Gossiping is idle chat, or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others; the act is also known as dishing or tattling.

The word is from Old English ‘godsibb,’ from god and sibb, the term for the godparents of one’s child or the parents of one’s godchild, generally very close friends. In the 16th century, the word was a noun which meant a person, usually a woman, who delights in idle talk, a newsmonger. In the early 19th century, the term was extended to also meaning the conversation of such persons. The verb to gossip, meaning “to be a gossip,” first appears in Shakespeare.

In Early Modern England the word ‘gossip’ referred to companions in childbirth, not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women-friends generally, with no derogatory connotations. It commonly referred to an informal local sorority or social group, who could enforce socially acceptable behaviour through private censure.

Evolutionary psychology has found gossip to be an aid to bonding in large groups, a social interaction that helps the group gain information about other individuals without personally speaking to them. It enables people to keep up with what is going on in their social network. It also creates a bond between the teller and the hearer, as they share information of mutual interest and spend time together. It can be regarded as the equivalent of social grooming often observed in other primate species. Women are found to only very slightly gossip more than men.

Gossip usually comments on how appropriate a behavior is, and the mere act of repeating it signifies its importance. By gossiping about an individual’s acts, other individuals can subtly indicate that said acts are inappropriate and allow the individuals concerned to correct their behavior.

Some newspapers carry ‘gossip columns’ which detail the social and personal lives of celebrities. Social media has now provided a much faster way to share gossip. Harmful gossip and rumors can spread online from one place in the world to another in mere minutes.

Researchers identify gossip as a form of workplace violence, noting that it is “essentially a form of attack,” reveal passive aggression, isolating and harming others. Corporate email can be a particularly dangerous method of gossip delivery, as the medium is semi-permanent and messages are easily forwarded to unintended recipients; Low self-esteem and a desire to ‘fit in’ are frequently cited as motivations for workplace gossip.

Some negative consequences of workplace gossip may include: lost productivity and wasted time, erosion of trust and morale, increased anxiety, people ‘taking sides,’ as well as hurt feelings and reputations.

Informal networks for gossip are sometimes called ‘the grapevine.’ In a study, it was found that middle managers in several different organizations believed that gathering information from the grapevine was a much better way of learning information than through formal communication with their subordinates.

Some see gossip as trivial, hurtful and socially and/or intellectually unproductive. Some people view gossip as a lighthearted way of spreading information. People who gossip regularly may be less liked, since nobody knows who they may go after next. The type of gossip being exchanged also affects likability.

One researcher writes, “In a sense, the gossip is much worse than the blackmailer, for the blackmailer has given the blackmailed person a chance to silence him. The gossip exposes the secret without warning.” 

I must have led a sheltered life, because the only gossip I can remember hearing is who’s getting married or divorced, or who’s got their house up for sale. Fairly innocent stuff, which I’d never know if somebody didn’t tell me. There is a downside in now subscribing to the local newspaper!

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