Gossip -- it teases and pleases like a bite into a forbidden fruit. We need it, we love it. Life would be boring with no stories to tell, no way to peek into other people's lives.
And -- Alexandria Mayor-elect James Moran's antigossip campaign notwithstanding -- social scientists who observe the characteristics and social patterns of gossip are declaring that gossip should be given credit for its valuable social qualities. It appears there is a good side to gossip, and -- except for want of a better word -- it is becoming an acceptable mode of communication in a society that thrives on looking at itself.
"In our society you have to gossip to survive," claims Jack Levin, a psychologist at Boston's Northeastern University. "There are whole careers which are based on knowing people and what they are doing, such as advertising, politics, public relations, business and journalism. In such jobs you have to be 'other-directed' to succeed."
According to Levin, who has done extensive research studies on gossip, the term itself implies "trivial." But it's not the message that is trivial, he says, it's the context, such as relaxing over a drink, talking on the phone. Even the most mundane or simple incidents can come alive just by the tone of your voice, the expression on your face and your choice and emphasis of words when telling it to another.
Fredrick Koenig, professor of sociology at Tulane University and author of the soon-to-be-released Rumor in the Marketplace (Auburn House, 1985, $24.95), emphasizes that it also is important to whom you tell your "piece of news." The person on the receiving end of even the juiciest gossip must have a vested interest in the subject.
For example: You see your neighbor at a department store buying expensive shoes. This fact wouldn't be at all interesting if the listener doesn't know or care about your neighbor. But if you selectively describe the event to a mutual friend who is envious of your neighbor, then you have a far more dramatic reaction.
If you are worried about being tagged "a gossip," there's some reassurance in the findings that "everybody engages in gossip to some extent," says Koenig, "and half of the gossip we engage in is good news, such as getting a raise."
"Gossip reaffirms our norms of what's right and what's wrong," explains Koenig. By considering the lives of others and how society reacts to their affairs, we "keep ourselves in order."
If there's nothing exciting going on in our neighbor's life, we can always turn to the private affairs of the entertainment, media and political stars whose success often depends on getting into -- or staying out of -- the newspaper gossip column.
Newspaper gossip columns of the 1950s show, according to Levin, that they started out as fact sheets, recounting what movie contract was just signed or what house Tony Curtis just bought. Today they are "much more evaluative and judgmental," he says, exposing personal struggles in the stars' private soap operas. And surprisingly, says Levin, we enjoy "as much nice gossip" as bad gossip about our stars.
Public figures see it differently.
"One bad gossip article out of 34 good ones," hypothesizes Levin, "will throw someone like Johnny Carson . . . the bad article is all Carson can talk about and the other 33 articles are forgotten."
Unquestionably, gossip has its dark side.
Whether done thoughtlessly or with calculated malice, some gossip -- true or false -- at the very least can hurt feelings and at the most can destroy an individual's career or private life. To protect us from gossip's backlash, moralists for centuries have warned society to "trust no man with what you would not have publicly known," observes Patricia Meyer Spacks, Yale professor of literature, in her latest book, Gossip ($18.95, Knopf, 1985). The book is an intelligent examination of the role of talking about others -- both in our society and in literature.
Spacks lifts gossip from the "dregs of society" by discussing how essential it is to our life style and acknowledging its two distinct sides: light, stimulating, reassuring and dark, unkind, destructive.
Historically, one's reputation was considered at the mercy of other tongues, says Spacks, and before the 20th century, women, in particular, had "no way to wipe out stains to their good names," which invariably meant crimes of sexual conduct.
(Gossip is intrinsically sexual, even when the content isn't about sex, writes Spacks, for there is a voyeurism, an interest in others' lives, that can tantalize the most disciplined into "peeking" and listening.)
While women are depicted as victims of gossip in novels and poetry, says Spacks, in the real world and in literature they are reputed to be the chief agents of tattling, a stereotype they haven't been able to shake since Eve told Adam what the snake had to say.
Spacks points out that the word gossip, originally meaning god-related, then godparent, has gone through a definition of sexist degradation, particularly in the 18th century by the formidable Samuel Johnson, who defined a gossip as "one who runs about tattling like women at a lying-in."
If we focus on the good side of gossip, however, "women no longer need to hide their heads in shame over their stereotype as 'the talkers,' " Spacks said in a recent interview. "One personal reason I wrote this book is that I have a close woman friend and colleague who would meet me every day a half-hour before work for coffee and conversation. Both her husband, a psychiatrist, and my husband, a poet -- two sensitive men -- couldn't understand why that time was so important to us."
Contemporary research, such as Levin's and Kroeger's, reveals that men gossip as much as women, but women typically talk about people they know, while men enjoy hashing over public figures and events. Men "have always had trouble with intimacy, have broader social networks and their targets are different," says Levin.
Gossip for both men and women is valuable for its "entertainment, influence and information," says Robert Rosnow, psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, whose work focuses on gossip in the workplace. "Gossip spurs us on to be competitive," he says, and helps solidify and define social groups by implying "who's on the inside and who's on the outside," a rule of thumb for everyone from politicians to dinner party guests.
"Gossip is not idle at all, it's quite calculated," says Rosnow, and in the work world "it's a commodity that people trade and sell. The less there is, the more the value goes up."
To author Spacks, one value of gossip, often overlooked in gossip's "torrent of talk," is the silent bonding, "a dual sensibility" between "two, no more than three people" when they entrust their conversation and beliefs to one another.
Anyone who has ever shared lunch, good conversation and a piece of news with a close friend can appreciate Spacks' quoting 18th-century moralist Immanuel Kant:
Moral friendship "is the complete confidence of two persons in the mutual openness of their private judgments and sensations as far as such openness can subsist with mutual respect for one another."