Get Ready for Some Gossip!

 

Edited by Aneesha Chandra

 

“Let me tell you something…” begins a young lad. Cheeky smiles and looks are passed around a room where a group of close friends are huddled together, eager to hear the week’s gossip. With a keen interest in sociology, every activity and event that is a part of our daily experience is intriguing to me. And gossip is no exception. Gossip is defined as a mass medium or rumour, especially about the personal and private affairs of someone else. Gossip usually (if not always) is seen in a negative light — a malicious pastime of people who are looked down upon for engaging in this blighted act.

But should we think in such binaries? Is there no space to view gossip from a fresh lens?

All of us partake in some form of gossip. Whether it’s workplace chatter, the sharing of family news or group texts between friends, it’s inevitable that these conversations involve speaking about someone else. However, rather than being only malicious and negative, gossip can be benign, neutral, or positive. People can figure in our conversations when we are concerned about them, when they act as an important reference for a job needed, when they have achieved something noteworthy, or even when you’re simply referring to the woman who shifted opposite your house you decide to meet soon. Gossiping plays an important sociological role in developing networks, spreading information, and also acts as a means to understand how a society functions. Sometimes gossiping and remarking about someone even in a negative light — in terms of an act for which they were reprimanded or which was not approved of — helps people in society to comprehend the unwritten norms operational in a culture. It thus becomes a form of cultural learning. 

On the surface level, gossip is all about stories and anecdotes but there are many layers to narratives and within these layers lies an entire repository of societal values, norms, behavioural differences, and cultural traditions. Consider for instance the danger of playing in the street. Children may not understand the gravity of dangers posed by motorized traffic. They may play in the street and get run over. How would they learn to avoid this? Direct observation may be somewhat effective, but again it is effective only if the child can actually see other children get run over by trucks, and this is neither practical nor really effective. Children who see others get run over might become so afraid that they would fear going outside or crossing the street at a green light. Parents or elders might explain the dangers or rules for crossing the street but perhaps this is not sufficiently vivid to impress the child. And so, most parents may end up relying on gossip. They tell their children about some other child who played in the street and was run over by a car and could never walk again. The story is not told as a form of aggression against the child who was injured. Rather, it is told to produce a positive, desirable effect on one’s own child — one that may extend to helping the child understand the importance of being cautious on roads. This anecdote or story told by  parents fits in the definition of gossip. But rather than being malicious and worthless, it is used to provide important information about the workings of the world, technologies, rules, and appropriate behaviours for safety. 

Another (more relatable) example can also help to understand the multiple roles played by gossip. Picture two friends (X and Y) speaking about a 3rd mutual friend, A. X feels A is a very good friend who helped her get a job in a firm. Y feels unsure about X’s faith in A and starts sharing stories and snippets of A’s conduct that he has seen and heard from various people. In the course of their “gossip” session, it comes to light that the reason A was so invested in X’s job placement was so that she steered her away from the jobs A herself was applying to and thus eliminated competition. This is, in a way, malicious talk about someone else, but the story plays an important sociological role in helping X learn and comprehend the complex ways in which friendships, networking, and the psychologies of people work. These are just some of the many instances in which gossip can play an important sociological role. 

Even dating back to the time of Egyptian hieroglyphics, many historians have found an element of gossip in what was carved in stone by the Egyptians. The inscripted images and symbols speak about (often juicy) affairs, illegitimate children, secret friendships, scandals, and lesser known rituals. They gave subsequent generations a glimpse into the lives of people in ancient Egypt and helped trace the historical and sociological changes in societal norms and behaviours that have occurred since then. In the pre-social-media world, it was through gossip that families got to know about each other, where relationships were forged, marriages were finalised, the “black sheep” was noticed, and where domestic abuse and other gendered problems were discussed and acted upon. 

Gossip can thus be resurrected from its negative connotations and looked at from a fresh perspective:  an act that creates intimacy and closer bonds between people, enabling one to learn the cultural functionings of society. and passing on knowledge and information across vast generations and networks. After all, who doesn’t like a juicy piece of gossip!