Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why Gossip Is Good For You

Ever since humanity first distinguished itself from other species, we have wondered what it is exactly that marks the line between man and beast.  Here's a brief survey of failed attempts to find humanity's unique quality:

Tool use. But tons of animals use tools.  Woodpecker finches use cactus pines to pin tasty grubs.  Chimps fish for ants using stalks of grass.  Octopuses build homes from coconut shells.  Pigs can even learn to play pong.  Examples abound.

Language?  Nope.  Dolphins give themselves unique names, chimps and gorillas can learn sign language, and bees do a funny waggle dance to inform other bees about whatever it is bees need to know.

Even hedonism is not safe from animal emulation, as this video of actual real-life drunken monkeys can attest.

But humans do something unique on this crooked earth.  We gossip.

Children start to gossip as soon as can speak.  And only 10% of gossip is about good deeds.  Maybe that's why so many religions have taken a stand against gossip.  Historical punishments for gossiping include such special-ordered torture devices as the Dunking Stool and the Gossip's Bridle.

Why do we gossip if we think it's bad?  One reason might be that gossip as a kind of low-cost punishment to people who break social norms.  Instead of going up and hitting Ugbert on the head after he got too drunk at my feast, I can just talk smack about him behind his back.  I don't risk getting hit by Ugbert (unless he gets wind of my gossip) and everyone finds out that he's a bit of an ass after he's had a few brews.

Gossip is also educational.  It gives us examples about what our communities disapprove of, at the same time as it informs us about who in our communities is doing the deeds that need disapproving.  If my bitchy story about Ugbert and the twelve-steins-of-beer goes viral, and people start calling Ugbert Professor Twelve-Stein behind his back, it reinforces the social norm of holding your alchohol, and also shows us that Ugbert is a notorious breaker of this norm.

Finally, gossip is a great way of making friends.  When I gossip with Tugmert about Ugbert's regrettable projectile vomiting at my feast, I'm showing Tugmert that I trust her so much that I'm not scared that she's going to gossip to Ugbert about my gossiping.  I'm also showing that Tugmert is the person I gossip to, not the person I gossip about.

So next time you start polishing up your Dunking Stool looking to punish a gossip, please--forgive the poor gossip.  They're only being human.

My sources today are an article on the social psychology of gossip in In Mind Magazine--which has more than you ever needed to know about gossip, and the book On The Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd.

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