"Got any gossip?" is one of the first things I say when I meet up with a particular friend whom I only get to see every few months. The evenings we spend together are filled with conversations that leave me gasping for air as I find myself so riveted by the subject matter that I end up speaking faster than I can process my thoughts, ferociously relaying and absorbing information. The pleasure I get from these conversations – which mostly involve sharing stories about friends of friends, sometimes strangers – is very much of the guilty kind. Throughout my life I’ve been told by teachers, family members and, most often, adult men that gossiping is frivolous, pointless and absolutely immoral. So then why does it feel so necessary?
Talking about other people’s lives has been one of the key ways I’ve bonded with women throughout my life. I remember making friends in primary school by discussing girls in the year above and hypothesising about teachers' lives outside of the classroom. Up until recently, I would have preferred not to describe this type of conversation as gossip, mostly because the word itself is often synonymous with bitchiness, meanness and being two-faced. But cruelty is rarely the aim or the outcome of the conversations socially defined as gossip. Usually it’s motivated by a genuine interest in other people’s lives and stories.
Ultimately, gossip is a way for the powerless to hold the powerful to account.
This is what I realised when I started listening to the podcast Normal Gossip. Hosted by author Kelsey McKinney, the podcast is dedicated to sharing anonymous strangers' low-stakes (but nonetheless juicy) gossip. There’s a woman who becomes obsessed with exposing her neighbour for lying about running a marathon; a knitting scandal that involves a viral feminist coaster; a deliciously petty story about a group of sorority sisters in a race to get engaged. I listen to these stories with almost the same level of excitement with which I listen to my friends gossip. There’s an assumption that gossiping is purely an act of judging the people you know and finding some sort of satisfaction in being able to talk behind their back. Hearing strangers gossip about strangers assured me that this isn’t the joy of gossip for me at all; my interest stems from a fascination with hearing about the strange decisions people make and why they make them.
So then why has gossip been so demonised? Traditionally thought of as something that women do, it makes sense that its bad reputation has some patriarchal roots. Historically though, gossip hasn’t always been considered a bad thing. The term dates back to the 12th century, when it referred to a close relative, like a godfather or sibling. This definition was eventually expanded so that ‘gossip’ meant someone close to you, usually a close friend. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the meaning of the word 'gossip' came to resemble the definition we use today: someone who engages in 'idle talk' and sharing of secrets. It was also during this time that gossiping became associated with immorality, particularly for women. According to the American activist Silvia Federici: "Female friendships were one of the targets of the witch hunts. It was in this context that 'gossip' turned from a word of friendship and affection into a word of denigration and ridicule." Gossiping wasn’t only looked down upon but punishable by law. In 1547 a proclamation was issued "forbidding women to meet together to babble and talk".
Quickly, gossip was seen as a threat to a society that was becoming increasingly patriarchal – women were being excluded from the workplace as they were banned from guilds (associations of craftsmen and merchants, designed to boost the economic interests of their members). An instrument known as a scold’s bridle was introduced to punish women who gossip. According to the BBC, this was a "bizarre form of punishment reserved exclusively for women" whereby a metal, muzzle-style cage was placed over the head, forcing a spike into the wearer's mouth to stop them speaking.
Learning and spreading information about other people is an important tool for social mobility and it's clearly something that's capturing our attention right now.
The disdain for gossip in modern society makes sense, then, given that up until two centuries ago it was considered a heinous crime committed exclusively by women. But despite these grave consequences for what was and often still is considered a women’s hobby, research conducted in 2019 found that women engage in gossip no more frequently than men, with the average person spending 52 minutes per day gossiping. The study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, concluded that women engage in more neutral gossip than men and that the overwhelming majority of discussion classified as gossip in which the study participants partook could be considered harmless, nonjudgmental chit-chat.
Many researchers and activists believe that the punishment of women who gossip under the guise of immorality was just an attempt to suppress the voices of the disenfranchised. Because ultimately, gossip is a way for the powerless to hold the powerful to account. Learning and spreading information about other people is an important tool for social mobility and it’s clearly something that’s capturing our attention right now.
For a start, Gossip Girl – the OG series of idle talk – has been revived, with the 2021 series particularly interested in the social power of gossip as the resentfully middle-class teachers attempt to undermine the elite students by spreading stories about them. What's more, the Instagram page @deuxmoi, which is dedicated to sharing celebrity gossip (the lies and the assumed facts) is one of the most followed and influential social media accounts right now.
There’s something about celebrity gossip that feels especially satisfying, which perhaps comes back to the desire to hold those with more power than us accountable (whether that’s rooted in envy or politics). Maybe this is why the Wagatha Christie trial captured the country's attention, offering us mere mortals the opportunity to speculate on the actions of the so-called WAGs, some of the richest women in the UK. The gossip mill reached its peak this year when the word 'pegging' was on the tip of even the most prudish Briton's tongue and Google searches for the term rose by 400% (if you know, you know). Sex is often at the heart of gossip, partly because it’s a taboo subject so it feels exciting to discuss it, but also because getting access to the details of someone’s sex life, particularly a celebrity’s, feels like one of the simplest ways to access their reality and potentially gain power over them.
Different cultures have acknowledged the importance of gossip, as Federici points out in her book Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women: "In many parts of the world, women have historically been seen as the weavers of memory — those who keep alive the voices of the past and the histories of the communities, who transmit them to the future generations and, in so doing, create a collective identity and profound sense of cohesion."
Gossip is certainly something that connects people, whether it’s my friend and I having a natter over a drink or the country collectively obsessing over Coleen Rooney’s private Instagram stories. Psychologist Dr Audrey Tang explains that this is probably due to the hormones that are released in our brains when we gossip. "Gossiping is a bonding activity, which could release oxytocin, and it could also trigger the release of dopamine, which is the reward hormone, because, firstly, you might feel privileged to have been told this information and, secondly, learning it might give you power over someone else," she explains.
In today's political climate, when people feel as though their voice isn’t being heard and their stories aren’t being told, talking about ourselves and other people can feel empowering. So next time you hear me totally engrossed in the story I’m telling about my neighbour’s raunchy affair, just know I’m doing it for the social good.