We use a lot of different words to describe gossip. We chat. We yak. We get the scuttlebutt. We gab, we dish, and we chew the fat. We hear it through the grapevine, listen to the word of mouth - sometimes straight from the horse's mouth. Tongues, they wag. There must be something important about all this idle chit-chat to demand such an extensive and colourful vocabulary!

And we all do it. Very few people proudly admit to it, but we all gossip. Some of us even relish it. While some religions and cultures frown upon the practice more than others, gossip in one form or another happens all over the world among people of all ages. Biologists analyzed sample human conversations and found that about 60% of time was spent gossiping about relationships and personal experiences.

When there's something that we all do so often, one has to wonder if there is some basic human benefit to it. Does gossiping fulfill some need? Is it a survival skill? Is it good for us or bad for us to spread stories and speculations about others? Should we feel guilty if we indulge in celebrity gossip?

The overgrowth of the grapevine

Gossip hasn't always been considered a bad word. The word gossip first meant godparents or a familiar acquaintance and was used to describe someone who told of a family's news and developments. In Shakespeare's time, a gossip was also someone who sat with a woman through childbirth, perhaps to talk, offer comfort, or to help her pass the time.

Now it's defined as "rumour or talk of a personal, sensational, or intimate nature" or as "idle talk or rumour, esp. about the personal or private affairs of others." Someone who fits the stereotypical image of a gossip bears names like rumourmonger and blabbermouth. They're viewed as busybodies, as nosy and meddlesome. Somewhere down through history, the word's original meaning became tangled up in rumour-spreading and idle talk.

As our communication technologies have sped up, so has the spreading of our gossip. Whip-quick messages zip around us all day long about this person or that one, this celebrity or that politician. Where word once travelled via word of mouth that may have taken hours or even days to reach its listeners, it now travels in seconds via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, email, cell phone, text messages...

Why do we gossip?

Humans love hearing and talking about other humans. Frank T. McAndrew must especially love hearing about humans. As a professor of psychology, McAndrew has gained popularity based on his work exploring the intricate clockwork of human interactions and finding some patterns and possible reasons for gossip. He recently published an article in Scientific American summarizing the theories on why we gossip and explaining some of his research findings.

Researchers theorize that life in small tribal groups may have forced our ancestors to adapt and gain some pretty sophisticated social intelligence. Imagine living among a small group of people, competing for resources and for friends and allies. Sounds a little like high school, doesn't it? You'd have to figure out who you could trust and who would make a good partner. Among our ancestors, those who survived and thrived were those who could predict and influence the behaviour of the people around them. This took a bit of talking and a lot of listening and watching.

As with our ancestors, gossip can be quite helpful and instructive:

  • It helps us bond with our friends. The act of gossiping - talking, listening, sharing secrets and stories - bonds us together and helps us to form friendships and distinctive group identities. Though women more often earn the "gossip" label, both genders take part in the habit with equal gusto. The study conducted by McAndrew showed that we're all keen to hear and pass along any bad news about our rivals or any good news about our friends. Men are more likely to share gossip only with their romantic partners, while women will whisper with their lovers and their friends alike. Both men and women seem to prefer talking about and hearing about people of their own gender.
  • It teaches us lessons. Most of us relate better to stories than to raw data, and gossip is a form of storytelling, an interpersonal folklore. But instead of "Once upon a time" we say, "Did you hear about so-and-so?" By hearing and sharing these stories, we learn about the social norms and conventions of those around us. We learn how to act - and how not to act - in certain situations.
  • It keeps us in line. Gossip can actually be a kind of deterrent or a punishment against those who deviate from the norms and values of a group. It's tough to be the one being negatively gossiped about or the one excluded because of a nasty rumour, so the social pressure keeps us from veering too far away from the group. Positive gossip can also encourage cooperation among people in a group.

Too much pressure can, of course, be a bad thing, and gossip has great destructive powers. People use gossip for their own selfish interests at the expense of others. Subtle social cues can turn to hostility or manipulation and quickly trigger anger, shame, and resentment.

Why do we gossip about celebrities?

So, we shouldn't think about gossip as just a time-wasting, tacky habit. It can actually be a valuable social tool to help us understand and get along better with those around us. But why in the world do we gossip about people who aren't around us, people we've never even met? Why are we so fascinated with Brad and Angelina, with Britney, Paris, or Lindsay, with the Olsen Twins, George Clooney, and the stars of the aptly-named Gossip Girl television show?

Part of our fascination may be hardwired in our minds. Our brains have a special compartment for remembering human faces. And while our ancestors may have had to recognize friends from foes, the number of faces they encountered was limited. We, on the other hand, are inundated with faces, not just through our own personal interactions - but in magazines, on television, and online.

We see the faces of celebrities, starlets, and politicians so frequently. Some of them we see more often than we see our own friends and family members. We can begin to feel an intimacy with them, and this familiarity makes it trickier for us to distinguish the faces we know personally from the ones we know peripherally. Our mind thinks that since we see these faces so often and know so much information about them, they must be socially important to use. Celebrities can feel like our friends. But these "pseudo-relationships" can be a good thing.

  • Celebrity gossip gives us a common vocabulary. In the same that way we bond over stories about our real friends, we bond with others when we gossip about a starlet's failed relationship or about whether or not some aging actor has had plastic surgery. Sometimes celebrities may be the only "friends" that you and a co-worker share. Celebrity gossip may be the only "language" you and your hairdresser or you and your dentist all speak, so keeping up with the latest celeb news helps ensure you are socially adept during interactions with strangers. It can also be a conversation starter. If you see someone on the bus reading an article about your favourite actress or musician, you feel a connection that could segue into a friendship.
  • Celebrity gossip teaches us by example. Celebrities' lives provide us with lots of success stories and cautionary tales. Some people look up to celebrities as role models for how to dress, manage relationships, or how to act. Some people would do just the opposite.
  • Celebrity gossip can boost self-esteem. People with low self-esteem can get a boost by identifying with and aspiring to a celebrity ideal. Then again, endless admiration and yearning for a celebrity connection can make a person feel inadequate and isolated. Some people even cross the line into addiction, a kind of "celebrity worship" that may evolve into obsession and stalking.
  • Celebrity gossip gives us an outlet. We can project our dreams, fears, and hopes onto celebrities. When we celeb-gossip, we get a chance to daydream, fantasize, criticize, or express our envy or distaste for their lifestyles and choices. Lots of people gossip online these days, posting blog entries or commenting on celebrity sites. Explore any popular gossip site and you're bound to find lots of harsh, scathing comments written by "anonymous."

Amy Toffelmire