Those natters around the coffee machine do more than give you a thrill. They also hold society together. Glenda Cooper looks at why gossip is good for you
There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about - and that is not being talked about, said Oscar Wilde. For years his has been the lone voice standing up for the redemptive power of gossip. But not any more. An American professor of psychology has put forward the thesis that gossip is actually good for you. All those huddles in the corridor, whispers around the photocopier and gasps in the smoking room weren't in fact a way of idling away five minutes but a way of forming a cohesive social group.

Spreading information is a healthy exchange of ideas. It lets you determine who's "out" and who's "in". It can boost your career, or help you to make friends, according to Ralph Rosnow, professor of psychology at Temple University and co-author of the impressively titled Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay. "If people aren't talking about other people it's a signal that something is wrong - that we feel socially alienated or indifferent," Professor Rosnow told the magazine Psychology Today. "Gossip serves important social and psychological functions: it's a unifying force ... it's the social glue which holds us all together."

There is nothing new about gossip. According to anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar our whole language structure evolved because of the need to gossip (we once contented ourselves with grooming each other's fur). The word came from the Old English word "godsibb", meaning " a person related to one in God" or a godparent. Until the 1800s "gossip" meant a man who drank with friends and the camaraderie they shared, or a woman who was a family friend and helped out during childbirth.

According to Nigel Dempster, gossip columnist for the Daily Mail, gossip in its modern sense took off in the 18th and 19th centuries because "it was the only way that the populace knew what was going on, who was in a position of power". Since then we have not stopped blabbing, gabbing, and tittletattling. In his study of gossip among teenagers, Jeffrey G. Parker, assistant psychology professor at the University of Michigan, found that adolescents told secrets on average 18 times an hour, with gossip sometimes taking up as much as 50 per cent of their time. They were three times more likely to gossip about someone of their own sex than they were about someone of the opposite sex, and they were just as likely to talk about other people's relationships as about their own.

"Gossip allows an open channel of communication," said Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. "People are talking to one another, which is good. It also allows people to test their fears and fantasies out about positive or negative events in the workplace - such as who the new boss might be, is that department going to close, are we going to be taken over or merged?"

He said people may also start rumours to test their veracity. "You might say there are going to be a lot of redundancies, and wait to see what sort of a response you get back. Usually if it all goes very quiet and you don't get anything, people assume the rumour has to be true."

Spreading the word is also used as an important way of testing out social norms. Will everyone still accept you when they find out about your toyboy boyfriend/your anorak from C&A/your predilection for Brookside?

"In a sense it is right out of Nietzsche," said Professor Rosnow. "Gossip shepherds the herd. It says: these are the boundaries and you are not crossing them. You're not abiding by the rules and you had better get back in step."

"People use it as a way of finding out about themselves and the group," agreed Professor Cooper. "They see if that kind of behaviour is tolerated. For example a woman might be involved in a work affair or considering getting involved. She might use gossip about someone else to see whether or not that kind of behaviour is OK." It is also a great way of working out who is in whose gang. "It coalesces the group," said Professor Cooper. "By gossiping about an individual or a department, you can use it as a vehicle to team-build. It can be a very unconscious thing to do, but by spreading a rumour you help to develop a group feeling - you feel as if it's the group against the common enemy. By doing this the group becomes more cohesive and has a common identity, it becomes motivated by this negative object."

Researchers have found that both men and women gossip - they just do it in different ways. Research among college students conducted by Jacob Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Boston's Northeastern University, found that while women gossiped about people in their lives who were close to them, men's talk revolved around more remote figures such as politicians, sports figures or students they hardly knew.

Transport this to the workplace and the differences become even more pronounced, according to Cary Cooper. "Men see gossip as `exchanging information'. They don't gossip about personal things unless it is a way of putting someone down. Whereas a woman may use gossip as a way of establishing a personal relationship. It's a way of saying `I value you as a person so I'll tell you this'.

"But gossip remains primarily as a competitive tool. Say you're up for promotion against someone. You spread a rumour about them. `Did you hear about so-and-so? whisper whisper' and hope that it gets back to the boss.

"It can always be used in the other way - to boost yourself up. You can tell someone in strictest confidence that you've done really well, and hopefully that will spread as quickly."

While gossip may knit a group together, what happens to the person who is isolated? "If you are considered worthy enough to be buzzed about on the grapevine you are in," said Professor Rosnow. "If you have valuable information to share you are also in. But if you don't fit into either group then consider yourself out of the loop and out to lunch - alone."

Helen , a 32-year-old advertising executive, suddenly found herself the subject of office gossip. She only realised what had happened when a friend of hers working in another office 300 miles away rang to demand whether the titbit of sexual gossip she had heard was true.

"It was terrible," she said. "All my friends in London had heard about it. I'd walk into a room and see girls tittering in the corner. What do you do when you know something's not true?

"What really annoyed me was it was all the men who were doing it. They couldn't cope with a woman who had made it in her own right. But it was wrecking the relationship with the guy I was going out with, and it was very difficult at work. For the man it's just funny but for the woman it's not." In the end Helen decided the best form of defence was attack. "When the subject came up, I just smiled sweetly and said `From what I've heard about its size, it wouldn't be worth bothering.'"

Maybe the safest approach, then, is to return to the celebrities to feed our insatiable desire for other people's misdemeanours. The theories that psychologists put forward are all very well, but it is really much simpler - we talk about other people to make ourselves feel better, as the gossip columnists have known for years. "Gossip is for people who lead a humdrum life," says Nigel Dempster. "It's a way of taking you out of the seriousness of life."

As Professor Levin told Psychology Today, gossip "is the primary reason Bill Clinton is the President of the United States. If he wasn't a womaniser who owned up to his marital problems and claimed he failed to inhale he wouldn't have won."

So the mortgage may be crippling you, the kids are doing badly at school, the car won't start but look, Liz Taylor looks lousy first thing in the morning when she gets up, Jack Nicholson is going bald and Princess Diana may be the most photographed woman in the world but she has had bulimia, dodgy in-laws, James Hewitt and the nickname Squidgy. Life suddenly doesn't seem so bad in comparison.