The dish on gossip: Its origins, functions, and bad reputation

Defining Gossip

If you were to ask a group of friends to write down their definitions of gossip, you would probably find that most people define gossip as something like “talking behind someone’s back” or “spreading rumors about somebody.” If you were to ask them whether gossip was “nice,” most people would probably say no. But how do psychologists and other researchers define the term gossip? It turns out that there is no simple answer to this seemingly simple question. The origin of the word itself is from the Old English term godsibb, meaning godparent (Fine & Rosnow, 1978). Before the 19th century, gossip referred to the amity of family and friends as they gathered to welcome the birth of a child. Only later did the word adopt a more negative tone, and come to be used only in reference to women. Its current usage retains these undertones, as gossip is commonly defined as “idle chatter” or “girl talk”; in particular, talk that is malicious or derogatory toward others. People also often use the term interchangeably with rumor, although these are, in fact, distinct constructs (DiFonzo, 2008). In every day speech, this vague and varied usage of the term gossip is fine. However, researchers often need to define gossip in clearer terms, as it is impossible to identify or measure something without a specific working definition of what “it” is (Foster, 2004). Because different researchers approach gossip from different perspectives, their definitions of it often vary. At one end of the spectrum, gossip may be defined broadly as any conversation that is personal or social in nature (Dunbar, 2004; Fine & Rosnow, 1978); at the other end, gossip may be narrowly defined as the communication of negative information about an absent third party. After reviewing all of the different definitions that have been proposed for gossip, Foster (2004) declared that the most common definition may be summarized as “… the exchange of personal information (positive or negative) in an evaluative way (positive or negative) about absent third parties” (p. 83).


Gossip’s Bad Reputation

For being such a wide-spread activity, gossip certainly has a poor reputation. There are many potential reasons why gossip is generally regarded with disdain. Many religious doctrines look down on the act of gossip (e.g., “A talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter,” Proverbs 11:13; “Do not speak ill of each other behind their backs,” Al-Hujurat 49:12). Being the target of gossip can obviously be an unpleasant experience, especially when the gossip is reputation-damaging or downright false (Paquette & Underwood, 1999). People also have generally negative views of individuals who share negative gossip. In one study, women who spread negative gossip in the workplace were viewed as more power-seeking and less emotionally warm than women who did not spread negative gossip (Farley, Timme, & Hart, 2010). Additional reasons for the condemnation of gossip include the fact that gossip gives power (in the form of knowledge) to lower-status individuals (such as women, see De Sousa, 1994), and that it makes private matters public (Schoeman, 1994; Solove, 2007).

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