Rumors play a role in helping people sort out what's happening

January 03, 1992|By Boston Globe

They gather around company water coolers. They stop one another on the street. They hunch over tables in neighborhood coffee shops or over beers in the local pub.

Have you heard, they ask, about the guy who goes into a bar, meets a woman, spends the night with her and then awakes the next morning to find the woman gone and a message in lipstick scrawled across his bathroom mirror -- "Welcome to the world of AIDS!!!"?

Have you heard, others ask, that so-and-so on the Red Sox is going to be traded?

Or how about the businessman who was in New York on business and went into a bar for a drink, left with a woman and found himself on a park bench the next morning. Feeling a sharp pain in his back, the man went to the hospital, where a doctor found a scar on his back and one of his kidneys surgically removed.

What are all these people engaging in?

Spreading rumors. False rumors.

"During bad economic times or during a crisis such as the current AIDS epidemic, rumors abound," said Allan J. Kimmel, 39, associate professor of psychology at Fitchburg (Mass.) State College, who has spent a good part of his career studying the anatomy of rumor and gossip. "The rumors surrounding AIDS are especially rampant now, not just in the States, but worldwide. And most of them are ludicrous.

"Rumor has been called the information virus," continued Mr. Kimmel, "because it spreads so rapidly, is so difficult to control and is generated by people's anxieties." Rumors, according to Mr. Kimmel, tend to be much more significant than gossip because they emerge during a crisis that fuels uncertainties and anxieties.

"Rumors are what people say among themselves to try to make sense out of what's going on around them," he said. "Rumor-mongering is a way of trying to explain what's happening and why -- whether it be a murder down the street, an earthquake or AIDS. Spreading rumors is a way in which people try to get at the facts, to get enough information so that it reduces their psychological discomfort and relieves their fears."

Gossip, on the other hand, is small talk or idle conversation, according to Mr. Kimmel. Gossip is usually trivial and emerges in everyday conversation. Gossip is always about people; rumor sometimes not. Also, unlike rumor, gossip is more apt to be truthful and based on fact. Rumors are difficult to trace to a substantial base.

"There are psychological needs that are also satisfied by gossiping," he said. "Gossip maps one's social environment -- what's going on at work, who's up for a promotion, who's sleeping with whom. Gossip charts what is going on around us and indicates what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Gossip focuses on the accepted and unacceptable rules in our society."

For example, in relating who is sleeping with whom, there is a judgment passed on the behavior of one or both of the people involved such as, "Isn't his or her behavior just deplorable?" This sets up a guide to our own behavior.

Mr. Kimmel said that it has been found that people who most indulge in spreading rumors are people without friends and people who are anxious in general. They tell a story to get attention and a feeling of self-worth.

And as we enter into a presidential campaign?

"It's my most favorite time," he said. "There are so many rumors, so many purported leaks. It's a delicious time for anyone interested in rumors."

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