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

The Functions of Gossip

Researchers have proposed a wide variety of gossip functions, arguing that gossip serves a purpose and is not merely “idle chatter” (e.g., Fine & Rosnow, 1978). Here I will focus on the different functions gossip may serve for individuals, though it is noted that some of the functions of gossip may occur more at a collective-level (serving the purposes of the group rather than the individual). Many different functions of gossip have been proposed over the years, but they generally fall within two main categories: Mastery functions and connectedness functions.

Mastery functions

Mastery functions refer to those functions of gossip that help individuals learn about their social worlds, allowing people to understand and predict events in order to obtain rewards (Smith & Mackie, 2007). It turns out that we can learn a whole lot “through the grapevine.” Gossip provides us with information not only about specific others, but about our culture more generally, as well as information about ourselves. That gossip provides information about other people is more or less definitional, and we have already touched on one of the main reasons why such information is so important – because it lets us know who to avoid interacting with, without having to learn the hard way (i.e., firsthand) that the person is a liar or a cheat. Positive gossip can also be helpful, of course – for example, you may learn from a friend that a potential romantic partner shares your love of modern art, and this motivates you to ask him or her out on a date. Or you may be deciding whether to accept a job offer and learn from current employees that your potential boss is very family-oriented and flexible in terms of work hours. This type of personal information is unlikely to be found anywhere else except in the form of gossip, making gossip an extremely important form of inquiry (Ayim, 1994).

The information function of gossip is not limited to learning about specific individuals; it also teaches us about the norms and rules of our culture more generally. Imagine that you’ve accepted that new job, and in the lunchroom one day a colleague complains to you about another co-worker who “always takes bagels from the lunchroom, but never brings any in.” In this situation, not only are you learning something about this particular colleague (that he or she is selfish), but you are also learning about a norm in your workplace (that taking bagels is fine, so long as you’re also willing to bring them in). We don’t have to witness the co-worker being chastised to learn how to avoid his or her fate - we can learn as much from gossip (Baumeister, Zhang, & Vohs, 2004).

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