Cross Words: Careless whispers

Head to head Some think of gossip as an indispensable social tool: others, a pernicious means of tarnishing reputations. Author Robin Dunbar talks it over with Rabbi Telushkin
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"Everybody gossips. It's the tittle-tattle of life that makes the world go round, not the pearls of wisdom that fall from the lips of the Aristotles and Einsteins. About two thirds of conversation is about matters of social import - who is doing what with whom, and whether it's a good or a bad thing; who is in and who is out, and why; how to deal with a difficult social situation. Negative gossip actually accounts for a very small amount of time - less than 10 per cent. We gossip to oil the wheels of social relationships.

It performs very important functions. It allows you to keep track of, and influence, other people's reputations as well as your own; it's a way of advertising - `I'm looking for a partner'. It provides a system for seeking advice about how to handle difficult situations - `How do I get rid of my boyfriend' kind of stuff. It also performs a policing function: gossip ensures that `free riders' - those who take from society, but don't give - get a bad reputation. Gossip allows us to update our knowledge base. By enabling us to exchange information about people, it short-circuits the laborious process of finding out how they behave and what they are doing. For apes, all this has to be done by direct observation - if they don't see it they don't know about it - whereas the big advantage of humans is that to find out, we can ask - `Whatever happened to Fred?' If you don't allow us to talk about individuals then our ability to manage our relationships would go back to that of primates. Our circle of acquaintances would shrink from about 150 to 50. Not to gossip would mean the end of society! Absolutely."

Robin Dunbar is the author of `Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language' (Faber, pounds 7.99)


"Children say `Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me', but adults should know better. Gossip and the spreading of rumours are very destructive. There's no other area of life in which we so systematically violate the golden rule `Do unto others as you would have others do unto you'. If you were to walk into a room and hear people talking about you, what you would least like to hear them discussing are your character flaws and the intimate details of your social life, but it is just these things that we most enjoy talking about. Most gossip is not positive; you don't hear `Oh, did you know that so and so is a really wonderful person'. And making social norms known through gossip might be good, but the price that's paid is very bad. People become scared of what others are going to say, and so are often afraid to do anything different.

Try going for 24 hours without gossiping. If you can't, it means you've lost control of your tongue. Because words are intangible there's a tendency to underrate their significance. Think about your own life for a minute. Unless you, or someone dear to you, has been the victim of physical violence, chances are the worst pains you have suffered have come from words used cruelly. Words, quite simply, are powerful. They define our place in the world. Once our reputation is defined, it is very difficult to change. Which is why an old Jewish teaching compares the tongue to an arrow, because an arrow once shot cannot be returned. Similarly, the damage done by malicious gossip can never fully be undone."

Rabbi Telushkin is the author of `Words That Hurt, Words That Heal' and is campaigning for an annual `Speak No Evil Day' in the US