No way. Really?

Editorial Notebook

August 20, 2005|By Nicky Penttila

YES, GOSSIP can be good for you. Like chocolate and red wine, the small-talk staple is enjoying a public-relations comeback. It couldn't happen to a livelier pastime.

A flurry of recent scientific studies gives weight to what common sense already tells us. Gossip is not a sloppy, casual conversational filigree but a complex, multitasking trunk of human interaction. Telling stories about co-workers, teammates or family can help define who belongs to what group and why, and it reinforces a feeling of camaraderie.

It's a good thing it's useful: Gossip fills from one-fifth to two-thirds of daily conversation, for both men and women, according to researchers at the University of Liverpool and confirmed elsewhere. Content usually varies with sex, though: Men are more likely to focus on who is up and who is down in the group (or in the sports pages); women focus on who is in and who is out of the group - and who meets the moral standard. Stories of other people's woes, too, offer solace and comfort to those whose lives are not as star-crossed.

At the office, water cooler chit-chat can clue newbies in on company culture - the useful stuff that never appears in the handbook. Coworkers dissing a comrade for always leaving work at five o'clock signals that people there expect to work late; at another office, the comrade in the gossip doghouse could be the one who stays late all the time. Jovial descriptions of a supervisor's temper tantrums can offer tips on how to deal with the next outburst. And much can be learned from comments on clothing, phone etiquette, and how people use their "sick days."

Of course, we're mostly talking about "healthy" gossip, not hateful. It still is considered bad form to maliciously reveal, say, that a coworker is a closet celibate when that person would prefer that information be private. But researchers say only five percent of gossip time is spent on criticism or negative reporting of others, according to University of New York researchers. And, experts say, even "bad gossip" does some social good: reinforcing what the group considers bad behavior, setting rules and boundaries and the ubiquitous social bonding.

It also can promote social breakup, should the topic of the gossip discover the news and disavow the tellers. Thus the relative safety of celebrity gossip, in which people can point to Britney Spears, say, as an example of good or ill (and by the way, did you hear she's expecting - and it's a boy?). Magazines that offer peeks into the personal lives of celebrities continue to see their circulation figures rise even as newsmagazines continue to slide.

Chatter is thought to be as old as chatty humans are. Egyptologists point out drawings and hieroglyphics more than 5,000 years old that tell of queens who had no hair and kings who had sex but no wives - a problem if one wanted an heir to the throne. Only the media have multiplied: From simple walls and face-to-face to phone-to-phone, via broadsheet and tabloid press, over the airwaves and now via the world-wide web.

Post-postmodern gossipers are the main source for an ever-growing number of casual chat-filled sites on the Internet blogosphere that offer mostly half-truths and plenty of opinions on how people, parties and countries should run their affairs. Reading most of them, it's easy to tell who is considered in the in-group and why the "outs" are out. Yet they hark back to our Egyptian ancestors in their permanence - well, compared with an over-the-fence whisper campaign. Bloggers also take the chance that the subject will blog back - a version of dueling banjos with e-text.

When our elders warned us against gossip, saying it's not always the truth, they missed the point. Communication is social currency, and gossip is gold.

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