If you love gossiping — whether it’s by the office watercooler or on a secret WhatsApp group — it’s likely that this is not something you advertise, or are particularly proud of. At the same time, it’s unlikely that gossiping is something you will actively seek to avoid, as it an essential part of making sense of the social world.
Gossip is often characterised as the idle chatter of the criminally underworked, or in a more nefarious sense, the political manoeuvrings of Machiavellian wannabes. But in a time where even Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, one of most powerful men in the world, is involved in a huge gossip story, you have to pay attention to the power of this medium.
Gossip has more uses than one would imagine today — rather counterintuitively — in the era of fake news. Although it is not often framed as such, gossip is a way of learning and digesting vital news in an informal manner. For individuals who are is not in a position of power, gossip can be a very useful source of information, that they would not otherwise be privy to. Lainey Lui, the founder of LaineyGossip.com and a host on CTV’s The Social & Etalk, is known for her insightful celebrity gossip, and believes that gossip is key to how we process information. “Gossip is a conversation — it’s information exchange and it’s a communication tool. Through gossip you begin to form opinions, you shape your understanding of a person or an idea, and that information helps you navigate your next moves,” says Lui.
And it is unfortunate that gossip has taken on a rather gendered slant, with many, wrongly believing that it is a largely feminine activity. To find out how that came about, you only need to dig deeper into the etymology of gossip.
Gossip emerged from the word god-sibbe (god-sibling) in the 11th century. Karen Adkins, a professor of philosophy at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, who has written a book on the subject shares, “The god-sibbe was an intimate of the family, who could fulfill a variety of roles; acting as god-parent or church sponsor, or attending a woman giving birth. Only that last role is distinctly gendered feminine, so it’s really striking that the early history of gossip is entirely one of intimacy and trust.”
Professor Karen Adkins's book Gossip, Epistemology, & Power: Knowledge Underground.
Professor Adkins theorises that the concept of gossip got degraded around the 17th century due to the development of private authorship, and with it, the concepts of copyright, plagiarism and the emergence of the diary and the novel as literary forms. “The development of print culture brings with it a devaluing of an oral culture and its values, and gossip in particular gets degraded as a result of that.” She has a theory as to why it got associated with the feminine — during that time, women were less likely than men to be literate and to participate in print culture, and therefore were more visible targets as gossips.
Lui feels that gossip has been feminised and dismissed because of the way that it has been played out in the media and in society. She points out that in many a movie scene for example, the men retreat after dinner to smoke cigars and discuss important “business” while the women are seen as having less important conversations. “The truth is, the men are also gossiping: they’re assessing competitive ambitions, they’re sizing each other up, they’re discussing who can or cannot be trusted. It’s only the perception between the two that’s different. One conversation is assigned more gravitas than the other when, in fact, they are the same,” says Lui.
Although many bosses try to clamp down on workplace gossip, it will continue to have its place there, and those that do not pay any heed to it may find themselves at a disadvantage. “Gossip can be useful for reconnaissance: Kathryn Waddington studied organisational gossip, and concluded that the best managers actually paid attention to gossip channels at work to find out what was really going on and where employees were having conflict or getting demoralised,” says Professor Adkins. Conversely when the powers that be try to stop gossip, it often backfires. “When it comes to workplace or political gossip, in my view, unhealthy gossip is usually a reflection of unhealthy power dynamics — not enough transparency, not enough trust and very little participation. Thus, campaigns to eliminate or reduce gossip are in my opinion, destined to fail,” says Professor Adkins.
Informal channels can also help pass along usual information of an entirely different nature. “We now know, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK exposés, that for a long time in Hollywood, there was a ‘whisper network’ in effect — women warning other women who to stay away from. This happens outside of Hollywood too. Many of us have been in situations, at work, at a wedding, at a bar, at a party, where we’ve been tipped off about someone who may not be pleasant to be around or discouraged from being alone with them,” says Lui. She also points out that gossip can be a way of getting around barriers designed to keep information away from us as a way of power suppression. “During Time’s Up meetings, the membership have gathered to discuss salaries and negotiations. Not too long ago, however, this kind of information exchange was discouraged by the status quo, the executives in the board room who used secrecy to protect their own interests. For far too long, we bought into the fallacy that sharing these details — or ‘gossiping’ about our incomes and other people’s salaries — would jeopardise our own positions. We are coming to realise that keeping us separate only weakens our ability to move forward collectively,” says Lui.
It is clear then that pretty much everyone gossips in some form or other, but making gossip work for you and not against you is something we must all learn to navigate. “I’d like to see us refocus our understanding of gossip back to its roots of intimacy. We do speak more freely with people we trust than we do in more formal settings, which means that gossip sessions often result in us coming to a fuller understanding of some event or person or conflict,” says Professor Wadkins. “I see gossip as an unacknowledged aspect of how we come to figure things out. It is part of our sense-making. We gossip when we have too much information (too many ideas or competing theories, and we need to sort through them), or not enough (when official explanations don’t make sense),” says Adkins.
If we want to gossip responsibly then, we also have to learn to hold ourselves to a higher standard. “Gossiping productively is the same as how it should be in news media — to gossip well means to engage in it responsibly. To consider all angles and to critically examine the source of the information. To be aware of all sides of a conversation and not just half of it. Which means we have to participate in the process of gossip instead of dismissing it completely,” says Lui.
Which brings us back to the Bezos story and how the billionaire used gossip as a means of turning an unfavourable narrative in his favour. “The biggest gossip story of the year, so far, has been Jeff Bezos vs the National Enquirer. This is classic gossip. The richest man in the world is getting a divorce. He has a new girlfriend. His sexual activity with his new girlfriend has been leaked to a tabloid. He is accusing the tabloid of obtaining embarrassing personal information against him through nefarious channels, suggesting that the whole situation may even involve a government conspiracy, considering his contentious relationship with the President of the United States. This is history in the making,” says Lui. Viva la gossip.
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