Why We Gossip

I’m enjoying this thread on gossip that Sisterhood contributor Sarah Seltzer has taken up has taken up, because I love talk and I love information. And when you combine the two it’s likely you’ll cross the border into the realm of gossip. Does this mean that by extension I also love gossip? Sometimes I do. Other times I most definitely do not.

The High Holy Day liturgy takes on the issue of gossip — it includes “For the sin that we have committed before You in judging our neighbor/ And for the sin we have committed against You in slander and idle gossip” — so it’s a fitting time to reflect on the power of talk and its effects on others.

And here’s the thing about a speech utterance: Once you say something you can’t take it back. You can tell the person you’re talking to, “Hey, I didn’t mean that!” But you’ve already lost control of this tidbit. Now it’s up to the conversation partner to keep the info private or enter it into the public realm against your will.

The choice sounds easy, right? Of course this conversation partner should clamp her mouth shut. But information — especially if it’s juicy — is alluring. Information has power. Those who possess information have more power. Information has cultural currency. That’s why if you have a tidbit of interest and you don’t want the information to spread, it’s best to keep your mouth shut. But I don’t think we’re biologically programmed that way — and the prospect of not saying anything is as likely for people as expecting a canine to sit patiently before a cut of gravy-soaked steak. Good luck.

Here’s why: People are intrinsically social beings. We take comfort from our interactions with others. We feel terrible when someone’s wronged us. When was the last time you were slighted by a friend/coworker/neighbor/family member and kept your emotional pain to yourself? We turn to others for their advice, guidance and support. That’s a positive thing. But in doing so we’re actually gossiping too.

Is that really so bad? We know that in Judaism there is a prohibition against gossip. But what actually is gossip? And is it even possible to abide by such a decree? I think we might be set up to fail.

For some answers, I turned to the secular literature. There’s actually a whole body of academic studies and treatises on this topic. While we may think of gossip as something that is trivial to everyday life, researchers see it as central. Yet few actually agree on what gossip is. In a special issue of the Review of General Psychology, Professor Eric K. Foster of the University of Pennsylvania describes gossip as “evaluative comments about someone who is not present in the conversation.” So anything we say that is positive or negative about an absent third party is gossip. In other words, gossip is pervasive, regardless of the numerous religious and social attempts to quarantine it.

The prevalence of gossip in our lives does not mean we’re mean-hearted and rumor-spreading yentes and yonkelehs. (Studies have found that men and women gossip at similar rates but about different topics.) Foster has outlined four main social functions of gossip:

For further reading on gossip’s roles, I recommend the book “Good Gossip,” which offers a number of contributions from Israeli academics — leading me to pose the question: Is gossip more prevalent among Jews because they are a tight knit group? Discuss.

While I recognize it’s a vicious thing to spread rumors we know are false and hurtful, if we’re genuinely upset about what someone did to us, and we share that information with a confidant for the sake of support and guidance, then we are engaging in a productive process that can help us push past the muck and move on — even though we are gossiping in the process. Ultimately, we need gossip (when we define it as “evaluative comments about someone who is not present in the conversation”) to keep Jewish grandmas happy, busy, productive and thriving. How else would they communicate the nachas and tsures in their lives?

Hinda Mandell is a writer and doctoral candidate in mass communications at Syracuse University, where she’s studied the influence of gossip.

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