Almost everything we see, think, and do on this planet has a purpose. It is of constant amazement and amusement. And all things evolve to meet changing times and needs. Take gossip for example. The origin of the word was of great surprise to me: The word gossip comes from the Old English word godsibb, meaning “a person related to one in God,” specifically referring to a woman’s close female friends present at the birth of a child (thereby being ‘godparents’ to her child). Waiting for the birth, the women in attendance often chatted, and thus, gave meaning to the term, ‘gossip’. There are just a couple of personal observations I would like to make about gossip:
- When men do it, they call it “networking.” (When I gossip, I call it “reporting.”)
- When you hear particularly salacious gossip in the southern states, the story usually ends with, “Bless Her Little Heart.”
Gossip doesn’t have a great reputation–but it does surprisingly have a role to play in mankind’s evolutionary march.
‘Chatting’ is the social parallel of grooming found among many primates who groom far beyond necessity—spending as much as 20% of their time so occupied. Somewhere along the line of hominid evolution, when we evolved the capacity for language, gossip replaced this social grooming. It’s probable our language evolved specifically so we could gossip. Otherwise, we would have needed only a few sounds to announce “danger,” “I’d like to mate now,” etc.
Even though we dedicate 70% of our conversations to gossip studies have shown that only a small percentage (about 5%) of that is actually malicious or disparaging. This turns out, however, to be one of the reasons this form of communication has helped our species survive.
For example, travel with me back a few eons and let’s consider someone passing through our area who spends the night near our fire to stay warm and be safe from roaming animals. One of our friends who we know and trust pulls us aside and says, “I heard that this guy will steal your food and water in the night, so make sure you lock your stuff up under a rock.” Without this little tidbit of gossip, we would have to find out the hard way the visitor is a thief . . . or worse.
Obviously, we’ve advanced since then, but the process of socialization is pretty tough even today. It’s hard to learn and obey all the rules and guidelines of what is expected to live in a culture. Just consider all these football players beating their wives and children. Acquiring the wisdom is difficult for some. (One can hope the tidal wave of openly negative gossip is enough of a lesson to help those thuggish NFL players make a shift in their own norms.)
It seems that cultural life continues to confront some individuals with new situations and changing nuances. That’s where gossip comes in handy. While we are hearing the story about someone else, we are also learning the rules, norms, and guidelines for living in the culture.