Gossiping is good

Hello! What’s the matter with you – gone to sleep? Have not had any news of you for a long time…How is life going on with you – grinding, as usual? Any improvements? Write a chatty letter if you feel like. I am dying to get news.” [1]

“You want a chatty letter, don’t you? I have not much to chat about. Mr. Sturdy came last two days. He goes home in Wales tomorrow.” [2]

“I begin here my promised big chatty letter…” [3]

The human aspects of a Prophet are invaluable to us. They bring him so much closer to us. It is so gladdening to see how Swamiji is being chatty with his disciples and friends! Now, some would immediately object and say that would be a wrong understanding of the great Prophet. For, did not the same Swamiji exhort his brother monks, ‘Let me write something for you all…It shall be wholly forbidden to huddle together in a room and chat the whole day away, with any number of outsiders coming and joining in the hubbub.[4]

No doubt, word on the street is that gossip is bad. It is ‘the faceless demon that breaks hearts and ruins careers.’ It is a ‘three-pronged tongue’ that kills three people: the teller, the listener, and the person being gossiped about[5]. The acclaimed Philosopher Blaise Pascal observed that ‘if people really knew what others said about them, there would not be four friends left in the world.’ However, a significant body of research suggests that gossip may in fact be healthy.

It’s a good thing, too, since gossip is pretty pervasive.[6] Children tend to be seasoned gossips by the age of five.[7] Gossip as most researchers understand it – talk between at least two people about absent others – accounts for about two-thirds of conversation![8]

In the 1980s, the journalist Blythe Holbrooke took a stab at bringing rigor to the subject by positing the Law of Inverse Accuracy in Gossip:[9] 

which means: the likelihood of gossip being circulated (C) equals its timeliness (T) times its interest (I) to the power of its unverifiability (v) minus the reluctance someone might feel about repeating it out of taste (t).

Despite gossip’s dodgy reputation, a surprisingly small share of it – as little as 4% – is actually malicious.[10] But, this little bit goes a long way and destroys fellow-feeling. Malicious gossip is what destroys any organized work. It is this aspect of gossip that Swamiji sternly warned about when he said ‘It shall be wholly forbidden to huddle together in a room and chat the whole day away, with any number of outsiders coming and joining in the hubbub.’

But, there is a positive aspect of gossip, which was studied by anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. Once upon a time, in Dunbar’s account, our primate ancestors bonded through grooming, their mutual back-scratching ensuring mutual self-defense in the event of attack by predators. But as hominids grew more intelligent and more social, their groups became too large to unite by grooming alone. That’s where language – and gossip, broadly defined – stepped in.[11] Dunbar argues that idle chatter with and about others gave early humans a sense of shared identity and helped them grow more aware of their environment, thus incubating the complex higher functioning that would ultimately yield the glories of civilization.

Like in everything else in life, gossip, per se, isn’t all bad. In fact, it is an essential ingredient in maintaining one’s sanity in the complex world we live in. Vangmaya Tapas (austerity of speech) ensures that our interactions remain on a civil level. If done at this level, gossip defuses a great amount of stress that builds up in the course of our daily life. Haven’t you noticed how socially withdrawn clinically depressed people become? So the next time you’re tempted to say ‘Hello! What’s the matter with you? Talk! I am dying to get news’, remember that the Prophet of the Modern World, Swami Vivekananda actually said those words! You are safe; go ahead; bond with others civilly, and save your sanity.

****************


[1] Complete Works: Vol – 9 : Letters: CLXV: To Sister Christine from San Francisco, on 9th April, 1900

[2] Complete Works: Vol – 8 : Epistles: CXXXIX : To Miss Marie Halboister from England in August, 1899

[3] Complete Works: Vol – 8 : Epistles: XCIV: To Marie Halboister from Almora, on 2nd June, 1897

[4] Complete Works: Vol – 7 : Epistles: XXXII: To his brother monks at Alambazar Math from USA on 27th April, 1896

[5] The Talmud describes Gossip this way!

[6] Please see The Atlantic, July-Aug 2018 issue for a detailed article by Ben Healy on Gossip.

[7] Engelmann et al., ‘Pre-schoolers Affect Others’ Reputations Through Prosocial Gossip’: British Journal of Developmental Psychology, Sept. 2016

[8] Nicholas Emler, ‘Gossip, Reputation, and Social Adaptation,’ in Good Gossip :University Press of Kansas, 1994

[9] Blythe Holbrooke, Gossip :St. Martin’s, 1983

[10] Dunbar et al., ‘Human Conversational Behavior’ : Human Nature, Sept. 1997

[11] Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language: Harvard University Press, 1998

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Author: Swami Vedatitananda

Monk of the Ramakrishna Order

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