Compelling gossip

July 27, 2010 | By | Reply More

I was on a two-hour bus ride today, surrounded by people chattering loudly on their cell phones. From the large man with the goatee (in front of me, to my left), I leaned that he had bacon and eggs this morning at a little restaurant and that it was good. It took him five minutes to describe his meal to the person with whom he was conversing (I do wonder whether that person was really listening to the entire thing). The woman in front of me was getting angry at the person to whom she was talking–she insisted that there was a closer Wal-Mart, and that that person ought to turn her car back immediately and go there, not to the Wal-Mart down the road. 

A man behind me was making a wide variety of calls, reassuring people that he would be visiting someday, and apparently trading much chit-chat.   The woman behind me was discussing various movies with her conversant.   Again, there were lots of details, and it seemed as though each of these conversations ended because the people got tired of talking, not because they traded any significant information.

All of this chattering was irritating to me, because I have a difficult time filtering out one-sided conversations.  Every time the person near me stops talking, an internal warning kicks in and I automatically replay my buffer (as best I can) in order to jump in and respond.  It’s all automated, and it turns out, time after time, that they are not talking with me at all.  My little sub-routine, which works rather well in many situations where someone has paused for the purpose to allow me to respond, is merely an annoyance in these situations.

Now multiply this gossipy chatter by hundreds of millions, all across America, and you have an enormous amount of time and energy dedicated to gossip.  Whenever you see so much energy going into an activity, red flags should go up:  it is likely that such a ubiquitous activity is serving some important biological function.   But what could possibly be important about gossiping? 

Based upon much study, Robin Dunbar has proposed the answer that gossip is verbal grooming.   I described his position in some detail here. His bottom line is that even though the content of the gossip seems relatively unimportant, the exchange is critically important. Engaging in gossip is social sonar. It is our way of determining the identities of our allies and foes, not simply by determining who is willing to gossip with us, but through many subtle clues dropped in the course of the gossip. We learn the identities of the people who talk about us and our friends, and bits and pieces about their attitudes toward us. We learn who has resources, social and material, and their willingness to share these resources, and with whom.

Gossip is a powerful use of language, but it is often not focused on the truth-content of the words used. In modern times, gossip is likely to be seen as a Gouldian spandrel. But just maybe, as Dunbar suggests, gossip is truly verbal grooming and thus arguably the original impetus for the development of all human languages.

As I see it, gossip but one of several non-prototypical uses of language. I suspect that we see another such use in most religions, where language can be critically important, even though ambiguous, untrue or even oxymoronic.


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Category: Communication, Community, Human animals, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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