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

Even though gossip is most often associated with adults and adolescents, sociologist Gary Alan Fine (1977) has observed that children begin to gossip about as soon as they begin to speak, and it is clearly a way in which they learn about the social world. By gossiping about the experiences of their peers, children and adolescents learn what is and is not appropriate in a wide range of social situations, from the type of clothing one should wear to school, to how to behave on a first date (Fine, 1977). Other research has noted that the creation of peer culture is not a passive process whereby children attempt to reproduce adult culture, but an active process that involves negotiating and resisting social roles and cultural categories (Gaskins, Miller, & Corsaro, 1992). Importantly, the creation of peer culture comes about largely through children’s peer talk, which of course includes gossip – something that plays a key role in conflict negotiation and the establishment of status within the peer group (Kyratzis, 2004).

Finally, as mentioned previously, gossip can also tell us information about ourselves, and it does this through the process ofsocial comparison. According to social comparison theory (Festinger, 1954), people have a fundamental desire to evaluate their abilities and opinions, and when objective evaluations are not possible, people will compare their abilities and opinions with similar others, in order to get a sense of where they stand. For example, if I want to get a sense of how sociable or popular I am (for which an objective measure may be hard to find), I might compare the number of Facebook friends I have with those of my peers. According to Sarah Wert and Peter Salovey, all gossip involves social comparison. Whereas direct comparisons with others can lead to awkward moments or tension (for example, you wouldn’t want to ask a friend how much money she makes, or how many men she has slept with), gossip allows us to compare ourselves with others in an indirect manner, gathering information about our peers from other people, and thereby avoiding the risks involved in direct comparisons (Wert & Salovey, 2004).

Connectedness functions

Connectedness functions refer to those functions of gossip that help individuals obtain acceptance and liking from important individuals and groups (Smith & Mackie, 2007). Gossip helps us connect by strengthening bonds between gossip-tellers and receivers (in the case of face-to-face gossip), and also by creating a web of shared knowledge and entertainment (in the case of celebrity gossip, which may travel from one source to millions of people).

article author(s)