Sunday, March 30, 2008

In Defense of Gossip

Oscar Wilde once said: "Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip . . .But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality."

Gossip is not just another way of saying public opinion. It is more fundamental than that. Gossip is the glue that holds society together, the way we determine our social ranking and rank others, and a valuable tool for navigating the perilous waters of human relationships. It is also, very probably, the reason humans developed language in the first place, according to professor Rob Dunbar of the University of Liverpool. Check out his book published by Harvard Press here.

When we were all monkeys, grooming did the trick. Bands of primates conduct a lot of their social communications around grooming rituals. Here's how it works. Senior monkeys can get any other band member to engage in grooming. Monkeys that are more junior or have less status not only have trouble getting groomed, they may not find other monkeys willing to grant grooming rights. And of course, there is nuance. Who gets groomed first? How long and thorough is the gooming behavior? Are there signs of submission and dominance - apparent to all - that emerge during grooming? This is how primitive communication works.

As primates evolved to homo erectus and homo sapien stages, bands grew to tribes and primitive communication could no longer handle the communications load. No, it took an evolutionary leap to do that. Language. So we owe a lot to our tendency, sometimes irresistable, to gossip with our families, friends, co-workers and neighbors. According to Anthropologists and specialty linguists, we actually learn a lot of what we know about our immediate social environment from the effort. Here's to gossip, in all its forms short of maliciousness. And we all know the difference between useful gossip and malicious or hateful innuendo.

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