Thursday, June 15, 2006

Science looks at Gossip

There is a new study out that shows mildly negative gossip can cement new friendships. This is probably the reason why "64 percent of people say they gossip at work 'sometimes' while more than one in five admits to being a 'frequent participant' in workplace gossip" (Zigarelli, Business Review). This is not surprising, since people often find their friends at work, and the natural way to form such friendships is gossiping about common acquaintances.

Gossip is often maligned by the pious, which is somewhat ironic, since "The idea of gossip originated with the Old English word godsibb, meaning 'a person related to one in God,' or a godparent. (Westen, PsychologyToday). Westen goes on to note that among other social and psychological functions, it serves as a unifying force for communicating a group's moral codes. An excellent example of this is a quote from the New York Times (Carey, Aug. 16, 2005) given by a teacher:
  • "To be honest, it made me feel better as a teacher to hear others being put down," she said. "I was out there on my own, I had no sense of how I was doing in class, and the gossip gave me some connection. And I felt like it gave me status, knowing information, being on the inside."

The article goes on to note that gossip is culturally pervasive:

  • Long-term studies of Pacific Islanders, American middle-school children and residents of rural Newfoundland and Mexico, among others, have confirmed that the content and frequency of gossip are universal: people devote anywhere from a fifth to two-thirds or more of their daily conversation to gossip, and men appear to be just as eager for the skinny as women.

Apparently, then, gossip is not a heinious and sinful moral failure, but a universal human activity, one which enhances freedom of movement in the community, and which lets one review just what the standards and expectations are among my peers. Well, that's what I heard, anyway....


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