Excuse me, hindi po ako sumasali sa tsismis! (Excuse me, I do not gossip!)
Oh, but you do—that is, if we go by how gossip is defined in several studies. In this entry, I draw on research from different fields of study—psychology, anthropology, physics and complexity, organizational management, and economics—to explain what scholars say about gossip: (1) what it is, (2) how it gets spread, and (3) why we do it. My hope is to have a better appreciation for gossip and its role in society, and, at the same time, impart my nerdy tendencies to hit scholarly work (read: Google Scholar is your friend) when life’s more trivial questions pique my curiosity.
What is gossip?
I have come across several definitions of gossip in my research, but Foster (2004) seems to provide one that encapsulates the essence of gossip:
In the context of congeniality, gossip is the exchange of personal information (positive or negative) in an evaluative way (positive or negative) about absent third parties.
There are four components to this definition: (1) context of congeniality, (2) exchange of personal information, (3) evaluative nature, and (4) about absent third parties. The last component is easy enough to understand: gossip happens when Person A tells Person B something about an absent Person C.
Gossip’s congeniality relates to gossip being exchanged in sociable settings, often prefaced by an impish, “May balita ako para sa iyo!” (“I have news for you!”), which sets the tone for what could only be entertaining chitchat to come.
To understand the second and third aspects, let’s consider a typical example of what might be construed as gossip:
“Uy, may girlfriend si __________!” (“Hey, _______ has a girlfriend!”)
This piece of news is personal in nature, and seems positive at the outset (aspect #2).
How about aspect #3? How is gossip evaluative?
From an outsider’s point of view, the statement above is simply an observation, a statement of a fact. To understand the evaluative nature of gossip, we turn to the two parties in this conversation: the Gossiper and the Receiver. Let’s also consider the target of the conversation: Person X.
Let’s assume that Person X is a male friend of both Gossiper and Receiver, who was, until that point, very much single. If you were either the Gossiper or Receiver, and good friends with Person X, you would most likely welcome this piece of news and consider it as something positive.
But what if Person X happens to be in a long-term romantic relationship with another woman? The statement above will certainly be evaluated differently. One can expect negative evaluation from people who believe in monogamy, or friends of Person X’s long-term girlfriend. While others, who will only look at it at a purely legal lens, may not see anything wrong in the situation.
Gossip cannot be construed as the mere broadcast of news, as journalists are trained to do. Journalism, after all, requires a level of impartiality that is largely absent in gossip. We evaluate gossip based on our personal values barometer, which is shaped by our experiences, belief systems, and prevailing social norms. What makes people boil is that gossip involves personal information, an invasion of privacy (Foster, 2004), which many would find undeserved—“Ano ba’ng pakialam mo?” (“Why do you care?”). Furthermore, the evaluative manner by which gossip is exchanged makes it more contentious, particularly when Person X does not adhere to the same moral compass or belief system as the Gossiper’s or Receiver’s. Nobody wants to be the subject of gossip (Foster, 2004), neither does anyone want to be (unfavorably) judged for his or her choices based on someone else’s standards.
That said, the definition of gossip only proves that, despite our distaste for gossip, we do it nonetheless. Look back on your conversations with family and friends, and consider how many times you’ve discussed private personal matters of people who were not part of the conversation. Besides, gossip need not always be negative in nature, as the example above suggests. Positive gossip, or praise-gossip, does exist (Dunbar, 2004; Foster, 2004; Kniffin & Wilson, 2005, 2010; McAndrew, Bell & Garcia, 2007), and we do so convivially, and many times unknowingly, in the company of peers.
How does gossip spread?
In economics, studies have shown that there are central sources of information in local rural villages who are best placed to diffuse information (Banerjee, Chandrasekhar, Duflo, & Jackson, 2014). Simply put, these studies imply that there are individuals within our social, professional, or geographical circles who serve as ground zero (or patient zero) for gossip—the kind of person who almost always knows the goings-on in other people’s lives.
Network theory, a subset of contagion theory in sociology and also a subject of interest in the broad study of physics, then seeks to explain why and how information gets spread (Lind, da Silva, Andrade, and Herrmann, 2007; Shaw, Tsvetkova, and Daneshvar, 2011) once transmitted from these central individuals. The propensity or tendency of people to gossip and be gossiped about depends on how many friends and acquaintances you have, and how close you are to each person in their circle. What this means is that the larger your circle of family, friends, and acquaintances, the more likely you are to be gossiped about (Lind et al, 2007). Closeness also affects how fast gossip spreads—closer ties within your circle make gossip spread quicker (Lind et al, 2007).
Contagion theory also explains how gossip affects the quality of your personal bond or connections with people. Negative gossip, for example, can either strengthen or weaken the bonds among people in your circle (Shaw et al, 2011). In general, people don’t like gossipers—we are less likely to like or trust them, much less find them credible (Turner, Mazur, Wendel, & Winslow, 2003), which is probably why certain bonds weaken once negative gossip spreads. Sociology explains that gossip can simultaneously divide groups and bring people closer together (Foster, 2004; Turner et al, 2003). Network theory contends that gossip strengthens the relationships between gossipers, but weakens the relationships between the target and gossipers (Shaw et al, 2011).
Some types of gossip get more mileage than others. For example, we’re more likely to spread negative gossip about people we don’t like (because we can be petty that way) and positive gossip about our good friends (McAndrew, Bell, & Garcia, 2007). We’re also more likely to spread negative gossip only to people we trust (Chua & Uy, 2014).
Nevertheless, gossip cannot spread without support or response from recipients (Chua & Uy, 2014). In psychology, support or response can mean many things: explaining, confirming, expanding, exaggerating, or challenging the gossip. The more support or response it gets, the more likely it is to get spread. So if you want to stop manipulative and deceitful gossip from spreading, you need to stop supporting it (and that includes challenging it!)—no matter how juicy it is.
What motivates us to gossip?
Different branches of study point to different motivations for gossip. In psychology, it was found that people, in general, gossip for four major reasons: to gather information, a form of entertainment, establish friendship, and for influence (Foster, 2004).
You can learn a lot about an organization by obtaining gossip (Baumeister, Zhang, & Vohs, 2004); gossip is, essentially, information. We learn a lot about groups we join simply by listening to gossip—we learn what people find acceptable, and, more importantly, what is considered inappropriate behavior (Foster, 2004).
Gossip also brings us closer to others (Foster, 2004), particularly when it involves negative gossip, which we only pass on to people we trust (Chua & Uy, 2014; Foster, 2004). And sometimes, we gossip for entertainment’s sake (Foster, 2004). Aminin—may mga bagay at taong pinag-uusapan tayong pasikreto kasi … nakakatawa! Like a private joke, gossip delights our intimate conversations with close friends, often only truly appreciated because of shared history and experiences. This is how gossip can include and exclude (Foster, 2004)—gossip exchanged among friends and close allies often involve private and unspoken references that is lost to outsiders. Oftentimes, this is deliberately done to exclude those not part of this close circle.
In sociology, gossip is considered as a group management tool that helps curb free riding behavior. Free riding behavior is a type of behavior that is not socially acceptable because it seeks to benefit an individual at the expense of someone else. What is free riding behavior? Let’s say you’re working with a group on a project. You have a choice to pull your weight and contribute, or to get a free ride by depending on others to do the work. You get the merit, but at the expense of someone else’s efforts.
In hunting-gathering societies, free riding behavior puts pressure in living in groups. That’s because living in a group protects its members from enemies and harm. In return, members are expected to contribute to society. To those who don’t, members of the group unfavorably talk about them, essentially gossiping about their free riding behavior to avert any more attempts to free ride (Dunbar, 2004). Anthropologically, gossip serves to foster harmonious living.
Organizational management studies also acknowledge the use of gossip to deter free riding behavior and to enforce social norms. A study on free riding in groups found that when a group is exposed to a free rider, members are more likely to scathingly speak about the free rider while favorably speak about those who pick up the free rider’s slack (Kniffin & Wilson, 2005, 2010).
Think about the kind of negative gossip you encounter at work or in school. When you rant to friends about a classmate or a co-worker, you usually sound off about someone who probably isn’t pulling his or her weight in group projects or assignments. Or you probably talk about your sip-sip officemate trying to earn brownie points through pa-bibo remarks or suggestions, but will never do the required work. And most likely, you will reconsider doing some things because, “ayaw kong mapag-tsismisan!” (“I don’t want to be talked about!”).
In economics, gossip has a surprisingly important value—gossip is an aspect of social capital. Social capital is essentially an intangible resource that is embedded in the social structure of a group (Lin, 1999), and which can be used to benefit those living in poverty through alternative financial services such as microfinance (Stiglitz, 1990; Wydick, 1999; Zeller, 1998) or even our local paluwagan.
If you have ever participated in a paluwagan, consider your thought process on who you chose to join you in this money lending scheme. Will he or she regularly pay up—promptly and even after she receives his or her share? Is he or she responsible with money? Does he or she know how to pay his or her debt? And once the lending cycle begins, paluwagan participants keep watch of everyone to ensure that those who joined will pay up, and will do so regularly and promptly until everyone receives their share. In economics, this is what you call peer monitoring (Stiglitz, 1990), which, when you think about it, is essentially gossip.
Eh, ano ngayon?
While there is overwhelming scholarly support for the positive role of gossip, I understand why gossip feels unsettlingly inappropriate, particularly given its surreptitious nature. Something does not feel right about something you need to hide. Nevertheless, Dunbar (1993, in Foster 2004) boldly claimed that how people view gossip says more about what types of gossip these individuals talk about than anything else. Gossip, after all, can be two things: praise or fault. Spreading positive news about someone else is a form of gossip, too.
This is not to say that spreading negative gossip is necessarily wrong, too. If you look back at the anthropological and organizational motivations of gossip explained in the previous section, certain types of gossip seek to protect society by minimizing free riding behavior. Of course, if you are the free rider and target of such gossip, then gossip will decidedly be intrusive for you. Who wants to have a spotlight aimed at their misdeeds, right?
It is a different point altogether when the gossip in question is a trivial matter in your personal life, a minute detail that leaves you wondering why it has suddenly become fodder for unapologetic tattlers. Remember, however, what Aubrey Hepburn said: “You can tell more about a person by what he says about others than you can by what others say about him.” Fundamentally, “[t]he nature of gossip is a projection of the gossiper’s life issues, which are basically grounded on his overall self-concept and reflected in his anxieties. The poorer the self-concept…,” the higher the propensity to gossip (Chua & Uy, 2014). Furthermore, studies have shown that self-serving gossip harms the gossiper more than its target (McAndrew et al, 2007) as it adversely affects the gossiper’s credibility (Foster, 2004). How one gossips, particularly how one evaluates a piece of personal information, is a reflection of the gossiper’s character.
The self-serving nature of some types of gossip also underscores the importance of developing information filters and being cautious with whom we associate. Think about it: if your gossiper friend can say unpleasant things about someone to you, what does he or she say about you to others?
Lastly, remember the old adage: loose lips sink ships. Information is currency in today’s age, and gossip is a powerful informational tool. It matters when and how we use it, and to whom we pass it. Gossip can make or break reputations and relationships. The next time someone passes on juicy gossip, think about the consequences of passing on such information to someone else. Even if you are not the central individual from whom manipulative gossip originates, what if in passing it on, you become the pawn used to ensure that such gossip creates significant damage to someone’s reputation or relationship with someone else?
Ultimately, while gossip is deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society, to gossip is a largely personal choice, one that is determined by either altruistic or self-serving needs. Only we can truthfully recognize our motivations for gossip.
So, true to form, if I hold up Boy Abunda’s mahiwagang salamin to you, what will you say if I ask, “bakit ka ba nakiki-tsismis?”
Gossip can be good; it can also be detrimental. According to scholars, it really depends on how you use it. But to gossip is a personal choice, and only you can determine whether you use it towards altruistic ends or to address your self-serving needs.
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