The dish on gossip: Its origins, functions, and bad reputation

Sharing gossip can strengthen the bond between two individuals by demonstrating trust. Gossiping with someone, particularly if it involves sharing a piece of scandalous information, implies that a certain level of confidence exists between the two parties, or at least that the gossiper has confidence in the gossip recipient. Not surprisingly, most gossiping occurs among friends, and gossip can even be used strategically to keep certain people on the “outside” (Foster, 2004). As noted by McDonald and colleagues (2007) in their examination of gossip among fourth-grade girls, negative gossip is shared not only to harm the target of the gossip, but to enhance the connection between the pair of friends who exchange the gossip. Thus, gossip (particularly negative gossip) both requires a certain level of trust and friendship, and also works to enhance the social bond between gossiping parties.

The role of gossip as a communicator (or creator) of culture (Baumeister, et al., 2004; Kyratzis, 2004; Lyons & Kashima, 2001), described above as serving mastery goals, can also clearly be seen as serving connectedness functions. Learning group norms does not just tell us how to behave in order to obtain desired outcomes (e.g., getting that promotion), but it helps establish ourselves as good group members, deserving of respect and acceptance by the in-group.

Finally, gossip can be a form of entertainment, as evident in the countless magazines and websites that exist purely for the purpose of sharing celebrity gossip. Although this entertainment function of gossip does not necessarily serve connectedness motives (e.g., you can sit at your computer alone, reading about the latest celebrity feud), I would argue that reading about celebrity gossip is even more entertaining when it is recounted with friends, either in person or sharing links via social networking sites. The fact that celebrity gossip is so widespread also means that it may provide unacquainted individuals with common ground – a way to break the ice, allowing new connections to be made. Gossiping in general--not just about celebrities--can also function as a form of entertainment, and Fine and Rosnow (1978) argue that this is likely to be one of the major functions of gossip in situations in which friendship is already established and “there are no external needs or threats” (p. 164). Others have argued that gossip shares similarities with other entertainment-focused activities that strengthen social bonds, such as conversational humor (Morreall, 1994), and joking (Ben-Ze’ev, 1994).


Gossip is an undeniable part of human life, and despite its bad reputation, it serves many important functions in society. Far from empty or mindless talk, the motives and consequences of gossip can be much more complex than most people realize. And while it can, at times, be hurtful or troublesome, there are numerous positive benefits associated with (even negative) gossip. Although long-ignored by academics as a topic too frivolous for study, many researchers have begun to examine gossip more closely - and I encourage you to do the same when you encounter gossip in your own life.

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