended recipients; accordingly, a Mass High Tech article advised employers to instruct employees against using company email networks for gossip. Low self-esteem and a desire to "fit in" are frequently cited as motivations for workplace gossip. There are five essential functions that gossip has in the workplace.
- Helps individuals learn social information about other individuals in the organization (often without even having to meet the other individual)
- Builds social networks of individuals by bonding co-workers together and affiliating people with each other.
- Breaks existing bonds by ostracizing individuals within an organization.
- Enhances one's social status/power/prestige within the organization.
- Inform individuals as to what is considered socially acceptable behavior within the organization (DiFonzo & Bordia).
According to Kurkland and Pelled, workplace gossip can be very serious depending upon the amount of power that the gossiper has over the recipient, which will in turn affect how the gossip is interpreted. There are four types of power that are influenced by gossip:
- Coercive: when a gossiper tells negative information about a person, their recipient might believe that the gossiper will also spread negative information about them. This causes the gossipers coercive power to increase.
- Reward: when a gossiper tells positive information about a person, their recipient might believe that the gossiper will also spread positive information about them. This causes the gossipers reward power to increase.
- Expert: when a gossiper seems to have very detailed knowledge of either the organization's values or about others in the work environment, their expert power becomes enhanced.
- Referent: this power can either be reduced OR enhanced to a point. When people view gossiping as a petty activity done to waste time, a gossipers referent power can decrease along with their reputation. When a recipient is thought of as being invited into a social circle by being a recipient, the gossipers referent power can increase, but only to a high point where then the recipient begins to resent the gossiper (Kurland & Pelled).
Some negative consequences of workplace gossip may include:
- Lost productivity and wasted time,
- Erosion of trust and morale,
- Increased anxiety among employees as rumors circulate without any clear information as to what is fact and what isn’t,
- Growing divisiveness among employees as people “take sides,"
- Hurt feelings and reputations,
- Jeopardized chances for the gossipers' advancement as they are perceived as unprofessional, and
- Attrition as good employees leave the company due to the unhealthy work atmosphere.
Turner and Weed theorize that among the three main types of responders to workplace conflict are attackers who cannot keep their feelings to themselves and express their feelings by attacking whatever they can. Attackers are further divided into up-front attackers and behind-the-back attackers. Turner and Weed note that the latter "are difficult to handle because the target person is not sure of the source of any criticism, nor even always sure that there is criticism."
It is possible however, that there may be illegal, unethical, or disobedient behavior happening at the workplace and this may be a case where reporting the behavior may be viewed as gossip. It is then left up to the authority in charge to fully investigate the matter and not simply look past the report and assume it to be workplace gossip. All illegal, unethical, or disobedient behavior that is reported to the appropriate personnel should be taken seriously until otherwise proven innocent.
Informal networks through which communication occurs in an organization are sometimes called the grapevine. In a study done by Harcourt, Richerson, and Wattier, it was found that middle managers in several different organizations believed that gathering information from the grapevine was a much better way of learning information than through formal communication with their subordinates (Harcourt, Richerson & Wattier).
Various views on gossip
Some see gossip as trivial, hurtful and socially and/or intellectually unproductive.
Some people view gossip as a lighthearted way of spreading information.
A feminist definition of gossip presents it as "a way of talking between women, intimate in style, personal and domestic in scope and setting, a female cultural event which springs from and perpetuates the restrictions of the female role, but also gives the comfort of validation." (Jones, 1990:243)
In early modern England
In Early Modern England the word "gossip" referred to companions in childbirth, not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women-friends generally, with no necessary derogatory connotations. (OED n. definition 2. a. "A familiar acquaintance, friend, chum", supported by references from 1361 to 1873). It commonly referred to an informal local sorority or social group, who could enforce socially-acceptable behaviour through private censure or through public rituals, such as "rough music" , the cucking stool and the skimmington ride.
In Thomas Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursitors 1566 a ‘walking mort’ relates how she was forced to agree to meet a man in his barn, but informed his wife. The wife arrived with her “five furious, sturdy, muffled gossips” who catch the errant husband with “his hosen about his legs” and give him a sound beating. The story clearly functions as a morality tale in which the gossips uphold the social order.
Gossip in Judaism
Judaism considers gossip spoken without a constructive purpose (known in Hebrew as lashon hara) as a sin. Speaking negatively about people, even if retelling true facts, counts as sinful, as it demeans the dignity of man — both the speaker and the subject of the gossip.
According to Proverbs 18:8: "The words of a gossip are like choice morsels: they go down to a man's innermost parts."
Gossip in Islam
Islam considers backbiting the equivalent of eating the flesh of one's dead brother. According to Muslims, backbiting harms its victims without offering them any chance of defense, just as dead people cannot defend against their flesh being eaten. Muslims are expected to treat each other like brothers, deriving from Islam's concept of brotherhood amongst its believers.
Gossip in Christianity
The Epistle to the Romans associates gossips ("backbiters") with a list of sins including sexual immorality and with murder:
- 28: And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;
- 29: Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,
- 30: Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,
- 31: Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:
- 32: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them. (Romans 1:28-32)
Jesus also taught, in Matthew 18, that conflict resolution among church members ought to begin with the aggrieved party attempting to resolve their dispute with the offending party alone. Only if this did not work would the process escalate to the next step, in which another church member would become involved. After that if the person at fault still would not "hear", the matter was to be fully investigated by the church elders. At no time did Jesus authorize exposing faults to anyone else. This process is meant to encourage Christians to get along, overlook offenses and if possible, work things out directly between the two parties involved. Since "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), Christians are called to loving forgiveness and the spread of positive information rather than evil gossip that destroys relationships.
In order to gossip, writes Phil Fox Rose, we "must harden our heart towards the 'out' person. We draw a line between ourselves and them; define them as being outside the rules of Christian charity... We create a gap between ourselves and God's Love." As we harden our heart towards more people and groups, he continues, "this negativity and feeling of separateness will grow and permeate our world, and we'll find it more difficult to access God’s love in any aspect of our lives."
- McAndrew, Frank T. (October 2008). "The Science of Gossip: Why we can't stop ourselves". Scientific American.
- Sommerfeld RD, Krambeck HJ, Semmann D, Milinski M. (2007). Gossip as an alternative for direct observation in games of indirect reciprocity. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 104(44):17435-40. PMID 17947384
- Dunbar RI. (2004). Gossip in evolutionary perspective. Review of general psychology 8: 100-110. abstract
- Jeanne Grunert, "When Gossip Strikes," OfficePro, January/February 2010, pp. 16-18, at 17, found at IAAP website. Accessed March 9, 2010.
- New Jersey Hearsay Evidence, Human Resource Blog.
- The Culture Shock, Tami Kyle, TLK Connections, Summer 2005.
- Companies must spell out employee e-mail policies, Warren E. Agin, Swiggart & Agin, LLC, Mass High Tech, November 18, 1996.
- Workplace Gossip, Kit Hennessy, LPC, CEAP.
- Conflict in organizations: Practical solutions any manager can use; Turner, Stephen P. (University of South Florida); Weed, Frank; 1983.
- Bernard Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England, Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-19-925598-9
- Phil Fox Rose, "Gossip: Why we do it and the harm it does", Busted Halo. Accessed August 10, 2010.
- Niko Besnier, 2009: Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3338-1
- Niko Besnier, 1996: Gossip. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, eds. Vol. 2, pp. 544–547. New York: Henry Holt.
- Niko Besnier, 1994: The Truth and Other Irrelevant Aspects of Nukulaelae Gossip. Pacific Studies 17(3):1-39.
- Niko Besnier, 1989: Information Withholding as a Manipulative and Collusive Strategy in Nukulaelae Gossip. Language in Society 18:315-341.
- Robert F. Goodman and Aaron Ben-Zeev, editors: Good Gossip. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1993. ISBN 0-7006-0669-6
- Deborah Jones, 1990: 'Gossip: notes on women's oral culture'. In: Cameron, Deborah. (editor) The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. London/New York: Routledge, 1990, pp. 242–250. ISBN 0-415-04259-3. Cited online in Rash, 1996.
- Felicity Rash, 1996: "Rauhe Männer - Zarte Frauen: Linguistic and Stylistic Aspects of Gender Stereotyping in German Advertising Texts 1949-1959" in The Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics, Issue 1, 1996. Retrieved from http://wjmll.ncl.ac.uk/issue01/rashb.rtf on 2006-08-11
- Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks. Gossip. New York: Knopf, 1985. ISBN 0-394-54024-7
- Robert C. Ellickson (1991). Order without law: how neighbors settle disputes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674641686.
- DiFonzo, Nicholas & Prashant Bordia. "Rumor, Gossip, & Urban Legend." Diogenes Vol. 54 (Feb 2007) pg 19-35
- Hafen, Susan. "Organizational Gossip: A Revolving Door of Regulation & Resistance." The Southern Communication Journal Vol. 69, No. 3 (Spring 2004) pg 223
- Harcourt, Jules, Virginia Richerson, and Mark J Wattier. "A National Study of Middle Managers' Assessment of Organizational Communication Quality." Journal of Business Communication Vol. 28, No. 4 (Fall 1991) pg 348-365
- Kurland, Nancy B. & Lisa Hope Pelled. "Passing the Word: Toward a Model of Gossip & Power in the Workplace." The Academy of Management Review Vol. 25, No. 2 (April 2000) pg 428-438
|40x40px||Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Gossip|
- Ronald de Sousa (U Toronto) on Gossip
- "Go Ahead. Gossip May Be Virtuous" New York Times article by Patricia Cohen 2002-08-10 (requires registration)
- Emrys Westacott (Alfred U) The Ethics of Gossiping
- Perspectives on Gossip The theme of gossip in three literary pieces
- Robin Dunbar, Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans (pre-publication version) "Analysis of a sample of human conversations shows that about 60% of time is spent gossiping about relationships and personal experiences."