Spilling the Tea: How Gossip Isn't Just a Game for Girls

Julia Plott

Oh, the feeling of sitting across the table from new or old friends and finding that one sweet talking point that gets everyone going. Why does it feel so good to call up a friend and, in the privacy of your own hypothetical chat bubble, gush about the behaviors or activities of someone else?  Maybe you’re someone who thinks to themself, “I don’t gossip. Gossip is for highschoolers.” While I applaud you for a certain level of self-awareness, the reality is that gossiping is part of our human nature. Not only was the act of gossiping a necessary tool for human evolution, but the term itself has seen a linguistic development based in religious jargon and later becoming heavily associated with women. Let’s break it down. 

In doing some good ole’ back-to-the-books research about the definition of gossip, I didn’t find anything overwhelmingly surprising. In sum, gossiping is unconstrained conversation usually in the form of repeating the actions or behaviors of other people and information which is not necessarily true. What I did find surprising was the origin of the term, and how it is used conversationally today. Gossip comes from the Old-English term Godsibb which was used to describe a very close friend or relative under the eyes of God, and one who you presumably would tell everything to. What was interesting, was that quite a few sources zeroed in on relationships between women in this context, while others described genderless godsibb connections. The term later came to represent a strong social bond between two or more people, who would basically sit around chit-chatting about folks who weren’t around. These days, most official definitions of the word leave gender out of it, yet the foundation has been laid for gossiping to be considered a feminine trait.

Fun fact: If you google the term gossip and refer to images, (do it, right now) you’ll see a predominantly female cast of whisperers. Yes, there is an occasional man. But the overwhelming presentation of the term suggests a heavy female association. In the same fashion, many of the terms used in tandem with gossip in headlines include ‘girl talk’ and ‘competition’, delving into how the act of gossip has been weaponized on a societal scale by, none other than, women! It’s interesting to consider, especially with the research that has been done, why the narrative puts women on the mainstage as serial gossipers. When we lift up the hood and take a look underneath, we see a pretty different story. Ask yourself; do your guy friends gossip? Your fathers, uncles and brothers? (hint: of course they do.)

If you’re not a huge science person, fear not. I’ve done all the nitty gritty for you. First, we take a look at one scientist who suggests that gossiping for humans is the equivalent to manual grooming in other primates. Robin Dunbar was one of the early anthropologists to suggest that gossiping is not only a natural human phenomena, but a necessary mechanism for human advancement, in his Gossip Theory. With a focus on the origin of language, the theory basically suggests that through the evolution of language, gossiping became a tool for social bonding, allowing humans to band together in ways that other primates could not. Way back when, it allowed us to live in larger groups peacefully, while knowing which groups to stay away from, and which groups to cooperate with. 

Taking a slightly deeper turn into human evolution, Yuval Noah Harrari (author of the New York Times Bestseller Homo Sapiens) suggests that the act of gossiping helped catalyze Homo Sapiens’ rise to the top of the animal kingdom. A foundation of survival, our early ancestors used the mere act of gossiping to create social order, and subsequently social cohesion. As we gained the ability to bond and settle comfortably into situations perfectly suited for reproduction, the chatter of background gossip could most likely be heard through it all. Taking it one step further than simply sharing information relevant to survival, Harari says that there is a real evolutionary need to understand who is at odds with whom, who is in bed with whom, and who has a reputation of cheating. Without gossip, we wouldn’t be where we are today as a species. Interesting how the concept as a whole has been minimized to chatter that usually takes place between women. 

After reading up on it, I couldn’t help but wonder if we still need gossip. Have you ever walked away from a gossip session and thought to yourself ‘Wait, I actually really didn’t mean that.’ or ‘That was exhausting, and honestly, didn’t feel so good.’ You get lost in the moment sometimes. The foundation of gossip is generally information that’s not necessarily true. Why do we still do it today, long past the days of competing with other primates for the crown of the animal kingdom? Maybe it’s because we will always have a need for social cohesion, and a human interest in the lives of those around us. It’s how we as humans are wired, and it’s certainly not a solely female phenomenon. How do you feel about gossip?  

Julia Plott

Seeing through modern self-help that distracts with pushing products or lifestyles, and realizing that a great deal of unlearning needs to be done is a big step. It’s important to ask yourself, “Why does this make me uncomfortable?” or “Am I the right person to take up this space?”. There is so much strength in knowing when to simply listen and uplift others, or when to amplify your own experiences.
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