The following is an extract from You're Not Listening by Kate Murphy, a book that shows us all the ways we're not listening to each other and why it matters.
While gossip is often thought of as a guilty pleasure whispered behind your hand at parties and murmured mischievously in office breakrooms, it actually has a positive social function. There’s a reason why as much as two-thirds of adult conversation is gossip, defined as at least two people talking about someone who is absent. Men gossip as much as women, and children are adept gossipers by age five. We all do it because gossip allows us to judge who is trustworthy, who we want to emulate, how much we can get away with, and who are likely allies or adversaries. In this way, listening to gossip contributes to our development as ethical, moral members of society.
We are socialised by the gossip we hear from our families, friends, colleagues, teachers, and religious leaders. What are the Jesus parables and Buddha stories but recorded gossip? Dutch researchers found that listening to positive gossip made people try to behave in a similar way, and negative gossip made people feel better about themselves. Another study showed that the more shocked or upset you are by gossip, the more likely it is that you’ll learn a lesson from it.
Of course, you are also likely to reform if you are the subject of gossip. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of California–Berkeley found that subjects, when given the opportunity, readily gossiped about others who were untrustworthy in a financial game, which in turn led the cheaters to play nice to get back into everyone’s good graces. The conclusion was that organisations that allow their members to gossip will be more cooperative and deter selfishness better than those that don’t. This is the case even when the gossip is not always entirely true. Social psychology and economics researchers in Australia and the UK collaborated on a study that showed any kind of gossip, accurate or not so accurate, creates a demand for "reputability." They had subjects play a trust-based game involving the distribution of rewards, and when people could freely impugn or praise the integrity of fellow players, even if falsely, they behaved better and operated more efficiently compared to those who were not allowed to gossip. The researchers observed that inaccuracies were most often motivated by a desire to more severely punish bad actors (people sometimes made cheaters sound worse than they were). There’s also the thought that listening to how people talk about others, true or untrue, may say as much, or more, about them than the people they are talking about.
Rather than being trivial, superficial, or simpleminded, a surprisingly large body of evidence indicates listening to gossip is an intelligent activity and essential to adaptation.
No wonder gossip makes people reflexively lean in and lower their voices to a conspiratorial whisper. It’s valuable. Rather than being trivial, superficial, or simpleminded, a surprisingly large body of evidence indicates listening to gossip is an intelligent activity and essential to adaptation. Gossip scholars (there are more than you would think) say talking about people is an extension of observational learning, allowing you to learn from the triumphs and tribulations of those you know and even those you don’t know.
British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has studied gossip in conjunction with his work on friendship, and he told me that despite the widely held view that gossip is mostly malicious, only 3–4 percent of it is truly mean-spirited. "Gossip is hanging over the yard fence, sitting on the stoop, rocking in the rocking chair," he said. "Most of it is discussing some difficulty going on between you and another person, but it’s also about what’s going on in the community and the status of people in the network—who’s fallen out with whom."
Social dynamics change rapidly and are incredibly complicated. Every interpersonal decision and behaviour is the result of myriad factors coming together at a particular moment between particular people. Depending on a number of variables, the same interaction can be insignificant or spin wildly out of control. Trying to understand this complexity is extremely challenging, Dunbar said, and that’s why "we’re so interested in listening to and examining lots and lots of examples to try to understand how the game is played so we can handle it better."
According to Dunbar, to understand the origins of gossip, we need look no further than the grooming behaviour of apes. It’s thought early humans—like apes—bonded socially by grooming one another. Mutual stroking and nitpicking fostered goodwill so that later on, the two might share bananas or come to each other’s defense. But as humans grew more intelligent and the complexity of our activities and the size of our communities grew, language—and, more specifically, gossip—replaced grooming as a way to establish and maintain alliances, although we still pet and stroke those closest to us.
The advantage of gossip over grooming, Dunbar said, is that it is a more "efficient mechanism for our social bonding and social learning." Grooming is very much a one-on-one activity that can take quite some time (depending on how tangled or louse-infested your partner is), whereas face-to-face conversations are quicker and can accommodate up to four individuals (one speaker and three listeners). Any larger and people tend to break off into smaller groups. You’ve probably seen this in action at large parties where guests naturally form various conversational pods of two to four people. This perhaps explains why social media is so seductive. The speed with which gossip can be accessed online, and the sheer quantity, is more than you could ever muster or manage in face-to-face interactions. It creates this imperative to keep checking to make sure you are still in the loop. But, of course, you can never keep up with it all, and with so many narratives and interpretations, the quality and value of the information plummets.
You're Not Listening: What You're Missing & Why It Matters by Kate Murphy is published by Harvill Secker, Vintage on 23rd January 2020.