The "untrivial pursuit" is a surprising force for good, argues Joseph Epstein in his new book, Gossip. Allison Yarrow on chatter’s upsides, from toppling corrupt presidents to improving health and friendships.
Elizabeth Taylor needed a minor gynecological procedure that required partial pubic hair shaving. So she hired men, vaginal guardians, to accompany her to the doctor’s office to collect any strands and speed them to the nearest waste basket. She feared hospital employees might sell her hair on eBay—at least according to the lore, which someone told someone that a gynecologist told him. Even in death, gossip chatters on.
While it doesn’t always deal in rumors and degradation, historically, gossip’s gotten a lot of grief. Major religions prohibit it. The Koran warns against “backbiting,” and so does the Torah, which calls it “evil tongue.” Christianity teaches loving one’s brothers and sisters, not dissecting their flaws. Parents and teachers discourage it. And yet, we’ve all been caught in the act.
But maybe that’s not such a bad thing, argues a new book. “Other people is the world’s most fascinating subject,” writes Joseph Epstein in Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, which is as much a history of the form as it is a book of dirt (like that Liz Taylor bit). The veteran essayist may be onto something: mounds of research in psychology and sociology support the notion that gossip can be a force for good.
Perhaps most obviously, gossip—which Epstein defines as “two people saying something about a third party that they don’t want known” helps to expose wrongdoing. Think Watergate, Abu
Ghraib, and News of the World. All three scandals became scandals because someone inside felt something was wrong and spoke up. On the flip side, at Penn State, more gossip among college and charity employees could have helped to prevent profound suffering. If the two eyewitnesses to Jerry Sandusky’s brutal abuse of young boys had told more people and sooner, the former assistant coach might have been arrested a decade ago. Even bits of suspicion and uncertainty, when woven together, could have removed him from endangering children.
For many public figures (and everyday folks), simply the threat of chatter is enough to prevent bad behavior. “If it wasn’t for fear of gossip, some of us would act worse than we do,” Epstein told The Daily Beast. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine politics without gossip—Epstein says it would be “like a kiss without a squeeze.” Washington may think itself intellectually superior to Hollywood, another rumor mecca, but the volume and type of scuzz (philandering, obscene spending, spotlight mongering) is the same in both worlds. Gossip is like democracy—it helps keeps behavior in check.
In telling gossip’s story, Epstein offers a glimpse into how and when the practice became so accepted in politics—in the form of prying journalism. Today it seems provincial that reporters once protected rather than invaded the privacy of their celebrity subjects: John F. Kennedy forbade photos taken of him smoking cigarettes or playing golf during his presidency. But only a few decades ago, Washington Post legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were considered radical for exposing not only Richard Nixon’s crimes but also the insecurities and personal flaws of the man who ran the country. “We read political books with great enthusiasm,” said Epstein in an interview, “and in them people say terrible things about each other.”
Along with the societal benefits Epstein details, gossip can prove surprisingly beneficial to our health—and friendships. Speaking behind others’ backs can enhance positive emotions and psychological well-being. For example, a chat with a friend about someone else reduces stress by boosting levels of feel-good progesterone in the brain, according to a 2009 study from the University of Michigan. Sharing negative gossip can also strengthen relationships themselves, according to a 2006 study out of the University of South Florida. Those same researchers also recently found that strangers connected more meaningfully over negative beliefs than positive ones. You hate waiting in line? Me too.
“A shared dislike can turn a stranger to a friend more quickly,” said Jennifer Bosson, one of the latter study’s authors and a professor of psychology. She guessed this was because we admire others’ willingness to act against mannered social norms. Gossiping makes people seem relatable and real.
It can also boost one’s social status—and even his or her career. Bosson references Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter to Theodore Roosevelt, who became a fixture among Washington elite with the motto: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” She placed herself at the right parties and whispered to whomever would listen. Playwright Lillian Hellman was known for a sharp tongue that may have aided her success. Epstein recounts a lewd story in which she commented about Kennedy biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s extraordinarily tall wife, “Do you suppose Arthur goes up on her?”
In many ways, Gossip is a celebration of those who do it best. Epstein honors “great gossips of the Western World,” each of whom revolutionized the form. Duc de Simon kept savory journals of misbehaviors, which eventually became his memoirs, while Walter Winchell birthed the gossip column. For Barbra Walters, gossip became therapeutic, and for our own Tina Brown, professionalized. Epstein also honors gossip’s role in inspiring some of our best works of literature, which are often rooted in juicy anecdotes or unflattering snippets passed along. John Updike once called book reviewing itself “higher gossip.”
Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “three may keep a secret if two are dead,” may have been uttered with a touch of sarcasm, but its meaning may be our saving grace.