“Gossip is what no one claims to like, but everybody enjoys.” —Joseph Conrad
A few weeks ago Pope Francis said that “gossiping is a plague worse than COVID” and claimed it was dividing the church.
Sure spreading lies about others is terrible, but what if the gossip is true? Is it still divisive? Is it still bad? And why is it so popular — a 2019 study found that people spend almost an hour a day gossiping on average (Robbins & Karan, 2019).
The answer may lie in the architecture of trust.
Over the past few years a variety of research has found that when we decide to trust someone we are making two separate assessments: that the person cares about us and that they are capable of delivering on their promises.
In the case of capability we assess someone’s skill set by looking at their education, track record, and level of power and authority. But care is harder to assess since it’s hard to know what someone truly cares about simply by listening to them; we must also observe how they behave over time to know if their words align with their actions.
It’s remarkably easy to fake care: we nod along to stories we aren’t interested in, laugh at jokes we’ve heard before, pretend our bosses’ priorities are our own, and pledge to donate to charities — making us look good — only to skip over the actual writing of the check. This is where gossip comes in.
The social function of gossip (in the South it’s called “Christian Concern”) — and the reason for its popularity in all societies — is that it helps us figure out who is only pretending to care, and who walks their talk.
Gossip, like any tool, can hurt or help. It helps by letting us know who to trust and who to avoid. And while we can learn who to trust through personal experience, it can be much more efficient to learn from others. People whose experiences can help us identify abusers and untrustworthy people in our communities and workplaces before they abuse or betray us.
Certain kinds of gossip can also help create more safe and equitable workplaces. Talking about money with co-workers is often seen as gossip. But not knowing what your colleagues are paid creates a real power imbalance in salary negotiations since the employer has much more information than the employee. And gossipy “whisper networks” have helped bring down powerful abusers like Harvey Weinstein and, not incidentally, some Catholic priests.
It’s important that we learn to differentiate between a malicious spreading of lies and beneficial information that will help us learn from each other’s experiences. Next time you feel the urge to gossip, ask yourself if it’s true and if it might be helpful. If it is, go ahead and gossip; it’s good for us all.