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What's the Goss?

Gossip, defined as idle talk or informal conversations about people's personal lives, has made it into social psychology laboratories at UC Berkeley. The word has experienced quite the biopolitical gendered transition to what it's referred to as today: lies, rumors, unkind conversations about someone else, usually indulged in by women.

Gossip: Exaggeration or fabrication of a story, regarding somebody other than the tale bearer, in the absence of this person who is being discussed - for the malicious purpose of demeaning, slandering or tarnishing this person's reputation.

To understand its usage, one has to understand the socio-political landscape within which gossip evolved.

Gossip, derived from "God" and "Sib", references a family friend, a close acquaintance or the godparent of the child. God sibs were essentially familial relationships as opposed to individual ones. In fact, from 1361-1873, we still used the same reference. It wasn't until the Elizabethan period that gossip gained its significance as individual relationships.

Somewhere around the 16th century, gossip transformed into an act and gained the reputation of tattling. The birth of a child in the 16th century revolved primarily around the guidance provided by midwives and other women in the birthing chamber. Men weren't allowed to participate in this event, leading to several speculations regarding the "gossiping women". The word gains an unfortunate connotation only after being applied to women

The major sin of “gossip” is to develop social ties outside the institutions of male dominance.

In the same length, gossip when applied to men was in reference to their "tippling companions", associated with positive friendships and male-bonding over a mug at the nearest tavern. The derogatory referencing of gossip only emerges when applied to women.

Since gossiping tends to weave a complex tapestry of multitudinous scandals, it creates a kind of badge of membership since any competent member must understand the group scandals and the unwritten rules as to what constitutes legitimate gossiping.

This attempt at controlling female solidarity is reflected clearly in the dual usage of gossip. When two women are discussing a topic, it is often referred to as gossip but when men discuss a topic, it can be written off as "networking".

Gossip however, serves a major role in building social relationships. In the process of culturalization, gossip is an effective tool in passing on social knowledge and building attachments. So crucial is it to our development, that children begin to gossip as soon as they are able to talk (4-5 years of age). This extension of observational learning now finds itself at UC Berkeley's laboratories.

“Passing on the gossip note ameliorated their negative feelings and tempered their frustration,” Willer said. “Gossiping made them feel better.”

Apart from its therapeutic benefits, gossip is essential in creating safe spaces for marginalized populations to express their needs, desires, fears and troubles, to find communal support and stand in solidarity as they face their oppressors.

  1. Baumeister, R. F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as Cultural Learning. Review of General Psychology, 8(2), 111-121.

  2. Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 55.

  3. Davis, A. C., Dufort, C., Desrochers, J., Vaillancourt, T., & Arnocky, S. (2018). Gossip as an intrasexual competition strategy: Sex differences in gossip frequency, content, and attitudes. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 4(2), 141–153.

  4. Dease, William. Observations in Midwifery, Particularly on the Different Methods of Assisting Women in Tedious and Difficult Labors (Dublin, 1783), p. 30 (PDF p. 53).

  5. Denman, Thomas. An Introduction to the Practice of Midwifery (Brattleborough,VT, 1807), p. 155 (PDF p. 194).

  6. Dunbar, R. I. M. (2004). Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective. Review of General Psychology, 8(2), 100-110.

  7. Feinberg, Matthew; Willer, Robb; Stellar, Jennifer; Keltner, Dacher (2012). The virtues of gossip: Reputational information sharing as prosocial behavior.. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(5), 1015–1030. doi:10.1037/a0026650

  8. Forbes, Thomas R. The regulation of English midwives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Med Hist. 1971(Oct);15(4):352-362.

  9. Rysman, A. (1977), How the “Gossip” Became a Woman. Journal of Communication, 27: 176-180.

  10. Stone, Theodora K., "Another Tool in the Birth Bag: A Sociological History of "Gossip" in American Childbirth" (2023). Senior Projects Spring 2023. 160.

  11. McClintock, Alfred H. Smellie’s Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, Vol. 3 (London, 1876), pp. 318 (PDF pp. 331).

  12. Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, pp. 64, 185-186.

  13. White, Charles. A Treatise on the Management of Pregnant and Lying-in Women, and the Means of Curing, but more Especially of Preventing the Principal Disorders to Which They Are Liable (London, 1791), p. 4 (PDF p. 30).

  14. Wilson, Adrian. The Making of Man-midwifery: Childbirth in England, 1660-1770. Cambridge, MA: Harvad University Press, 1995, p. 25.

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