At the start of every episode of the popular podcast Normal Gossip, host Kelsey McKinney asks her guest: What is your relationship to gossip?
The responses run the gamut. Some express feelings of guilt and shame. Others hate feeling excluded from juicy secrets. Some people discuss the power or leverage that gossip can give them over others. And for many, there’s just a simple yet irresistible joy in the activity of sharing what you know.
Gossip, as the show reflects, isn’t just for middle-aged ladies or neighborhood busybodies. And according to a growing body of research, gossip isn’t just a guilty pleasure—it serves important functions within our communities and for our psychology.
You may think you know gossip when you hear it, but coming up with a cohesive definition is harder than it seems. One 2021 study led by Dutch researchers found 324 definitions of gossip in academic papers, indicating a “lack of consensus” about that definition according to Bianca Beersma, a professor of organizational behavior at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and one of the study’s coauthors. Beersma and her colleagues identified the elements that most definitions of gossip have in common, and based on that, proposed a sharper definition: “A sender communicating to a receiver about a target who is absent or unaware of the content.” This can, but doesn’t always, overlap with things like rumor, which tends to be more based on falsehoods.
That definition leaves a few things out that you might associate with gossip. For one, it doesn’t have to be negative—one 2019 study found that most gossip is actually neutral. The new definition also doesn’t specify who must be doing the gossip (the 2019 study and others have found that men and women gossip the same amount), in what setting, for what purpose, or whether they’re talking about personal or professional matters.
Omitting those specifics makes sense when you consider the different roles that sociologists and psychologists suspect that gossip plays in our lives. One that has been well-studied is that gossip helps to solidify social bonds, both between the two people who are gossiping and within communities as a way of establishing their rules, values, and cultures.
Consider, for example, the gossip that Person X hooked up with Person Y. Presumably this information would be surprising (all the best gossip should be at least a little shocking). But why, exactly, is it surprising? Is it a good surprise or a bad surprise? Is the couple crossing a line or violating some sort of established social norm between friends, coworkers, or other community? The way you and your friend talk about this hookup speaks volumes about the values that you and your friend share—as individuals as well as part of the community you both reside in.
“Gossip is a way of understanding the cartography of the community you’re in—it’s a means of understanding the structure of that community, and we’re all part of multiple communities,” Gary A. Fine, a sociologist at Northwestern University, told The Daily Beast. “Some people call gossip the chewing gum of the mind.”
Psychologically, too, gossip plays an important role. “The major function of gossip is to understand people,” Mark Pezzo, a psychologist at the University of South Florida, told The Daily Beast.
Pezzo’s observation can refer to understanding other people—third parties who are part of the story being told. But sometimes gossip is also a way for the speakers to understand themselves, and work through difficult situations to contemplate how they themselves might handle them, or at least learn from another person’s mistakes. “Knowing our world better feels good, makes us feel more empowered,” said Fine. “Why do we read romance novels or science fiction? it gives us an opportunity to play with ideas…it’s fun.” Some older studies have also pointed to the fact that gossiping often involves self-disclosure, which can also feel enjoyable.
Another of gossip’s key functions, and one we’ve seen play out in the public stage in recent years, is to act as a whisper network to help people protect each other against those in power who are prone to abuse. “Gossip can be used to warn group members about norm violators,” Beersma told The Daily Beast. “When these norm violators have high power, gossip is arguably a much ‘safer’ way to warn others than to do this openly, which would make one run the risk of retaliation by the high-power group member the gossip is about.”
Though these kinds of whisper networks have always existed, the #MeToo movement was a high-profile example of what happens when gossip breaks out of the communities from which it originated, and penetrates the public sphere, said Maria Verena Peters, a graduate coordinator at TU Dortmund University in Germany. Consider Harvey Weinstein—before the producer was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault, for years actresses quietly warned each other not to allow themselves to be alone with him, until his abuse became an open secret in Hollywood. It took brave women coming forward with their stories, and reporters to verify them, to turn gossip into information that was legitimate enough to “cancel” him, and to take legal action; Weinstein was, of course, one of many people whose history of abuse was brought to light during #MeToo.
Verena Peters’ 2020 paper published in the European Journal of American Studies about gossip and the #MeToo movement concluded that, what’s different about this moment was that it was the first time that women seem to have been believed en masse (scholars are still working to unravel why). “Nothing about the factual circumstances had changed, but the cultural circumstances had changed,” Verena Peters told The Daily Beast.
Which function of gossip is more important in a given conversation varies by situation. “What makes gossip a rather complicated phenomenon is that it can serve multiple ‘goals’ for the individuals engaging in it,” Beersma said, adding that other elements, including the information-sharer’s intention, can affect how the information is received.
Researchers still have questions about gossip. There’s little data, for example, on how gossip is perceived and functions in different cultures—particularly non-Western ones. Beersma and others are also working to further understand what motivates people to gossip.
It’s possible that we will have insights into these questions sooner rather than later; Beersma’s 2021 study noted that the words “gossip” or “third-party information” appear in scientific studies at almost double the rate than they did a decade prior. (Fine noted, however, that the number of scientific studies has increased overall, too—so that rate may not be as representative as it seems at first glance.)
As we understand more about how we use gossip, perhaps little by little we can chip away at the stigma surrounding it. “I would like people to be aware that gossip was not always a word that was associated with women—it came to be in the 19th century for the purposes of creating power imbalances,” Verena Peters said. If we all gossip, and we understand the value and power it can have for all people, then maybe we can commit ourselves to doing it better, with fewer of its destructive qualities.
“Gossip is not inherently sinful or wrong or inappropriate. It is part of the way we come to terms with our world,” Fine said. “But gossip can be harsh or negative. I think we need a generosity towards each other when we’re gossiping, to try not to draw those [social] boundaries too tightly.”