The contemporary definition of gossip by dictionary.com is “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others”. We typically identify gossip as the spreading of negative information about others. This video by CBS about gossip helps explain the other side of the word.
Dr. Michelle Callahan shares in the video that gossip can be either constructive or nasty. However, the initial intent of gossip always falls on gaining information about others. They joke around and say women use the term gossip where men often like to use the term “networking” as an associate form.
Let’s take a step back and look at the word “gossip” from an evolutionary perspective. Before language and the human species existed apes would gossip for survival purposes. It was important to gain information about other surrounding apes in order to group up and survive. Apes needed to know whom the strongest were, who’s the best forager, etc. They weren’t able to do this through speech. However, body language and social gestures often replaced language. These primates traveled and worked in groups. The level of threat predators brought determined this group size. Working in a group compromises one’s personal interests and turns them into group interests. Trust is one of the most important demands when working in a group. Apes needed to know they could rely on each other in desperate times. The larger the group was, the more one’s personal interests were compromised. In this case, gossip was used to gain information on others in social groups to know if they can be trusted.
Without language how did this information spread? Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar suggests that friendships were made through social grooming. Back in the day simply acts like cleaning others fur or sharing food represented social grooming. All in all, grooming built trust and relationships within social groups. Psychology Today says it best “it’s quite literally a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind of relationship”. This grooming represented the “idle chit-chat” that we often relate with gossip today.
In modern day we still part take in social grooming, we just use language now. From clothing someone to doing his or her hair it’s all a form of it. When’s the last time you went to a barber appointment where nothing was spoken? I can’t remember one either. At the end of the day, we still use gossip in a similar way that apes did in the past. The word gossip has evolved with the addition of language and evolution of primates. Plain and simple, we still use gossip to learn and share information about other whether it’s positive or negative.