Book review: Gossip

Even in the workplace, tale-telling and tattle can have a healthy purpose.


Photo Illustration: Anna Lisa Sang; Source Image: iStock

The world credits Benjamin Franklin with such great inventions as the lightning rod and bifocal eyeglasses. Franklin first cautioned us to “remember that time is money.” But this Founding Father was also responsible for first getting readers hooked on one of the most unsavoury, yet deliciously entertaining forms of modern news: the gossip column.

That column, which Franklin published in The American Weekly Mercury under the heading “The busy-body,” poked fun at differences between the sexes, at businessmen and at community leaders. He was almost completely unapologetic toward those on whose feelings he trod. “If any are offended by my publicly exposing their private vices, I promise they shall have the satisfaction, in a very little time, of their good friends and neighbors in the same circumstances,” he said. In the end, though, Franklin couldn’t supply enough salacious content and his gossip column fizzled out.

Of course, gossip is often condemned as an immoral act, but we can’t seem to scrub it from our society. It’s a global cultural force with roots back as far as can be traced, and the rise of blogs and social media has expanded the audience further than ever before. In his new book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Joseph Epstein explores why humans can’t stop gossiping, why they shouldn’t, and why the act is so damn satisfying to women and men alike.

An essayist and editor noted for his witty investigations of other everyday human traits like snobbery, envy and ambition, Epstein is himself a master of idle talk, and each chapter in the book is punctuated with a “diary” entry revealing some juicy scrap of high-brow gossip he’s gleaned or witnessed. He often names names. One entry recalls a night he and painter Helen Frankenthaler spent with then-secretary of defense Dick Cheney and his accompanying Secret Service men. At the end of the night, Frankenthaler asked what Cheney did for a living. Another recounts an afternoon of bashing former co-workers with a fellow teacher from Northwestern University. In a third, a university trustee tells Epstein that a nearby documentary filmmaker “earned” his charming new wife for being stuck with Simone de Beauvoir as a bedmate for a decade.

While not all gossip is bad—one can share secrets about wonderful things like a suspected pregnancy or job promotion—Epstein points out that “useful gossip is, in the minds of most people, not what gossip is really about,” and so the majority of the book focuses on the more naughty kind of tattling, the kind that makes your heart beat faster when the subject of ridicule comes around the corner.

But even the most vicious gossip can be a useful tool as well as a guilty pleasure. Exchanging dirty details about a friend or colleague establishes a relationship of trust and esteem between the gossipers, according to Epstein. The presumption that the information shared will be kept secret or confidential (though, as the author notes, that is rarely the case) can reassure the recipient of the news that he is thought of as a trusted peer. Since gossip is most often akin to condemning other people’s faults, it also puts the confidants on the same level, reassuring both that they “operate in the same moral universe,” and have the same views on what’s acceptable, what’s wildly inappropriate, and what’s just plain funny.

Some researchers suggest that gossip not only gives people a better idea of what’s going on around them in their social circles and at work, but also helps people feel more involved in events. The scuttlebutt helps people carve out social roles, judge the reliability of group members and police inappropriate behaviour by establishing norms. In an office setting, where gossip is often seen as a destructive force that hinders productivity, it can in fact be valuable. If one is having trouble with a boss or co-worker, Epstein suggests, it helps to learn that other people are having similar difficulties. In fact, one Yale study suggests that those not participating in the lunch-line prattle may be missing out on crucial information about people’s trustworthiness; to refuse to engage in gossip at all can be ”unhealthy and abnormal.”

Scrumptious as gossip is, though, we now have two problems: quality and quantity. The lines be­tween blogging and journalistic reporting are becoming increasingly blurred, says Epstein, and e-mail has erased some of the old-fashion crafting of gossip wherein the art of storytelling was as important as the story being told.

And then there’s the increasing role of social media in propagating gossip, “sometimes accompanied by photographs of their authors, drunk or naked or in other forms of moral dishabille.” Comment pages on the web provide space where the most vicious commentary can be served up anonymously, and the conversation is often international. Cellphone cameras and the Internet can capture and spread gossip at high speed. That has contributed to the overlap of our personal and professional circles online—a blending of these two, once separate worlds. It is increasingly difficult to portray an image to your co-workers that’s separate from the personality you show your friends, and we may all be at risk, as Epstein suggests, of being victimized by Internet gossip. Some experts believe that the key to a successful career in this blurred landscape isn’t better image management but less hypocrisy, which Internet communities abhor above all other digital sins. It is in some ways becoming ever more important to be yourself at work.

Epstein doesn’t pass judgment on this shift, and there’s no call to action for readers. Because as much as Gossip the book is about the popularization of back-fence talk and the search for a reason why one of the world’s most compelling pastimes is so pleasurable, it’s also about admitting that people just can’t keep secrets; they don’t want to, and we might as well embrace the fact that they’ll keep fewer and fewer in the future unless we collectively settle on some new etiquette. But as gossip ringleader Ben Franklin said, “Three may keep a secret if two are dead.” Epstein agrees, and it’s “because of this, gossip, I think we may be assured, will never go out of business.” So you might as well hit the water cooler and enjoy it.