"Gossip is better than its reputation," says Ilpo
Koskinen, Professor of Product and Strategic Design at the University of
Art and Design Helsinki, who has written a book on the subject. "It
is everyday entertainment and an important source of information."
"Did you hear that..."
If there were no gossip, how little we would know about what was going
on around us! Show us a person who doesn’t gossip and we’ll show you one
that is probably lying.
When researcher Ilpo Koskinen began exam- ining the intriguing
world of gossip, he came across over 20 definitions for gossip. The common
feature shared by all these definitions was that it takes at least two
people who talk about a third one. The object of gossip must also be known,
at least on some level, to all the participants of the conversation, so
that each can go to their own sources, if need be, to find out whether
or not the story is true.
“Gossip is always evaluative, and if it isn’t that to begin with, it
will turn into it during the course of conversation. Moralising is an
essential part of gossiping,” Koskinen says.
Gossiping has of old had a bad ring to it; it is usually considered to
be talking ill of someone behind their back. Ever since antiquity, gossiping
has been deemed as malevolent slander, fuelled by envy. Aristotle warned
against telling scandalous stories, as this was not considered worthy
of a noble-minded man. Gossip is discussed widely in the Bible, beginning
with the Books of Moses, in which it is forbidden. The New Testament is
no more tolerant about it: for example, in his epistles to the Corinthians,
Paul is concerned that he will find among the congregation “contentions,
jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings,
conceits” and “tumults”. In the epistles to the Romans, Paul branded gossips
as people that are full of “wickedness, covetousness” and “maliciousness”.
Later literature has also seen gossip almost exclusively as a negative
form of discourse. Kos-kinen thinks that gossiping has got its bad name
partly from the fact that those who have written about it have themselves
usually been the object of it. The writers have almost without exception
been middle-aged men of the establishment. Gossip has always been their
“Few of us like to be talked about, but most are happy to talk about
others, “ Koskinen points out.
Even today, we still tend to find gossiping negative, although this conception
has been changing in the 20th century: gossiping can have a positive side,
too. Without gossip we would not know what was happening around us.
Gossip has now become accepted as proper literature, and academic literature
has also risen to defend gossiping. For example, the Canadian philosopher
Ronald de Sousa thinks gossiping is nothing short of a “saintly virtue”.
Gossip makes sure that our trust in others is based on facts, not facades.
Ilpo Koskinen reminds us that there is, in fact, research which shows
that gossip is not just slander. When the contents of gossip have been
recorded, the amount of positive and negative things has turned out to
be usually more or less equal. Gossip can often be, at least seemingly,
neutral, factual dissemination of information.
Not a women’s privilege
Gossip is often understood to belong to women’s speech, a view that is
completely unfounded by research. Men are just as eager gossips, but it
normally goes under epithets such as “conversation”, “exchange of information
“ or “politicking”. But the truth of the matter is that men’s and women’s
gossip is essentially similar, it is always about secrets having to do
with a third party.
There is one difference, though. Says Koski-nen: “Men gossip like women
in male groups, but when there are women present men prefer to talk about
themselves. This type of cocky behaviour, boasting about one’s achievements
and name-dropping, is in fact a kind of mating display: the man is trying
to convey to the ladies present what an important and interesting person
Gossiping is not the privilege of adults only. Children are also well
aware of the pattern of exchanging good stories. Furthermore, children
are avid snoops: send a child to a friend’s house, and the parents’ curiosity
will be satisfied as well. But children can also be a problem as they
may be too undiscerning about what they will tell about their own family
when visiting a friend.
Let it all out – safely
Gossiping is a give and take affair: reciprocity is part and parcel of
it. If you do not gossip you will not be told any, either. Those who choose
to be left out are, in fact, an ideal object of gossip, and easily of
one that could not be further from the truth. For the best gossips, on
the other hand, the game will, in the long run, end up in their favour,
as they will gain more information than they manage to forward. A skilful
gossip will hide the true message so that others do not even notice it’s
Ilpo Koskinen admits readily that he, too, gossips sometimes – who doesn’t!
To him, gossiping is a safe way to let off some steam, as long as you
choose carefully who will be privy to your reflections.
But can you stop gossip from living a life of its own? You can always
try, says Koskinen, but you need to know the rules. First of all, Koskinen
suggests, speak only to your trusted friends or family and make sure that
the object of gossip, or someone who might be loyal to that person, is
not there to listen. Gossiping requires a quick sense of situation and
knowledge of the mutual relationships of the surrounding people. Second,
a good gossip knows how to use covert expressions, mutual references and
nicknames, so that outsiders will not be able to understand what you are
It is also common to use ‘gossip blocks’: the one who is about to gossip
first swears the listener into secrecy. “Sometimes this works exactly
the opposite way, and may even serve as an incentive, for obviously the
story is going to be a juicy one, well worth passing on the grapevine,”
Map for social jungle
Many scholars have compared information received through gossip to a
map, and stated that gossiping creates and maintains a type of social
map on our environment. We are all interested in our environment and the
people in it; and gossip is an ideal instrument for gaining such information.
Gossip tells you what kind of people your circle of friends and acquaintances
consists of, who is or is not to be trusted and what people’s mutual relationships
are like. Gossip helps to categorise people and makes our contacts with
others easier, giving us the means to make our everyday decisions.
Ilpo Koskinen also sees gossip as a form of everyday entertainment which
is at everybody’s disposal. In small village communities, gossip may be
the only entertainment there is.
“Gossip brings excitement and drama in our lives, which might otherwise
be lacking both. If nothing else, at least it is guaranteed to brighten
up our drab everyday life!”