The way we live now – Nothing to speak of: the horror of a world without gossip | 1843

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Idon’t know about you, but for me, lockdown has been enervating. My pulse rate has slowed to a lazy blip and my mood, while not necessarily low, has gone flat. I hadn’t realised until now quite how much I rely on social encounters – you remember, the ones where you actually meet the person – for my daily meds of dopamine and adrenaline. In particular, I find myself missing conversations that deliver an illicit payload of news about someone my acquaintance and I know in common.

Gossip, like many other activities, has been stifled by lockdown. It relies on the world going about its business. Its juices are stimulated by social collisions, misadventures and infractions. When so few of us are doing anything much, or seeing anyone beyond our immediate circle, there is less scope for bad behaviour and less to report on. As offices, bars and restaurants closed down almost overnight, so did opportunities to spot secret couples sloping off to lunch or overhear covert deals being discussed at alcove tables.

Reading online accounts of people’s indiscretions is a poor substitute for the electrical charge of hearing them at first hand, which perhaps explains why, when one of Britain’s leading epidemiologists breached lockdown to meet his lover, the nation reacted like a starved dog presented with steak. He was a government adviser, which made it newsworthy. But still – a middle-aged scientist had been visited by his girlfriend? We once had better things to salivate over.

I miss the grapes and the grapevine. I miss the cocked eyebrow, the lowered voice, the precautionary glance around the room. I love gossip. Is that wrong? I have to ask, because for an activity that does so much to colour people’s reputations, it does not itself have a good name. We learn at an early age that it’s not nice to talk behind someone’s back. Not that it stops us: a 2019 meta-analysis published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that subjects spent, on average, 52 minutes a day chatting about people who were not present (my guess is that they were the most interesting minutes of the day).

When one of Britain’s leading epidemiologists breached lockdown to meet his lover, the nation reacted like a starved dog presented with steak

Gossip seems to be a universal characteristic of our species: scholars have studied its spread among business executives, cattle ranchers and sports teams; among Native Americans, Dutch students and Polynesian atoll-dwellers. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, even proposed that early humans developed speech in order to gossip, as a means of group bonding. A grand claim, perhaps, but it’s clear that gossip helps us to orient ourselves within our group: who is up and down, who is in or out.

It also draws us together. The word “gossip” itself is rooted in friendship. It derives from the Old English word godsibb, which meant godparent – that is, a friend of the family. When we gossip, we engage in a delicious mutual transgression. By sharing secret information with me you’re indicating that you know I’m not the sort of person who will rebuff or report you for it, and vice versa. The moment I sense a new acquaintance is willing to cross that threshold is often the moment we become friends. Gossip may be untrustworthy, but I find it hard to trust those who don’t engage in it.

People who nobly refrain from gossip seem to lack some essential fellow feeling. Theresa May, Britain’s former prime minister, remarked with quiet pride that she was not the sort of person to “gossip over lunch”. Anyone who had lunch with her confirmed this; they also confirmed that it was painfully dull. Gossip is fun – subversive fun. As well as forswearing gossip, May was famously hostile to dissenters, which isn’t surprising. The philosopher Gloria Origgi has suggested that a disdain for gossip conceals a drive for authoritarian control and an excessive regard for formal rules. Gossip is a way of disseminating an unofficial version of reality, closer to samizdat than propaganda. It is freedom of speech at play.

Gossip knits together private observations and subversive opinions into collective judgments

I think it is a freedom we need to preserve, especially in the workplace, where it plays an essential role. I work as a freelancer in the advertising industry, which means that over the course of a normal year I might have a desk in several different offices. Given that I’m usually there for a few weeks only, I need to understand as quickly as possible whom I should befriend or avoid, who can speed things up or slow them down. It’s not the kind of information you get from a spreadsheet or an induction. The only way I can discover it is to take my team to the pub. After the second round of drinks, the gossip begins, and the real organisation is unmasked.

It is crucial that nobody from a corner office is present. Authority has a chilling effect on gossip. In any hierarchy, people at the top like to control the flow of information down below, and in the age of email and messaging apps, bosses are better equipped than ever to monitor and regulate what employees say to each other. Gossip is a way for workers to take back a measure of control, to speak truth behind the backs of power. After all, management has secrets it does not want you to know – who is getting paid what and who will be fired in the coming restructure. If employees want this information they cannot make a request to HR or read it in the chief executive’s weekly email. They must rely on each other.

I miss the cocked eyebrow, the lowered voice, the precautionary glance around the room

Gossip can give a voice to the voiceless: the rank and file who, even when told they work in a meritocracy, have no real way of checking how well it’s working. It is hardly coincidental that the groups most often associated with gossip throughout history have been women and servants. Gossip may be unaccountable, but it can force accountability. It knits together private observations and subversive opinions into collective judgments – judgments that can flush out, not just the free-riding team member, but the bullying boss and the corrupt leader. Origgi describes gossip as a weapon used by the powerless against the powerful: “You might not be able to change the institutional status of a person,” she says, “but by gossiping, you can downgrade that person’s reputation.”

Without wishing to sanctify its impious spirit, it’s worth noting that gossip can even save lives. Many aid organisations working in poor communities find that people won’t accept vaccines because they don’t trust outsiders. They can’t rely on media or governments to spread the word, so they somehow need to get people from the communities to do so themselves. In a study first published in 2014, a team of economists led by the Nobel prize-winners Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee identified a novel answer to this problem: ask people in each village who the biggest gossips are, then tell those gossips about the local immunisation programme. When Duflo and Banerjee ran controlled trials of this method in Karnataka and Haryana, rural areas of India, they found that it greatly increased attendance rates at clinics.

Gossip is a form of information that spreads, like a virus, through communities. Unlike a certain other virus we could mention, this one has a fatality rate of zero. But it too has its carriers and super-spreaders. It tends to be transmitted within discrete groups among indiscreet people. Sometimes it jumps into the wider population, at which point it can mutate into rumour or conspiracy theory. Symptoms include Schadenfreude, pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Even this dubious satisfaction has a deeper purpose.

Gossip tends to be transmitted within discrete groups among indiscreet people

According to the psychologist Roy Baumeister, gossip is a form of “cultural learning”. It helps to ensure that everyone is playing by the same social rulebook, or at least has a copy of it. Children, who have an awful lot to figure out about how to behave, gossip with and about each other – to get the kids’ view of the world, not the official version handed down by parents and teachers. The more rules we have to learn and the faster we need to learn them, the more we lean on gossip. Teenagers love to gossip because they are in effect cramming for a PhD in the rules of relationships.

If gossip is more often negative than positive, that’s not necessarily because people are malicious. It’s because the quickest way to learn about a norm is to hear how someone breached it. That way, we discover what not to do, without having to make the mistake ourselves. Baumeister points to the way parents use stories about people – in essence a form of gossip – to teach children about the world’s dangers. A parent can’t show a child why they shouldn’t run into the road, and merely explaining why it’s not a good idea is not nearly so vivid as telling a story about a little girl who did it once and was never seen again.

We may, sadly, be witnessing the extinction of gossip. The pandemic has accelerated long-term trends, bringing forward what was already on the rise, like homeworking, and killing off what was on the way out, like newspapers and hard cash. Dunbar, writing in the early days of the internet, argued that electronic communication could only ever form a poor substitute for face-to-face gossip. I suspect he was right. Rumours may thrive online, but gossip, which is more personal, does not. Like a real virus, it depends on a membrane to protect it; privacy is its fatty envelope. It takes place just between us or not at all. And as we know, privacy is not the internet’s strong point.

I had already noticed, long before this crisis struck, that people – including me, eventually – were less ready to gossip over email or in private messages. Merely to hint at an indiscretion or confidence was to be stiffly ignored. That is because people have learned, via observation or experience, that there are no secrets on the internet. All writing is publishing now. Speech evaporates the moment it leaves our mouths but anything committed to text has an afterlife its originator cannot control. If someone wishes to exchange confidences with a colleague, they have to go for a walk, like cut-rate spies. To do that, it helps to be in the same office. As offline interactions become rarer, so will gossip.

Whether we realise it or not, I think we will all be worse off if gossip disappears. A society stripped of gossip will be short on playfulness, intimacy and fellowship. It will be a little less equitable and a lot more dull. You didn’t hear it from me, OK?


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