Fitness, Health & Wellness
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(photo: William Fortunato /

Gossip, defined as chatter about an individual not in present company, generally has a negative connotation. Yet, according to statistical data, an average person spends at least 50 minutes daily engaging in gossip. 

According to evolutionary psychologists such as Robin Dunbar, gossip has an essential social function in the community. Different types of gossip serve a variety of functions within a social group. Certain types of gossip are toxic, while others are benign and necessary. 

According to Dunbar, about 15 percent of gossip is, in fact, innocent and equips us with helpful tidbits of information about each other that create a sense of connectivity. 

(photo: William Fortunato /

Toxic gossip usually involves fabricated or deliberately distorted facts against an individual as a form of social warfare. This type of gossip has no embedded social learning; it is simply a covert act of aggression and is deliberately misleading, causing either chaos within the group or social ostracism of an individual. On the other hand, judgmental gossip helps maintain a moral compass of a given community. It informs us of unspoken rules and expectations, thus weeding out cheating, lying, and other destructive behaviors. Exaggerations and embellishments about individuals create a collective mythology, guiding our dreams and aspirations and even the invention of deities and idols.

Historically, gossip was seen as a primarily feminine trait. In patriarchal societies, gossip is often viewed as a negative and petty activity. 

Socially, men have been given permission for overt aggression and assigned a doer role. When men disagree, they can settle their disagreement through physical force, and the victor is celebrated. On the other hand, women are supposed to be passive and display no signs of overt anger. In fact, not only are women not supposed to express anger, but they are also not allowed to win. Women are supposed to be quiet, humble nurturers. A true nurturer gives the win away. 

We don’t only nurture the young, but we nurture our partners and our friends. We listen, we comfort, we soothe, we feed. Hence, the only social tool women are given is language.

“Women talk.” According to anthropologist Dean Falk, language developed from music, like vocalizations of prehuman females soothing their young. Language is a powerful cognitive tool and integral for social relatedness, connectivity, and survival. When looking at the very structure of this linguistic system, it is easy to see that gossip is, in fact, its nucleus. To form a coherent sentence, one must have a subject, verb, and object — in other words, who did what to whom.

Before script was created and before printing was possible, it was through gossip that we learned about who had the resource, power, skills, or knowledge, who partnered with whom, and who had children. This web of information allowed us to organize and form rules and relational exchanges that allowed the development of the first primitive political and hierarchal systems. 

In ancient Greece, for example, Homer described gossip as the messenger of Zeus, a universal trait that was perceived to be the conduit between the lowliest and the mightiest. The power of gossip was used by ancient orators who found marketplaces useful to spread negative rumors against their opponents. Gossip, to this day, is used to whip up scandals, discredit, and extort. Public opinion forms an individual’s reputation in the community, and the success or social demise of an individual hinges on maintaining this reputation. As long as human beings are social animals, gossip will play an integral role in relationships. 

It is through the language of gossip that we create gods and demons. By idealizing or discrediting, we either give power or strip it; it is a way of sanctioning individual conduct. In so doing, we create myths and belief systems that push us into motion, wars, migrations, and discoveries. 

Gossip is the act of making stories, and without stories, there is no collective consciousness or identity. We observe and share, and in doing so, we do good, we do bad, and everything in between. No one can claim to be above it, as we all engage in it — it is our nature — but next time we engage, perhaps we ask ourselves: What drives our sharing? 

“Word spread because word will spread. Stories and secrets fight, stories win, shed new secrets, which new stories fight, and on.” — China Miéville. spt

Sophie Schoenfeld, MFT

Sophie Schoenfeld, MFT is a local marriage and family therapist. For more info, visit