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Gossip as Social Currency

1 April 2012

Gossip is a form of legal tender, a social coinage we enjoy spending or saving as we would any other form of currency.

To hear gossip is like finding coins in the street. “I can use this later,” you may think as someone tells you something, in a whispered hush, or from a quiet place. Some people freely give their gossip away. They are the spendthrifts of this information economy. They are the big tippers, the big spenders. They want you to know that that is a trifle, and there is plenty more where that came from. They are connected to a vast pool of information, etc., or perhaps they simply have the confidence of someone, or someone close to that someone, about whom they gossip.

Gossip nearly always has a victim, long known to sociologists as the object of gossip, or simply the Gossip Object (GO). It is as though the sorry face of the Gossip Object is on a dollar bill that is handed around as his fate is discussed by others. Because gossip is indulged in even by those close to the victim, gossip almost always involves a betrayal. Often the Gossip Object himself first issued the news by telling a trusted friend, and that is then spread around. The Gossip Object has his own reasons for spilling the beans. Secrets are difficult to bear alone. Thoughts, like money, lose their value when taken out of circulation. The Gossip Object may have genuinely trusted the person who will soon break his trust. Or perhaps he himself desperately needed to feel some social value with his friend, and so he needed to spend some social currency, backed by his own faith and credit, and solely about him.

So there is usually a hint of betrayal as gossip is circulated, yet this is unconsciously seen as the cost of doing business, much like Americans know their clothing was probably stitched by someone earning less than a dollar an hour. There are some things you don’t talk about. And besides, the depth of the betrayal can be directly measured by the distance of the speaker from the GO. If someone’s spouse or best friend gossips to you about the GO, you may feel a bit uncomfortable, almost complicit, especially if you sense that you are the first one they are telling. This associates you with the primal act of betrayal. Yet if someone else tells you that they heard this and that about the GO from the GO’s spouse or best friend, you have a proper, comfortable amount of distance. You are simply some anonymous outsider, perhaps by some definition a friend of the GO, but too far away to come to his aid, especially when he has such problems.

The intimate relationship of gossipers to the GO is evinced by the etymological origins of the noun gossip, which in Middle English meant ‘close friend,’ and in Old English meant ‘kinsmen’ or ‘godparent’ (godsibb = god + sibb, ‘sibb’ being an old word for relation, cf. ‘sibling’). Clearly gossip would not occur unless those closest to the GO betray him.

Eventually, however gossip gets distributed so extensively that it is no longer gossip but Common Knowledge. To try to still treat information that is Common Knowledge as gossip will lose you social credit, as you will be dismissed with “Everybody knows that!” It is like trying to spend a heavily devalued currency.

It is at this point that the true ending point of the gossip cycle is possible. Once the gossip has passed full circle, it is time for someone to confront the GO with the fact that private information about him is now Common Knowledge. He is now something like a cuckold. Different scenarios for this dénouement are possible. Usually someone not of the GO’s closest circle will offhandedly mention the juicy Piece of Gossip (POG) to the GO, partly to see the GO’s tortured reaction, perhaps “What! How do you know that?” To which the confronter can reply simply: “But that’s Common Knowledge!”

The problem is of course one of trust. If two people know something, it’s no longer a secret. Many people are well aware of gossip, and deliberately use this channel to spread information. This is the analogue to the “press leak,” without which the people would learn nothing about their government. To tell a gossip something “in confidence” is a far more efficient means of communicating information than publishing a newsletter, and it is often considered to be more true than if you began telling people directly.

Gossip is the black market of information, and so the scarcest commodities are often available there. Those who only want to go retail for their social information needs will find the products insipid and overpriced. It’s always best to go to the source, and the source is usually talking anyway.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: What’s the only thing worse than being gossiped about? Of course, to not be gossiped about.

February 2001

August 2004

Published April 2012