Is Gossip Good?

Yes! When done with a sense of fairness, it's parsing right from wrong, good behavior from bad.

BY: Laurie Winer


The other night, we were eating with friends, and I brought up something I probably shouldn't have. But the temptation was overwhelming.

The previous week

my husband, Tom

, and I had had a small party, partially to fix up two friends--let's call them Harry and Eleana. We'd just met Harry, who was witty and smart, and we wanted to know him better. So the party was an efficient way to achieve two social ends at once.

What had happened next struck me as strange, and I wanted to hear what the group made of it. Harry called me for Eleana's number. That was good; it made me feel like a successful hostess. But as soon as he called Eleana, his easygoing charm took on an ominous tone.

Speaking to her on the phone, he laid down some rules. I'm not looking for a serious relationship, he said, and I don't want this one played out in front of our friends. He then proceeded not to call Eleana on the day of their scheduled date, or at least not until after 6:30, when she'd left her office. Eleana of course told me this tale, which was puzzling enough that it ensured that Harry's demand would be denied: Their relationship, such as it was, would be played out in front of an audience of our friends.

Being discussed is proof that we're living in the world among other people, that our actions, no matter how subtle, have consequences.

At dinner, we all eagerly debated Harry's behavior: Was it motivated by a fear of commitment that had mutated into a fear of first dates? A history of being indicted by friends, perhaps unfairly, for relationship infractions? Harry's own internalized indictments being projected onto us?

My husband interrupted our debate with an entirely different and, to my mind, unwelcome set of concerns. Why, he wondered, did I feel compelled to discuss the situation even after Harry had directly stated that he didn't want us to? Tom saw our debate about Harry as a trial without the benefit of a defendant or a defense. And though Tom made an acute point, the rest of us, particularly the women, barely acknowledged it. Talking about Harry and Eleana seemed to us an inalienable right, one that outranked Harry's right to secrecy.

To be human is to gossip.

To gossip is to be human. Oscar Wilde understood this. "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about," he wrote, "and that is not being talked about." Being discussed is proof that we're living in the world among other people, that our actions, no matter how subtle, have consequences.

In his 1996 book, "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language," Robin Dunbar studies primate behavior and reaches a bold conclusion. "The conventional view," he writes, "is that language evolved to enable males to do things like co-ordinate hunts more effectively." But Dunbar sees a less obvious motivation, one that drives our own compulsion to talk about Harry and Eleana: "In a nutshell," Dunbar writes, "I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip."

He goes on to say that speech evolved primarily to facilitate bonding within groups and to help individuals keep track of what Dunbar calls "free riders." By gossiping, the core group can coerce rascals into behavior that the group finds socially responsible. I recognize this as unattractive, but I still want to discuss Harry and Eleana.

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