Is Gossip Good?

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

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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.


To quote one more author, Patricia Meyer Spacks in her 1985 book, "Gossip," argues that "the anxiety aroused by gossip derives partly from its incalculable scope. One can never know quite where it goes, whom it reaches, how it changes in transmission, how and by whom it is understood." This is no doubt what Harry was anticipating and what Tom felt he was witnessing.

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But to those of us discussing Harry and Eleana, this so-called gossip was as essential as talking about the presidential primaries. And more than that, the very act of figuring it all out together offered a kind of social consolation, proof that if we were to find ourselves in Eleana's position, we wouldn't be alone.

In taking sides, we were making a moral choice--not only slamming Harry but also sympathizing with Eleana. Why would remaining serenely, discreetly neutral, as Harry and Tom would have liked, be taking the moral high ground?

Gossip is an interpretive art. We're interpreting the world around us by figuring out the people around us. In civilized society, gossip is the critical edition of the novels of our lives. It's getting at the subtext. When done with a sense of fairness, it's also parsing right from wrong, good behavior from bad. If you apply yourself to it correctly, gossip can have a kind of Talmudic complexity.

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