Looking back on it, spreading that gossip was not a good idea. In high school there was a girl named Tina who was adorable and cute and all the boys liked her. Some of my friends told me that she was having sex with lots of boys and that she was “easy.” This information was unverifiable at the time, but I distinctly remember feeling a something in my stomach resembling a heavy meal. What I have come to believe is twofold: that feeling was and is entirely real and also that the feeling is my instinct telling me something. That is why it is called a “gut” instinct. I knew Tina and this characterization did not sit with me. Turns out, my instinct was correct. Tina was not in fact easy, and this was a malicious rumor being spread for a reason I did not know or understand. But I told the gossip anyway, even though the words leaving my mouth gave me pause. Why do we spread gossip? In my home of suburbia, I can attest that a certain amount of gossip goes on. Maybe not as much as high school, but it happens.
From an evolutionary perspective, gossip was a way for our ancestors to get ahead or warn others about someone in the clan. In that way, it can be seen as protective. Scientists call this “prosocial” gossip. It serves the purpose of informing others about the tricky, dangerous or dishonest actions of someone in the group. It causes us to pay attention and be on the lookout for this group member, whom we have been warned could hurt us. Getting this type of information can clearly be useful to us humans. Staying away from a person who wants our mate, is vying for the same bison herd or is prone to violence is obviously beneficial to the early human. But what about now? What is the reason we use prosocial gossip?
Actually, gossip in suburbia can be seen as altruistic. Stay with me here! In scientific studies, the gossip actually lowers the gossipers’ stress and lowers their heart rate. Your friend who just told you not to tell so and so anything private wants to warn you that unless you want your dirty laundry aired, best to keep your mouth shut in certain company. Maybe you want to know someone who would be a good resource for finding you a job. Or a new husband. Either way, you want someone who will not broadcast your intentions. A friend who cares about you may not want to speak ill of another, but your wellbeing is on the line and so they tell you not to trust someone else with that information. All very socially supportive and nurturing to our species. See! Gossip is not all bad! Gossip also fires all those warming, connecting and friendship making neurons that feel so good when making friends. Also, when you know others are talking, you are less likely to do something offensive within the group. It sets up a check and balance system so that the offending parties remain on the outskirts of social acceptance. So maybe you shouldn’t do things like sleep with your friend’s husband, hit your kids just because you are having a bad day or say mean things about people just to be mean. Just saying. Because we will tell that shit.
Malicious gossip is another beast altogether, as I was speaking of with Tina. I often wonder how she was scarred by such gossip, and how it may have changed her and who she was. Hearing a bit too much of the word “slut” in the news lately, I have been wondering about this. I’m so sorry Tina. If it makes a difference, I always knew it wasn’t true.
“Anyone who has obeyed nature by transmitting a piece of gossip experiences the explosive relief that accompanies the satisfying of a primary need.” Primo Levi