It’s 2:15pm this Monday afternoon, and I should be getting ready to go and meet my friends Han and Carine at our favourite drinking place for a few afternoon ales. Han just messaged me and told me that Alice would be joining us.
Instead I’m sitting here writing this, wondering whether I really want to go. When Han and Carine and I get together we talk of all manner of things under the sun: local politics, food, global events, whatever is in the news, whatever we are currently reading or exploring. When Alice is there, however, she effortlessly derails any conversation and focuses on gossip and rumour.
Now gossip can take many forms, and there may well be strong evolutionary reasons for it. Typically, it can be considered as sharing information about someone who is not present (Baumeister, Zhang, & Vohs, 2004) and can fall into three main forms: positive, neutral and negative.
Alice is one of those whose gossip and rumours focus on the negative, and I have well known people like this before. I recall once, many, many years ago that it got back to me that a particular woman, Jan, was gossiping about me behind my back. Apparently she thought that because she heard that I was spending a lot of time with a man who liked to wear pastel colours that she could make up and tell cobbled stories about how I liked to spend my free time. When I approached her about it she flatly denied doing any such thing, as is typical in such a scenario.
I was puzzled as to why anyone would want to talk about me in a negative and/or untruthful way behind my back and asked my friend Brian this question. His reply, and I have kept this close to me to this day, is that people do this and Jan did this because her world was so bereft of anything of worth that my life was more interesting than hers. Now I can tell you that my life back then was pretty darn dull, so I can’t imagine how poor hers must have been.
But that can’t be all and it isn’t.
In its pure sense, as sharing of information, gossip allows us to distribute information across social networks very quickly, though this information may get distorted depending on chain length.
Additionally, while people dislike hearing negative gossip about themselves, they are strongly amused or entertained in response to negative gossip about others, as evidenced by studies of the brain. This suggests that such gossip is not something that is transmitted in order to make the world better, for if it was, people should be elated to know what it is about themselves that is regarded negatively and then attend to it. But they aren’t. Instead they like to point out negative things about others.
While all gossip may create or maintain social ties among the gossiper and her audience, negative gossip does so especially well and does so at the expense of another. Negative gossip is targeted at others and has the effect of establishing ingroups and outgroups. These others tend to be those who are not a part of any existing strong social groups which then tends to further alienate the targets from any form of social connection.
People may gossip negatively for reasons other than trying to gain acceptance into a group or to elevate their status within a group they belong to. They gossip because they are bored, as Jan did, and they gossip in order to direct attention away from their questionable actions onto others’ – gossip helps their self-esteem. Next time someone says something negative about another person, if you have the fortitude, then respond with something negative about them and see what happens.
Gossip, which ideally can be checked for its truth can also be turned into a rumour, and this is typical when hearsay is involved.
Rumours are stories – they are unverified and they are constructed from information (pieces of gossip) and serve a number of purposes closely aligned with the purposes that gossip serves. Making and circulating rumours allows a person to fill in gaps and to make up a story about something they are interested in, regardless of whether the story is for good or bad reasons.
Rumours are used to enhance a person’s self esteem and social status, often at the expense of another, and are at their most dangerous when those spreading them are anxious.
Rumours are far, far more likely to be created and spread when they serve some personal purpose for the person creating and spreading it. When looked at critically, rumours can tell us a lot about the rumour monger’s value system, about assumptions they make and about prejudices and insecurities they have.
Rumours can certainly be used naively, but they can be amended, and amplified as they go down the rumour chain. More insidiously, rumours can be created and used very intently as part of a calculated plan. It happens in politics and it happens in our everyday life.
Given that I have never been one to be interested in negative rumours or gossip (the people who know me will tell you so), I really don’t know why I want to be near Alice. I don’t feel the need to help her exploit and disparage other people.
I guess I could go and ignore her, I’d get there by four o’clock and get the four dollar beer, but really, don’t I have anything better to do than to give her an audience for her insecurity?
You know, I think I do. I think I’ll message Han and tell him I’m passing and then I’ll call my other friend and see if she wants to head down to the local for the seven dollar beer, and the conversation about things that really do matter.