A friend of a friend of mine knew someone who knew someone who used to hang out with the beat poet Allen Ginsberg. So I have it on good authority, by a roundabout route straight from the horse's mouth, that Ginsberg used to say: "A secret is something you can only tell one person … at a time." I could tell you several other things that this friend of a friend passed on about Allen Ginsberg but … oh, go on, then ….
I mention all of this only because of a new scientific study which has proved that gossip is good for you. The experts at Amsterdam University found that up to nine out of 10 conversations are largely based on gossip, and that gossip is not necessarily malicious and can even be useful. According to Dr Bianca Beersma: "Gossip allows people to gather and validate information, to enjoy themselves with others, and to protect their group." Her study concentrated on office gossip, and concluded that it is mostly used to warn colleagues about others in the team who aren't pulling their weight (those spending nine out of 10 conversations gossiping, maybe).
Now, every office gossip knows that knowledge is power, especially when it is preceded by the words, "Now I shouldn't really tell you this, but …". There's a delicious frisson felt only in the moment of passing on to B what A doesn't want anybody to know, and will be mortified by when B inevitably tells C, and D.... But that sensation can be dangerously addictive. Office gossips who fall too deeply for the allure of passing on information will find that secrets are made up, and dripped their way, just to see how quickly they can sprint through the office spreading them around while everybody sniggers behind their backs. Thus, the gossip becomes gossiped about.
It is not only the powerless who use gossip to increase their social standing, though. One of the juicier bits of gossip unearthed by the Leveson enquiry was that Jack Straw and Rebekah Brooks, back when he was Justice Secretary and she was editor of The Sun, used to chum each other to work on the train from Oxfordshire, and "gossip about personalities" all the way to London. And what was the Leveson enquiry, after all, except a lot of people gossiping about who had been exposed for gossiping about somebody else?
Those who are reassured by the new scientific claims about gossiping may also be interested in a new book, Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain, by Michael Trimble. In it, Trimble argues that "emotional weeping is not only uniquely human, but universal", and examines research showing that most people feel better after a good cry. As someone who snivels at the drop of a hat, I deduce from this that cryers are more highly evolved and well balanced than our dry-eyed colleagues, and probably should be promoted.
From this we can all learn, then, that the gossipy, weepy office is a far more productive and happy one. Which is interesting, because you'll never believe who I saw bitching about someone and then blubbing about it the other day....