Colette Sheridan: Why a good gossip is enjoyable as well as being a binding force

New research says that gossip forges social bonds and can help people learn through others' experiences, so says Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: Why a good gossip is enjoyable as well as being a binding force

Social gatherings have been restricted in the past 12 months — so many of us are missing out on gossip, says Colette Sheridan.

ADMIT it. Who doesn’t occasionally enjoy a good old gossip?

It doesn’t have to be devastatingly malicious, traducing the reputation of the subject of the chinwag.

Nasty gossip can be damaging. It often says more about the person disclosing the information than the person who is the object of derision or shame. Scratch the surface of a cruel gossiper and you’ll often find low self-esteem and a desire to ‘fit in’ in, say, the workplace.

Journalists, to a degree, trade in gossip, which has to stand up to verification (and be in the public interest, ideally) if it is to be reported. But there’s an awful lot of stuff being reported that seems to have little basis in fact.

I’m thinking of a report I read about Prince Harry. Without any contact with the beleaguered guy, some royal expert, who has written a book on Prince Harry, claimed that after returning home: “I’ve no doubt he’s been feeling embarrassed, regretful and awkward” following the interview (often referred to as ‘explosive’ by the salivating press) he and Meghan Markel did with Oprah Winfrey.

In other words, a story was concocted based on the supposition of a royal biographer who fancies himself as being able to read Prince Harry’s mind.

This sort of material is gossipy and feeds the seemingly endless appetite for ‘news’ about the royals. But despite the vacuous nature of royal reporting, often pushed out based on gossip from courtiers or the imagination of hacks, those leaking information are involved in an ancient tradition that cannot be totally dissed.

New research from Dartmouth College in the U.S reveals that gossiping plays a much more beneficial role than once thought as it helps boost social connections and could improve one’s mental health.

The study says that gossip isn’t just about spreading rumours and saying awful things about others. It forges social bonds and can help people learn indirectly through other people’s experiences.

People who normally work in offices but have been working remotely because of the pandemic are no doubt missing the daily sessions around the water cooler where rumours are spread — or just tittle -tattle is exchanged.

Gossip, according to the research, can be a means of significant social connection beyond its negative connotation. In fact, earlier studies have found that only about 14% of people’s daily conversations could be described as gossip — with most of it being neutral in tone.

Not having worked in an office for years and years, I don’t have water cooler moments (just lots of coffee breaks on my own). And because I haven’t been socialising much, I’m bereft of gossip and miss its binding force.

I swear - it’s not all horrible reputation-bashing exchanges that I and friends and colleagues engage in. It’s more about maintaining a sense of community with shared interests and values. You might scoff at such seeming harmlessness and chose to believe that gossip is one of the darker arts. But really, very few of us want to be described as gossips in the murkier meaning of the word.

A feminist definition of gossip declares that it is “a way of talking between women, intimate in style, personal and domestic in scope and setting, a female cultural event which springs from and perpetuates the restrictions of the female role, but also gives the comfort of validation.”

Women are only very slightly more likely to gossip compared with men. Yet, gossip is generally seen as the preserve of females, depicted as nosey and judgemental.

However, the word ‘gossip’ does not derive from boozy salons or talk shops where tidbits - and scandals - are offered up for the delectation of women.

Rather, the original setting for gossiping is a lot more delicate. The term originates from the bedroom at the time of childbirth. Giving birth used to be a social event exclusively attended by women. The pregnant woman’s female relatives and neighbours would congregate and idly converse. Over time, ‘gossip’ came to mean talk of others.

According to the Dartmouth College study, “baseless trash talk” is the not the sole purpose of gossip. It can also create a “shared reality” where friends and colleagues build social bonds, exchange information and reach agreements on socially acceptable behaviour.

Being a disseminator of gossip can enhance a person’s social status, power and prestige within an organisation. It can be highly rewarding.

When a gossiper relates positive information about a person, the recipient might believe that the gossiper will also spread positive information about them. This causes the gossiper’s reward power to increase.

Now that lockdown restrictions are easing, we’ll soon be back in the fray, exchanging news and morsels of gossip. At long last, we’ll be able to answer in the affirmative when someone eagerly asks if we have any ‘goss.’

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