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Gossip: Social skill not a character flaw

Why do we feel such a strong urge to share a juicy piece of gossip?

| FRANK T. McANDREW | According to a Wall Street Journal article, some communities in the Philippines consider gossiping so horrible that they have outright banned it.

But aside from the difficulty of enforcing this sort of ordinance, should gossip really get such a bad rap?

Yes, in its rawest form, gossip is a strategy used by individuals to further their own reputations and interests at the expense of others. Studies that I have conducted confirm that gossip can be used in cruel ways for selfish purposes.

At the same time, how many can walk away from a juicy story about one of their acquaintances and keep it to themselves? Surely, each of us has had firsthand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret.

When disparaging gossip, we overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of what makes the social world tick; the nasty side of gossip overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions.

In fact, gossip can actually be thought of not as a character flaw, but as a highly evolved social skill. Those who can’t do it well often have difficulty maintaining relationships, and can find themselves on the outside looking in.

As social creatures, we’re hardwired to gossip

Like it or not, we are the descendants of busybodies. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others is a byproduct of a prehistoric brain.

According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognised that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.

Living under such conditions, our ancestors faced a number of adaptive social problems: who’s reliable and trustworthy? Who’s a cheater? Who would make the best mate? How can friendships, alliances and family obligations be balanced?

In this sort of environment, an intense interest in the private dealings of other people would have certainly been handy – and strongly favoured by natural selection. People who were the best at harnessing their social intelligence to interpret, predict – and influence – the behavior of others became more successful than those who were not.

The genes of those individuals were passed along from one generation to the next.

Avoiding gossip: a one-way ticket to social isolation

Today, good gossipers are influential and popular members of their social groups.

Sharing secrets is one way people bond, and sharing gossip with another person is a sign of deep trust: you’re signaling that you believe that the person will not use this sensitive information against you.

Therefore, someone skillful at gossip will have a good rapport with a large network of people. At the same time, they’ll be discreetly knowledgeable about what’s going on throughout the group.

On the other hand, someone who is not part of, say, the office gossip network is an outsider – someone neither trusted nor accepted by the group. Presenting yourself as a self-righteous soul who refuses to participate in gossip will ultimately end up being nothing more than a ticket to social isolation.

In the workplace, studies have shown that harmless gossiping with one’s colleagues can build group cohesiveness and boost morale.

Gossip also helps to socialise newcomers into groups by resolving ambiguity about group norms and values. In other words, listening to the judgments that people make about the behavior of others helps the newbie figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

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