Like Belgian Chocolate for the Universal Mind. Interpersonal and Media Gossip from an Evolutionary Perspective. (Charlotte De Backer)


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Who says what about whom?

An exploratory study on interpersonal gossip




In popular speech and according to most dictionaries gossip is defined as negative talk about absent others. The scientific research on gossip expands this definition by including more positive talk as well. However, this very general definition of gossip is difficult to use in scientific studies, because it embodies so many different aspects of this complex human trait. I have therefore proposed to make use of a classification system of gossip where different well defined and significant different sub classifications of gossip are distinguished, based on their different functions.


To explore whether this classification system reflects what is gossiped about in our modern daily gossip conversations, I here present an exploratory study on Interpersonal Gossip. Making use of qualitative focus group interviews, I asked 103 respondents of different ages about their opinion on some aspects of gossip. They were divided in 14 groups, controlling for sex and age. Using semi-directive questionnaires all interviews were secured to be similar. The questionnaires did not reflect my theoretical framework in order to avoid guiding the answers.


Results show that younger respondents regard gossip less negative than older respondents. Further I found indications of presence of all different kinds of gossip I distinguish for in our daily gossip conversations. Additional information shows that the respondents care for reliability of gossip sources, and are aware of potential retaliation threats of the gossipee, however not at the moment they gossip, but afterwards. Opinions about sex differences in gossip behavior are different for the different age groups.



1 Introduction


“I have worked predominantly as a participant observer; probably there is no other way of acquiring knowledge about gossip.” (Hannerz, 1967:45). Previous research on gossip has mainly focused on the methodological method of participant observation. In the 1960’s and 1970’s ethnographical research about gossip was popular. The research was embedded in the discussion between Max Gluckman and Robert Paine. Gluckman (1963) believed that gossip primarily served the interests of groups, while Paine (1967) suggested that individuals gossip only for their own benefit. Many have researched both premises through participant observation. Some researchers have studied different cultures to show that gossip acts as a system to bond groups together by social control or reinforcement of social norms (e.g. Abrahams, 1970; Bleek, 1976; Colson, 1953; Cox, 1970; Gilmore, 1978;  Gluckman, 1963, 1968; Handelman, 1973; Haviland, 1977; Percival, 2000). Others showed that gossip acts as a manipulative strategy (e.g. Abrahams, 1970; Besnier, 1989; Bleek, 1976; Cox, 1970; Emler, 1990, 1992, 1994; Kurland and Pelled, 2000; Paine, 1967). Participant observation remained a popular research method. For instance Eder and Enke (1991) also used participant observation to reveal the structure of gossip; how meaning is build up through social interaction.


Another technique used to research gossip is conversation analysis. Levin and Arluke (1985) analyzed conversations of students to find out about male/ female differences, and Dunbar, Marriott and Duncan (1997) used the same technique to analyze the gossiping behavior of working people.


Participant observation and conversation analyses are both qualitative research techniques, which are recommended when researching human behavior that is subject of social desirability. Although Wilson (1974) argued that the presence of a researcher might also damage the privacy of gossipers and lead to false conclusions. My main concern using observational research techniques to study gossip is that it is so hard to have knowledge about the context, which is crucial to understand gossip (see also chapter 1).

In this paper I also opt for a qualitative research method to investigate some aspects of gossip. However, I did not opt for participant observation, but for focus group interviews. Focus group interviews, or non-schedule-structured interviews have the advantage that questions can be very flexible, which is desirable in an exploratory stage of research. Interviewers have control over the situation, can (re)direct when necessary, which results in fuller information. Disadvantages of focused interviews are interviewer bias and lack of anonymity. Interviewer bias refers to how the interviewer affects the respondents’ answers (Frankfurt-Nachmias & Nachmias, 1996).



2 Methodology


In 2004 an exploratory study was conducted to examine the presence of different forms of Interpersonal Gossip in our daily conversations, and to explore some dynamics of gossip as an act in our modern daily interactions.


Fourteen graduate students co-operated in this project. Eight students were trained to moderate focus groups, the other six helped with tasks such as recruiting respondents, organizing the focus groups, transcribing the texts, and analyzing the results.


Since gossip is considered to be a human universal (Brown, 1991) and every individual engages in gossip sometimes, I did not restrict anyone from taking part in this study. The only restrictions I made for recruiting participants concerned sex and age groups. Because I wanted to look at sex differences in the tendency to gossip and in the gossiped about topics, I wanted to have an equal male/female distribution of respondents. And since I also wanted to look at age-related potential differences in gossip topics, I set up different age groups.


In total, 103 participants were distributed over fourteen focus groups. All focus groups were conducted in Ghent with people of different age groups. I recruited 30 adolescents (younger than age 18), 32 young adults (aged between 18 and 30), 23 adults (aged 30-45), 17 middle-aged adults (aged 46-60) and 15 elderly people living in an elderly home (all over 65 years old). For each age group I set up a group of only male participants, a group with only female participants and if possible an extra group of mixed participants (for an overview see table 1.1).


To group respondents for focus groups, 4 is considered as the minimum size for a group and 12 the upper limit, with 6-8 participants an ideal average size. Small groups might be less productive, and more influenced by group dynamics, while larger groups are harder to control and easily run out of hand (Morgan & Scannell, 1998). The group size of my focus groups varied from 5 participants to 10 participants, and most groups reached an ideal average size of 6-8 participants (see table 1.1).


All adolescents were recruited at the same school, the ‘Koninklijk Atheneum’ of Zelzate, Flanders Belgium. The elderly men were recruited from the elderly home ‘Sint-Jozef’ in Ghent, the elderly women were recruited from the elderly home ‘Rozendael Service Residentie’, also located in Ghent. To recruit all other respondents, I used snowball sampling: asking friends and family members to ask others. I always secured that respondents were administered to a group with a moderator and assistant they did not know. The students co-operating in this project also distributed adverts in public places, such as bakeries, bars, shops and so on. Last, adverts were also broadcasted by the Ghent University Student Radio, and two national radio channels, ‘Studio Brussel’ and ‘Q-music’. Most of the responses came from ‘snowball sampling’: students’ friends and family members bringing on other people.


For all interviews it was tried to make the setting ‘cozy’ and natural. Adolescents were interviewed at school, sitting in a circle in a class room. The young adults were interviewed at someone’s home. The other adults got invited at the Communication Studies Department, were conference rooms were transformed to nice breakfast places. The elderly people gathered in the cafeteria of their elderly home. To thank all of my respondents I gave the adolescents a small gift (CD-single), the young adults all got drinks and appetizers, the other adults got breakfast, and the elderly people cake and coffee.


To reduce the researcher bias and to standardize all interviews, all interviewers used a semi-directive questionnaire and a list of topics to discuss[6]. This semi-directive questionnaire did not reflect the theoretical framework wherein I frame the results of these interviews, but took a rather different form, again to reduce interviewers’ guidance of the answers.


Each focus group interview started with distributing a copy of a same media gossip magazine (Story) to all respondents. They were asked to skim through it and take notice of what caught their interest. This task was followed by the focus group interview that discussed following topics: (1) media gossip, (2) what gossip is about, (3) good gossip vs. bad gossip, (4) who we gossip with and about, (5) gossip and reliability, and (6) sex differences in gossip behavior. I started with questions about media gossip, to give the respondents the opportunity to get used to one another, and get to know each other a little bit, before discussing more private interpersonal gossip topics, where some degree of social desirability might be present. Results on the mass media gossip will not be discussed in this paper. I refer to paper 5 for this, where they will be discussed as part of an exploratory study on Media Gossip.


Table 1.1.      Overview of participants of focus groups according to age groups and sex



Age group



Female participants

Total participants

Focus group 1





Focus group 2





Focus group 3





Focus group 4

Young adults




Focus group 5

Young adults




Focus group 6

Young adults




Focus Group 7

Young adults




Focus group 8

Adults 30-45




Focus group 9

Adults 30-45




Focus group 10

Adults 30-45




Focus group 11

Adults 45-60




Focus group 12

Adults 45-60




Focus group 13





Focus group 14











In what follows I present the results of my focus group interviews on interpersonal gossip. I place these results in a theoretical framework that comprises ideas I proposed in chapter 1 through 6 of my theoretical part of my dissertation. I will refer to these chapters for the theoretical background, necessary to understand the results. I start my overview with some ideas I put forward in chapter 1; how we can define gossip in the most general sense.



3 The good, the bad, and the gossip


3.1 A very general definition of gossip


“Definitions of gossip will always be complex and controversial.” (Taylor, 1994: 34). In 1936 Henry Lanz published an article in which he compares ‘gossip’ with ‘the devil.’


Philologically the word “Devil”, Old English deofol , is derived from Greek diabolos (dia, “through,” and ballein, “to cast”), meaning “one who casts words,” “arguer,” “accuser,” “calumniator.” The Devil was originally associated with “sins of the tongue (Lanz, 1936: 492)


[s]trangely enough, the word gossip…points in the direction of heaven rather than the Devil (Lanz, 1936: 499)


This is because the word ‘gossip’ has not always had a negative connotation. Until the 19th century the noun ‘gossip’ referred to a mode of friendly conversation (Spacks, 1985). ‘Gossip’ is derived from the old English word godsibb, meaning ‘godparent’ or ‘godfather’. During the Elizabethan period (16th-17th centuries) gossip referred to male relationships involving friends gathering in bars and raising the glass. The female variant of gossip referred to the gathering of family and friends during childbirth to socialize and support the new mother.


Nowadays most dictionaries give a rather negative definition of gossip. For instance, the current definition of ‘gossip’ according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary ( is :



1 a dialect British : GODPARENT b : COMPANION, CRONY c : a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others
2 a : rumor or report of an intimate nature b : a
chatty talk c : the subject matter of gossip


The Dutch variant ‘roddel’ is defined according to Van Dale’s dictionary ( as follows:

Rod·del (gossip as a noun)

1 kwaadsprekerij => achterklap, gekonkel, gekonkelfoes, gossip, kletspraat, roddelpraat (evil talk)

2 onwaar bericht, geval van roddel => kletspraatje, roddelpraatje (untrue message)


Rod·de·len (gossip as a verb)

1 met genoegen praten over anderen, m.n. in ongunstige zin => iem. over de tong halen, kletsen, konkelen (talking about other with joy, but in negative sense)


This rather negative view on how to define gossip differs from the scientific discourse on the definition of gossip. Today there are countless definitions of gossip in the social sciences. Because language can be used to communicate on an enormous variety of topics, I do not believe that there is a single definition of gossip, nor do I find it surprising that there are a number of theories of gossip (see Foster 2004 for a review).  What is surprising is the degree to which different definitions and theories of gossip, even those developed from the study of a range of diverse cultures (e.g. Abrahams 1970; Besnier 1989; Brenneis 1984, 1987; Colson 1953; Cox 1970; Gilmore 1978; Goodwin 1990a,b; Haviland 1977), overlap with one another. Most researchers agree that gossip is intimately related to reputation and the doings of others (e.g. Hannerz, 1967; Bromley, 1988), and plays a central role in community dynamics. Some researchers limit the definition of gossip to talk about absent others (e.g. Arno, 1980; Ayim, 1994; Bergmann, 1993; Eder & Enke, 1991; Gelles, 1989; Morreall, 1994; Nevo & Nevo, 1993). Rosnow and Fine (1974), however, believe gossip occurs regardless of the presence or absence of its subjects. Others go a step further to suggest that one can gossip about oneself (Dunbar, 1998a,b; Fox, 2001; Hess and Hagen 2002b, 2004b). 


I use the term gossip in the very general sense as:


Information about the deviant or surprising (which both depend on the context) traits and behaviors of a (or more) third person(s) (most often non-present, but potentially present in the conversation), where the sender has true/false knowledge of the gossip content.


To get some notice of how this definition contrasts from the common sense definition, and to see whether people can agree on defining gossip so general, I interviewed my respondents about this.


3.2 Respondents’ view on gossip in general


What is gossip about? When first asked this question my respondents spontaneously replied ‘behaviors’ of others, and also ‘personal traits’.  But not just any behavior or trait, as they report:


Behaviors of others, but only if it is a remarkable behavior (Male young adult)

Personal traits you do not expect and that do… (Male young adult)

Things you could not predict (Male young adult)


These responses reflect the restrictions I added to my general definition of gossip. Gossip is either surprising, or if it is not unexpected it reports about deviant behavior. As one young adult reported, gossip can be about someone’s predictable regular behavior pattern that is different from what any other average person does. For instance if slapping each others back is not a regular habit of people in your surrounding and someone always slaps you on the back, this is gossiped about:


For instance, someone who always does the same thing, can also be gossip. Each time as he walks in, for instance and this person slaps you on the back and says “hey how are you” (Female young adult).


In my general definition of ‘gossip’ both good talk and bad talk is embodied. Next to truthful information also lies get labeled as ‘gossip’, as long as the sender has true/false knowledge. To explore how people feel about this very general definition of gossip I asked my 103 respondents to define gossip. I opened up the debate whether gossip is good, bad or both, and whether gossip is about lies or truthful information. Most of my participants tended to answer that gossip is ‘bad talk about absent others’. This opinion seems to reflect how ‘gossip’ is defined in nowadays dictionaries (see above). However, as one of my respondents reflects:


But there is a difference between what they write in dictionaries and how people use it. If people say ‘gossip’ they refer to bad talk. But gossip in general can be good as well. (Male young adult).


I noticed that my respondents’ attitude changed as the discussion developed, admitting that gossip is not only bad talk. Further, I also noticed some differences according to age and sex. Adolescent girls were milder in their opinion about ‘what gossip is about’. In their opinion ‘gossip’ can both be bad talk and more innocent chitchat.


Gossip is talking bad about others (Female adolescent)


To which another girl replies:


No, it is not always bad talk. If I for instance say to Jennifer: “look she is wearing such a nice dress”, it is no bad talk isn’t it? (Female adolescent).


To which another female adolescent replies:


Yes, you can also just chitchat, gossip magazines do the same, like “she is wearing the same clothes as so and so”. (Female adolescent).


Young adults and other adults as well admitted that gossip can both be good and bad talk about others, but added that bad talk is more easily associated with ‘gossip’. Innocent chitchat is not always ‘gossip’ in their opinion:


I would say it is more general. When it is negative yes [it is gossip] but also telling more objective facts is gossip. True things but you do not pass on everything: you say “have you heard…” and whether it is good or bad about that person, you pass it on. (Male adult).


To which another man replies:


Obviously it doesn’t matter for Marc if it is good or bad [talk], if it is true or not. He labels it  all as gossip. For me, personally, gossip is evil talk, bad talk. I go along with Ellen [and others]. You can talk about someone, like Jennifer says, when something has happened in a relation or with a friend and you take your time for that. You really explain something to a third person. And that does not need to be gossip. I think gossip mainly occurs in the daily superficial context like when we talk about the weather, but actually with a negative intention to talk bad about someone (Male adult).


Last, elderly people were most negative in their opinion about the definition of gossip. They all agreed that gossip is bad talk and they did not change their opinion as the debate developed:


Gossip is bad. And if gossip is about lies it is even worse. One of he worst things of our modern times. Bad talk about others that are lies, if the information is not true, that is real gossip, isn’t it… And he did this and he did that and he did so and so, I so detest this gossip. (Elderly man).


In sum, the reflection of my respondents on what gossip is about, shows that gossip is mostly seen as ‘bad talk’ about surprising events. Although all admit that gossip is more than just bad talk and also represents more innocent chitchat, most respondents have mixed feelings to use gossip to refer to innocent talk. Of course the fact that dictionaries label gossip as ‘bad talk’ does not contribute to changing people’s ideas. As long as the dictionaries won’t change their definition, I think it is idle hope to belief people will start concerning gossip as both good and bad talk about others.


Remarkable, however, is that the connotation of ‘gossip’ becomes more negative as the age of my respondents increases. Adolescents, and especially young girls, do not regard gossip as negative as young adults and older adults do. And elderly people have the most negative feelings towards gossip.


In chapter 5 I have explained that what is known as the ‘negativity bias’ explains that people are more drawn to negative news and events, and remember this better (e.g. Ito, Larsen, Smith & Cacioppo, 1998; Lupfer, Weeks & Dupuis, 2000; Rozin and Royzman, 2001; Taylor, 1991). The negativity bias might explain why humans have such a negative view on gossip as their age increases. As age increases, respondents probably remember negative experiences with gossip better and stronger, which might cause negative feelings to increase with age. However, since this is just an exploratory study, I can only report indications of this to be true. Additional research is necessary to falsify or proof this prediction.


4 A classification of gossip according to functional design


In chapter 4 I suggested to classify gossip as an overall noun in smaller sub definitions that can be easily operationalized. Starting from the most general definition of gossip I suggested that a first classification level is best funded on the focus of the information and the role of the gossipee. If the focus lies on the behavioral information and the role of the gossipee is minor I talk about Strategy Learning Gossip (see also below). If the gossipee has a more central role, and if the behavior or traits gossiped about cannot be detached from this gossipee, I talk about Reputation Gossip. For details about how I came to this classification system I refer to chapter 4. In what follows, I will summarize how I define the different kinds of gossip and present some indicative results that show how all different kinds of gossip I classified are present in our current daily conversations.


4.1 Strategy Learning Gossip


To start this overview of the presence of the different kinds of gossip I classified in chapter four, let me shortly resume what Strategy Learning Gossip is about. Strategy Learning Gossip (SLG) concerns information about the fitness-relevant behavior strategies of other people from which receivers can learn how to behave and how not to behave in the future. I differentiated between Survival-SLG, Mating-SLG and Social-SLG. The first concerns information about how to improve or secure your survival. Strategies that clearly benefit your fitness or strategies that have clear fitness-endangering outcomes. Mating-SLG transmits information that can be helpful in solving problems in the context of mating. The trial-and-error strategies of others can teach us how to act and not act in the future when faced with a mating problem. Social-SLG is information about which behavior strategies are beneficial and harmful in the context of living with, and interacting with other people. Social-SLG teaches us about norms, values and social contracts.


In what follows I now overview the responses from my interviewees that indicate the presence of SLG in their daily conversations. I overview all kinds of SLG together, and will mention the differences when necessary. In general my respondents did not mention very much about gossip as a learning strategy. Most results stem from answers and discussions from older, adult respondents. But I will start with presenting what adolescents and young adults talked about that indicates they use SLG to solve daily problems of mating and social issues. A female young adult I interviewed explained explicitly that gossip sometimes is more about situations than about specific gossipees:


For instance last weekend. At my boyfriend’s place they run a business and everyone is always very occupied and running around, and ok I do understand. But I had asked him, well for the gala dance this Friday “Well will you join me?” and he was like “I do not know yet.” He asked his dad who replied “Well I don’t know, you have to ask your step mom.” And then she to another person and so on. Finally I told this to my close friend like “Gosh I really hate he has to ask such and so.” But actually I gossip about the situation and not about a specific person. In the end I might be talking about people, but they actually do not matter.  And I think this happens to us a lot at school: you talk about situations, and people are mentioned, but in the end… well this is gossip as well. And I think that we, women, are actually not talking about other people, but just about this you know. Don’t you? Well, we discuss situations, and I just think… yes well these persons are mere characters, and in the end it just matters that you want to clear out a situation. And we women consider this to be gossip, while men do not call this gossip. In principle men talk about this as well, I guess,… (Female young adult).


What she reports about clearly is SLG: exchanging information about how others deal with problems, to know which strategy to use in the future. The example she gave concerned Mating SLG and Social SLG. She gossiped with her friend to learn how to deal with her boyfriend and his family members. Another male young adult added to this that especially girls gossip to solve problems about mating situations:


To give a concrete example, there was this girl and something had happened with her and her boyfriend. Well then she went to tell others like “My boyfriend treats me like this and that”. And other girls will reply “Oh yes, but my boyfriend does the same, and all boys are like that and so and so”. Men do not say such things to each other. Well yes, they will say “I did this and that” (Male young adult).


Even though this male young adult accounts this to be typical for girls, other male adolescents I interviewed reported to also gossip about mating problems with a focus on the situation:

Yes, we discuss if she [girlfriend or someone else’s girlfriend] complains a lot! Yes, women, they complain and complain! (Male adolescent).

Yes, we talk about our miseries with women (Male adolescent)

From hearing others I now know I have always had bad relations (Male adolescent).


Other than talking about how they exchange information about strategies to use to solve mating problems, adolescents also reported about other forms of SLG. More specific, they informed that they exchange information with each other on how to solve problems when babysitting others’ children. They also classify this as gossip, and I would classify this as Strategy Learning Gossip, and more specific as Mating-SLG. Parenting skills are important in the context of mating; knowing how to be a good parent and being a good parent increases your mate value.


Well, like, I went babysitting last weekend, and then I talk about what happened. The troubles I had, the baby that was ill, or about the parents’ behavior, they were home early, a bit of everything (Female adolescent).


Besides indicating that they exchange Mating-SLG adolescents and young adults also talked about how they exchange gossip information that fits into Social-SLG. Gossip that informs individuals about social norms and how to behave. One female young adult told a personal experience. Being non-careful she had run over a shoe rack, which injured the owner of the shop rather badly. In the end her parents had to pay a large sum of money for the incident. This kind of information warns others to be careful in the future, because non-carefulness can end up rather costly:


It can also be about stupid things huh. I once ran over a shoe rack in a store, with all very expensive shoes that fell off and an expensive vase fell on the floor as well. My parents had to pay like half a million to reimburse the shop owner! And they gossiped about this a lot (Female young adult).


Further, adolescent respondents reported that they learn what others’ norms and values are through gossip. By talking about others they mention to learn what is appropriate to do to fit in a certain group and what you better not do to appear good in the eyes of others. If for instance all girls wear pants and someone walks in wearing a miniskirt they will gossip about the girl wearing the miniskirt because it is ‘so not done’ as they say. Gossiping about others teaches the receivers how they best behave to be merited in the eyes of the sender.


You know, if he says to you “That is already the third time she has a new boyfriend”, well then you know that this person does not like people who often switch boyfriends. You get to know this person better, you learn about his values and norms and you learn what is good and what is bad according to them (Female adolescent).

Of the respondents I interviewed, the older adults reported most of all on how they used gossip as a learning-mechanism. Their use of SLG concerns solving problems of mating, and social problems, with a high focus on parenting problems. This of course is due to the fact that most of the interviewed adults are parents themselves. Adults also debated about the different value of good things that happen to other people and bad things that happen to others. They all agreed that negative information has a higher value. This is in line with the theory about our negativity bias, as I explained earlier. Negative events have a higher impact, and therefore information about how to avoid danger appeals more than information about how to promote success.


I tend to focus on behavior in general, also for my job. Behaviors like how others react in a certain situation. In my private life as a mom of two children this happens with friends as well: How do they deal with their kids in such a problematic situation, again this is about behaviors of others (Female adult).


I think we constantly learn through gossip. It can be something small, a small hint, like when you hear something and you say to yourself ‘Well I have never thought of that before” It can be small things. About living habits, eating habits, appearance, clothes, doing the laundry and so on. “You can solve this doing this and other tips”. (Female middle-aged adult).


Yes we talk about marriages, pregnancies, divorces, and other things that happen to other people. It is something both men and women do; it cannot be separated as typical for women or men (Female young adult).


Lastly few elderly people I interviewed reported about Strategy Learning Gossip that focuses on events:


I guess we gossip more about events huh… not about people, we do not gossip about people, well not bad… (Elderly man).


For elderly people mating-SLG has little relevance. As I will mention in the next section as well, elderly people feel that mating problems and pleasures are no longer of their concern. Social-SLG has greater relevance for them. Learning how to behave is relevant. Especially for the elderly people I interviewed, because they all recently moved into a new social environment (elderly homes) where new rules need to be learned. Their responses however did not explicitly indicate that they use gossip as a learning mechanism. But the fact that they gossip about others who violate social norms, as I will discuss later under Cheater Detection Reputation Gossip, indicates that they are focused on information about rules and norms. And since they share information about norm-violators, they automatically learn and corroborate their knowledge on what is appropriate to do and how they best behave and not behave.


However, highest relevance for elderly people might stem from Survival-SLG, and especially SLG about health and health problems. My elderly interviewees reported to gossip a lot about other people’s illnesses. They indicated that they talk both about who was ill, which is person-related gossip, and the illnesses in se, which is of course SLG.


In sum, SLG seems to occur in the daily conversations of both men and women of all ages. Adolescents and young adults exchange most Mating-SLG. Older adults seem to be the biggest consumers of SLG, with a special interest for SLG about parenting skills. The elderly people I interviewed reported almost nothing about SLG, yet these are some indications that Social SLG about rules and Survival SLG about health is present in their gossip conversations.

In my view of gossip as a learning mechanism, and especially for Strategy Learning Gossip, I focus on how we can learn from the content of gossip. What I haven’t focused on in my theoretical approach to gossip, and what the interviewees have made clear is that learning also stems from the reactions of gossip receivers. Senders of gossip learn as well, when they notice that receivers approve or disapprove the gossiped about traits and behaviors of others.


You can learn something yourself from the reactions of others. I personally experience this with my boyfriend. When I tell him things and he reacts like “What does this do to you? Don’t bother about that too much, what that person did is not worth it!” and then I realize like, yes he is right, I should not care too much about what other people do to each other. You learn from others’ reactions (Female adult).


In the behavioral models, which I presented in chapter 5, I have not taken into account the aspect that senders’ motivation to share SLG might be to get return-knowledge. In the future it might be useful and worthy though to consider this aspect of sharing SLG as well.


4.2 Mating Gossip in everyday life


At the first level of classification I mention Reputation Gossip (RG) next to Strategy Learning Gossip. Reputation Gossip concerns information about the traits and behaviors attached to a specific person (gossipee). Replacing the gossipee with another subject changes the value of RG. Reputation Gossip can be further classified in smaller sub categories. Some of the specific kinds of RG function to inform receivers about information about specific persons. Reputation Gossip therefore also has a learning function, but a different one from SLG in the sense that we learn about people, while with SLG we learn about strategies. Besides this learning function, RG also functions to manipulate the reputations of gossipees. On a general level I classify RG in Mating RG and Social RG. I start here with the first, and later turn to the latter.

Mating RG functions to inform us about the reputation as a sexual partner of specific others and to manipulate these reputations. In my interviews I asked general questions about gossip, focusing on the difference between good and bad gossip. I did not focus as much on the different categories of gossip. This to ensure I did not manipulate my respondents too much in the direction of this theoretical framework.


Adolescents and young adults spontaneously mentioned how they gossip about boyfriends and girlfriends, sexual rivals, and who sleeps around with whom. Older adults I interviewed as well admitted that a lot is gossiped about relationships. Different from the adolescents and young adults, older adults’ Mating Gossip focuses more on existing relations and troubles within relationships. Elderly people I interviewed did not report to gossip about sexual relationships. It is not of their interest, or as an elderly woman told me: “This is not for us anymore”.


In sum, Mating-RG as well as Mating-SLG are forms of gossip that seem to occur most in the conversations of adolescents and young adults. As age increases, the engagement in such gossip seems to decrease.


4.2.1 Mates Detection Reputation Gossip: who is a good mate


As I explained in chapter 4, section Mates Detection RG concerns information that solves the problem of finding good potential mates. Mates Detection RG focuses on the reputation of men and women as sexual partners. It subsists of information about their ‘mating skills’. Are they good or bad sexual partners?


As I outlined in chapter 4 as well (section 3) what men and women value for potential partners differentiates. Physical appearance is important for both men and women, but in general men pay more attention to the physical appearance of potential female partners. Women, both in their search for short-term and long-term partners pay more attention to the ability and willingness of investment of male potential partners (Buss, 1994). I therefore expect that Mates Detection RG about female gossipees will focus more on beauty aspects, while Mates Detection RG about male gossipees will focus more on investment abilities and willingness.

When focusing on what our respondents answered on the different aspects of gossip I asked them about, I did find some support for presence of Mates Detection RG in everyday conversations, and mainly among the younger respondents. Adolescents report to gossip quite a lot about mating reputations of other school mates. They do not say this explicitly, but mention to talk a lot about the expensive gadgets of boys and the looks of other girls. These reflect status and beauty, which in evolutionary terms are crucial cues used to estimate the value of potential partners. What strikes though, is that a lot more attention is paid to the physical appearance of adolescent girls than to the investment abilities of boys. All adolescents we interviewed reported talking more about the looks of girls. And both good looks and bad looks are discussed:


How they look. And mainly about girls (Male adolescent).

If she is beautiful yes (Male adolescent).

And if she is ugly as well (Male adolescent).


Among the young adults I interviewed, not much was talked about Mates Detection RG. Their answers indicated that more is talked about Mating Structure RG, which I turn to in the next section.


Still, talking about physical appearances remains a popular topic among young adults and older adults. And even elderly people indicate that a lot is gossiped about the clothes of others, especially other women. Some of the adult women I interviewed even claim that physical appearance becomes a more discussed about topic as age increases. They report that looks and health issues become of great significance at a certain age, and this is reflected in gossip conversations.


That less attention is paid to the investment capacities of adolescents and young adults might simply be due to the fact that adolescents and young adults do not yet earn a lot of money, and have not yet accumulated many possessions. In the responses of our older adults, I did find some more support for people gossiping about the wealth of others. Especially if others have abundant wealth and seem to spend a lot of money, this will be gossiped about:


Yes we gossip about money. I sometimes think by myself, when looking in my own wallet “Jeez, they must earn so much more, the way they spend their money”, yes these are things I talk about. (Female middle-aged adult, all others female middle-aged adults agreed on this).


4.2.2 Mating Structure Reputation Gossip: who sleeps with whom


Where Mates Detection RG focuses on the reputations of men and women as good potential partners, Mating Structure RG is the other key to solve problems of finding potential mates. In our search it is not only important to know who is a potential good mate or not. Being single can be considered as a Mates Detection RG topic, but as important to know is who is not single and who is dating whom. Poaching (attracting someone who is already committed to someone else) occurs both with men and women, say Schmitt and Buss (2001). But one does not steal just anyone from anyone. Mating Structure RG functions to update people about the sexual ties of members of someone’s social network.


In my interviews, I only found reflections of this form of Mating Gossip in the answers of adolescents and young adults. They reported to talk a lot about who is dating someone and who is still, or again single. Such gossip spreads fast, they also add:


This can go really fast!... Yes it goes really fast! If you arrive at school and you are dating someone for only a day, by lunchtime the whole school knows about this. So only about two hours it takes, or maximum a day or so (Female adolescent).


In a small town such news spreads very fast. We once did a little experiment. we told that our male scout leader had an affair with our female scout leader. That was around 9.30am. The girl went home at 11.30am and her mom already knew! So fast these things pass on (Male young adult).


I once went out with some people from work [weekend job] and got along very well with Caro, who is like 27 years old. I stayed over at her house. And yes we slept in the same bed. But nothing happened. And the next week everyone was saying things like “Are those together and blablabala” (laughs) The whole neighborhood knew. They all thought I would be the dad of her new child. Her kid is six years old! But he is cute though (Male adolescent).

Many of my family members play volleyball. And it once was spread around that I had an affair with one of the players. It even reached my parents, and my mom kept on asking me “Ellen, don’t you need to tell me something?” This continued for months and months. My whole family was talking about it. Really annoying (Female adolescent).


The older adults and elderly people I interviewed did not mention facts that indicate they gossip about who sleeps with whom a lot. For elderly people the reason might simply be that Mating Gossip in general is not of their interest anymore, as I already mentioned earlier. For older adults Mating Structure RG might have less relevance, since at their age many have long-term established relationships, which do not change dramatically anymore. Adults most probably have good knowledge about who is dating whom and need to be updated less about this kind of information.


4.2.3 Intrasexual Conflict Reputation Gossip: female warfare


Intrasexual Conflict RG concerns information that functions to update us about and manipulate sexual rivals. As explained in chapter 4, section 3.6.2, I mentioned Sexual Rival Detection RG and Sexual Rival Slander RG. The first functions to inform individuals about who is a sexual rival. The second, Sexual Rival Slander RG is information that functions to decrease the mating reputation of a same-sex rival. As explained in chapter 4, section 3.3, Buss and Schmitt (1993) predicted that women will slander other rival women by attacking their physical appearance, while men will slander other men’s reputation as potential mate by criticizing their abilities and willingness to invest and commit. This is a very manipulative form of gossip, with the clear function to manipulate the sexual reputation of gossipees, and with the special note that these manipulations are all directed towards decreasing reputations, and are not at all about increasing reputations. Hess and Hagen (2002) have argued that this slanderous form of gossip is especially present among girls. Girls do not engage in physical aggression as easily as boys do, and their reputations are more vulnerable. Slanderous gossip to ruin the reputation of same-sex competitors, Hess and Hagen (2002) say, is an ideal tool to combat same-sex rivals in the search for a potential mate.


Looking at the interviewees’ responses, this slanderous form of gossip occurs in the responses of adolescents and young adults. Again, elderly people did not mention anything about this negative form of Mating Reputation Gossip. Older adults’ responses hardly reflected anything either, but as one woman explained to me, this might be due to the fact that once you have established a good relationship, you feel less insecure and do not have that urge to slander potential rivals:


When it comes to sexual relations, you calm down as you grow older, because you become more secure. If you are at the beginning of a relationship you pay much more attention to slanderous gossip. It also depends on your character of course, how jealous you are. A little bit is healthy! (Female adult).


My younger respondents (adolescents and young adults) who still are searching for a potential mate, or are at the beginning of a relationship, did report about their slanderous use of gossip, and as predicted by Hess and Hagen (2002) (see also chapter 4, section, girls make more use of this gossip strategy than boys:


Yes, I think that women, well for instance when they are interested in a guy [as a potential mate], well they gossip about that other woman who might be able to get that guy as well, they make sure she is pictured negatively and then this other women will start gossiping as well, so she raises her chances of winning this guy (Male young adult).


In the second grade I was in love with this guy, but he already had a girlfriend. This girlfriend was telling everyone I was a junk and so. I did not gossip about her but simply stole her boyfriend (Female adolescent).

Last week, they said I was dressed like a whore, while I was wearing trousers and a sweater. I did not react when I heard (Female adolescent).


I think that girls gossip more because they envy each other, boys do the same, but girls do it more often, I think (Male young adult).


Women really hate each other (Male young adult).


Also like “Her hair looks bad”, you hear this more often coming from girls than boys. What do I care if someone’s hair looks bad? Mine always looks bad (Male young adult).

I think women more often battle their struggles with gossip. While men, if they have arguments, well they say this straight to the person himself, and if necessary they start a fight, huh. I think girls will never directly hit someone (Male young adult).


This last quote literally summarizes what Hess and Hagen (2002) predicted about the slanderous use of gossip in sexual conflicts. Physical aggression is too costly for girls to engage in, and gossip is a safer way for them to battle same-sex conflicts, while men can have bigger benefits from battling these conflicts physically.


4.2.4 Mates Control Reputation Gossip


The last form of Mating RG I searched for in the answers of our respondents is Mates Control RG. Mates Control RG concerns information about the cheating behavior of men and women. As explained in chapter 4 (section 3.4) Buss (1994) and Schmitt (Buss & Schmitt, 1993) have shown that sex differences in jealousy exist. Men tend to be more jealous of the sexual cheating of their female partner, and women seem to experience greater feelings of jealousy when their male partner cheats on them by forming emotional ties with other women.


I defined Mates Control RG information that functions to signal the cheating behavior of one’s partner or the partner of an ally. And I also expect above described sex differences to reflect in Mates Control RG with women being more often gossipees of Mates Control RG about the sexual cheating, and men being more subject of Mates Control RG about emotional cheating.

However, in all the responses and discussions of my interviewees I hardly found anything mentioned about Mates Control RG. For the elderly respondents this is again no surprise, as Mating Gossip in general is as good as non-present in their conversations. That adolescents and students did not report about Mates Control RG might simply be due to the fact that the adolescents and young adults I interviewed were not yet seriously committed and tuned to guard their own and friends’ partners. The most remarkable fact is that Mates Control RG was not mentioned by older adults, of whom most are committed in long-term relationships. A possible explanation might be, that the people we interviewed did not have troublesome relations, as one woman told me (see citation above under Intrasexual Conflict RG). What might be another plausible reason is social desirability. It might be that my respondents did not want to share such intimate information with other respondents they hardly knew.

To end this section, I present one quote of a young boy who did report how Mates Control RG was of great significance for his brother’s relation:


I once heard my brother’s girlfriend broke up with him because she had heard that he slept

with three other girls in one night! (Male adolescent).


4.3 Social Reputation Gossip in everyday life


Social Reputation Gossip, as I explained in chapter 4, section 4.4, functions to inform us about the reputations of other individuals we interact with: about our social network members. Besides this, Social RG also manipulates the reputations of ourselves and our social network members. I make a difference between Co-operation RG, Alliance RG, Kin Structure RG, and Calibration RG.


4.3.1 Co-operation Reputation Gossip


Co-operation RG functions to update receivers about who is a cheater and who is an altruist and to manipulate the co-operative reputations of gossipees. Cheaters will be punished by a decrease of their reputation and a decrease of future co-operation opportunities. Altruists will be praised with an increase of their co-operative reputation and an increase in future co-operation opportunities.


In the answers of all focus groups I found reflections of Co-operation RG, with a center of attention to Cheater Detection RG. All of my respondents reported to use gossip to signal the cheating behavior of others.


Yes I think for instance that if a friend steals a bike, you might spread this around, but it has not affected you personally, and it is nothing more than a message you share (Female young adult).

If you had a bad experience with someone, you might have the impulsive reaction to share this with someone else. Because of this, the person you tell this to will change his image of that person to a more negative image, and associate this person with the negative event. In such a way it [gossip] is negative, isn’t it? (Female young adult).


They all reported as well that the interest was biggest when the cheating behavior had affected themselves or family members or friends.


My former neighbor always let his dog poop in my garden! I even asked him to stop doing this, but it didn’t help. At a certain moment I took my spade, grabbed the dog poop with it, and put in at his front door. “Here you go madam, your dog left this in my garden” I said. And I was telling this to someone last week and this person knew my old neighbor! (Male middle-aged adult ).


Yes if someone harms you (Female adolescent).

Or if they harm your friends (Female adolescent)

When they harm a good friend of mine or harm me (Female adolescent).


But if it has threatened you yourself, or if it has irritated you, I think you will be even more negative about it. While when it is neutral, you just say it like it is (Female young adult)


Yes I also think that if you feel personally threatened and you tell this to other people, you might add extra things to justify your story. You do this more often when the person has harmed you and not another person (Female young adult).


Mostly in situations when you feel hurt, when you think this is not possible (Female young adult)


Yes and mainly when the behavior [of the gossipee] is directed towards you, towards good friends, or towards your family. I think as soon as you feel your close environment is threatened, you start gossiping (Female young adult).


This is something I will very easily share with my friends, like “Be careful of that person, because he did this and that”, I do this to protect my friends (Female adult).


Sometimes it happens; you have a conflict with someone or whatever. And this bothers you. And then you see someone else and you have to tell. It is not necessary because you want to gossip, sometimes it happens unconsciously. It is an emotional state you have to share with others (Female adult).


We went on a weekend-trip with 21 women. It is already difficult; because she wants this and someone else wants that. We don’t have a car, so if we travel we travel by train, and we had all agreed to take the train to Oostende, with a switch in Bruges. We only had to switch trains once, and even on the same platform and still there was this one women who wanted to take an earlier train. But then we had to switch twice and we had all agreed to take that train. After that weekend we all gathered and gossiped about this person, because she bothered us all weekend. She always disagreed and wanted to complicate things! (Female middle-aged adult).


People who have hurt you, get biased in your opinion. You only focus on their negative side on the long run. And I always think like this is not correct, but that’s how he or she is (Female middle-aged adult).


For the older adults we interviewed, Cheater Detection RG is of great relevance on the work floor, if colleagues are treated unequally, or perform bad:


When I started at my job, I just found out that a woman who had an affair with the boss got a promotion because of the affair. Is this mean to tell? No it is reality (Male young adult).


One of our respondents also pointed to the difference between Cheater Detection RG and other forms of negative manipulative gossip. Manipulative gossip results in a decrease of the gossipees’ reputations, but Cheater Detection RG has the extra punishment factor of lowering future co-operative opportunities. As a male adult reported:


Talking bad can have very practical consequences. I mean, in the context of our jobs, when it is about the professional behaviors of others and someone did something wrong. Yes, the so called bad-talk then serves to clear out a situation and solve the problem. If we just talk about personal traits and highlight the bad characteristics of someone, this I different. It then might be just talking bad without real consequences. If someone used a fault procedure, or lets someone else do all the work he or she is supposed to do, well then bad talk has the specific goal to change that situation. While in other situations, no consequences are attached to the bad talking. Then it is just bad talking and nothing more (Male adult).


Cheater Detection RG is a control mechanism. Confronting a cheater with his or her bad behavior might still be a better solution to solve the problems, but as one of our respondents reported, we not always dare to walk up to those who have harmed us. Gossip can be an ideal strategy, this person says, to find support among others before walking up to the cheater himself or herself. Cheater Detection RG then comes close to Ally Maintenance RG, which I discuss later.


I think gossip can act as a form of social control, you seek support. Maybe you want to tell the person, but first you seek others to support you, so you can say like “Look we all think that what you did is not correct…”I think a lot of gossip is needed before you dare to say such things. So eventually the person will be confronted with what he or she did, but much later (Female adult).


Still, even though we might fear to label others as cheaters, my respondents indicate that no one escapes Cheater Detection RG. Even those who are close to us, like our family, friends and other allies are sometimes gossipees of our Cheater Detection RG exchange:


Yesterday, I had just finished cleaning the house, and he [referring to her husband] came in, about fifty times with his bike! And this really upsets me and then I go and tell my girlfriends “He really annoys me doing this”, yes I really do (hilarious laughter of other women) (Female middle-aged adult).


Yes, I also gossip about my children if they have done something wrong! (Female adult).


Among the elderly people I interviewed, Cheater Detection RG seems to be very common. Living in sheltered housing implies some rules to the residents, and from what the interviewed elderly people reported, they all control if others follow up on these rules or not, even when it is about simple rules, like wearing your shoes or arriving at breakfast on time:


To give you an example, the guy who sits next to you does not wear his shoes when he is not leaving the house. And then this other lady will always say like “He is not wearing shoes, he never wears shoes” She thinks he has to wear shoes, but isn’t it his own right not to wear shoes? (Elderly man)


Such things like I told you already, like arriving at 7.30am for breakfast while we are only expected for breakfast at 7.45am! The personnel does not say anything about this, but she [other elderly woman] does all the time “It is not 7.30am but 8am you have to arrive” (Elderly man).


And to end this overview of my respondents’ opinion about Cheater Detection RG, I mention that it gives some respondents the feeling of relieve, at least as a student reports:


If something really bad happened that affects you, or irritates you and you tell this to other people who agree on this, well then I feel relieved. I feel good about it afterwards (Female young).


4.3.2 Ally Detection Reputation Gossip


Ally Detection RG, which I discussed more in detail in chapter 4, section functions to inform individuals about the skills of other individuals in their social surroundings. Based on this skill information, individuals can then make decisions about who to regard as a friend or ally, who can be a rival or enemy and who they place in a neutral position.

I hardly found any indications for the presence of Ally Detection RG. The only answer I could frame under Ally Detection RG came from a middle-aged adult woman who reported that a lot was gossiped about the new boss of their firm. They were announced that they would have a new boss, and this person was on a trial period for a moment, he was a new member of the group, and many gossiped to get to know this person better, because they were insecure how this would affect them in the future.


At our school we had this new director. He was on a trial period, and we all gossiped a lot about him. Like “Things will change, and he says he will do this, and he says we will have to work harder” We were gossiping to find out more about him, we were insecure about who he was (Female middle-aged adult).


Those employees actually did not have a choice to opt or not to opt this person as a member of their social network, but still it follows from this respondent’s report that gossip was used to estimate if the new boss would be liked (ally) or disliked (foe).


4.3.3 Ally Structure Reputation Gossip


Ally Structure RG informs individuals about who is allied with whom in an individual’s social environment (see also chapter 4, section Such information can help individuals to make quick decision when they have to classify unknowns as friends or foes (Krebs & Denton, 1997). Ally Structure RG also helps individuals to learn about the social ties of others. Especially in our complex modern societies where we have scattered social structures that overlap with those of others; Ally Structure RG can be of great value. However, this is not reflected in the answers of my respondents. I hardly found any indications of the presence of Ally Structure RG, except for one, but clear indication, that comes from a female young adult:


What is very typical for women, are relations like “who is that guy we are talking about, is he the son of the baker?” to which all other women then reply “yes yes yes” and then the story is not the topic, they might like the story, but it is more about … (Female young adult).


As this girl reports, mostly women seem to use this form of gossip, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Since, as I highlighted in chapter 3, our female ancestors were more confronted with new social environments, because of patrilocality. Moving in with the band of their husband after marriage, women more than men were confronted with a new social environment, wherein Ally Structure RG might have been a handy tool to learn fast about who is allied with whom.


However, since this is an exploratory study, I cannot draw any generalizations out of my results; the answers of my respondents are only indications of presence in the daily conversations of my researched population. Moreover, since only one of my 103 interviewees explicitly mentioned something about Ally Structure RG, this result especially is not more than a vague indication. Further research about the presence of the different kinds of gossip I differentiated is necessary. 


4.3.4 Kin Structure Reputation Gossip


Before turning to Ally Maintenance RG, I first want to mention my results for Kin Structure RG. Just like Ally Structure RG, Kin Structure RG informs us about the bonds between individuals. The difference between both is that Ally Structure RG focuses on social bonds between non-relatives, while Kin Structure RG is about which individuals are kin-related (see also chapter 4, section 4.4.1).


Just like for Ally Structure RG, it could be argued that women might have a stronger tendency to exchange Kin Structure RG, because our female ancestors faced more problems of unraveling the ties (both kin-related and non-related) of new social network members (see chapter 3, and chapter 4, section 4).


However, again, just like for Ally Structure RG, I could hardly find any indications of the presence of Kin Structure RG in the answers of the interviewees. My respondents mentioned few things I can relate to Kin Structure RG. Adolescents, young adults and older adults did not report to discuss family ties. Only elderly people did mention that they sometimes talk about visitors who come to visit someone in the elderly home. When this person has left, the others will talk about who that was, and if he or she is a relative or not.  This indicates elderly people might use Kin Structure RG to find out about relatedness ties, but since I only found few vague indications, I cannot draw any conclusions about the presence of Kin Structure RG. Further research is needed.


4.3.5 Ally Maintenance Reputation Gossip


Once bonds are established, they need to be maintained. A useful tool in this maintenance process is Ally Maintenance RG. This form of Social RG has a manipulative function. As I outlined in chapter 4, section 4.4.3, individuals gossip positive about their allies, and gossip negative about their non-allies to (relatively) increase their own reputation. Neutral others are no subjects of Ally Maintenance RG.


From my interviews follows that Ally Maintenance RG is clearly present in our nowadays daily conversations. Negative Ally Maintenance RG seems to be more present than positive, praising gossip about allies. Adolescents especially report to talk most about people they dislike or they think are annoying:


Mostly it is as follows: as soon as someone you dislike does something wrong or does something stupid, you will easily say “Hey have you heard what he did?” or something like that. This is very easy (Female adolescent).


You gossip about someone you really dislike and she does the same with you, yes (Female adolescent).


If you don’t like someone you start gossiping bad about that person more easily and you also think they are more ugly! (Female young adult).


From the answers of some adolescents it also follows that cliques of pupils are formed and gossip badly about each other. A reason for becoming allied with some and dislike others seems to be getting good or bad grades, and performing well in class and gossip about this seems to be common on the playground:


There is this girl in my class, and she learns everything by heart, and we are always stunned like “You know that or what?”. Like in History class, that Sarah always wants to talk so much and she always get good grades and so huh (Male adolescent).


There is this girl at school. Some really think she is better then they are, and they hate her for getting better grades. And as soon as you have good grades they will call you “boring chick” or “slime ball”. And I get so sick of those people, and yes I talk bad about them (Female adolescent).


When asked if they also talk bad about family members, I got diverse answers. Some adolescents radically said no, but others admitted to talk bad even about family members. If this happens it is mostly not about nuclear family members, but aunts and uncles, cousins, and nieces and nephews. Or what happens as well is that some families fall apart in separate allied groups who gossip badly about each other:


With your parents and close family members you don’t do this [talking bad], because you love them (Female adolescent).


In general you do not gossip badly about family members, you might say something mean once, but not in general (Female adolescent.)


Oh yes you do, it happens in our family, we talk bad about ‘the other side of the family’ (Female adolescent).


Yes, like with my cousin… she… yes… is such a man hunter and so, and she wants to have every thing my sister has. They do bad things behind our back, they are not nice! (Female young adult).


Similar to adolescents, also the young adults I interviewed reported that when they do not like someone this person is more likely to become subject of slanderous gossip. And as young adults report about this, they also mention that talking bad about someone strengthens the ties between the gossipers. When asked why they praise or slander others, young adults report emotional states as frustration, or feeling good to be the cause.


Yes I think that if you have a common enemy, like for instance students and a professor, yes then it goes easy: “hey guys that professor has this and this and so and so”. If you have someone like that in common, you can slander that person together. (Male young adult).


I know many people who gossip because they despise other groups of people. And then, … yes for instance, consider if you are a racist, well yes I know many people who constantly talk about ‘those stupid Turks’. Well, yes, by doing this, they make themselves appear as if they are better than those others. I don’t know why, but they feel good doing this (Male young adult).


This is in line with what I predicted in chapters 4 and 5, that Ally Maintenance RG functions to maintain bonds by only spreading good news about your allies and bad news about your non-allies.


Having a mutual enemy creates a bond (Female young adult).


My older adult interviewees as well reported about Ally-maintenance Reputation Gossip. They also reported most about the negative Ally-maintenance Gossip.


You talk bad about your enemies (Female adult).


However, as I said in chapter 4, Ally Maintenance RG is good gossip about those we like, bad gossip about those we do not like and no gossip about those we regard as ‘neutral’. This reflects in the answer of a woman:


Those with whom you do not really connect, you ignore, you don’t care that much. You won’t talk bad about those. The ones you do talk bad about are those you have a bond with, but where something went bad. You must have some connection with the gossipee before you will talk bad about him or her (Female adult).


In her report about her own use of negative gossip to decrease the reputations of disliked others, one woman interviewed felt as if she needed to justify herself for her behavior:


I am not a bad person, I get along with many people, but some I like better than others. And if there is something negative, I more easily share this about people I like less. It is not always proper to do, I admit. If it is something really nasty, I might not tell, but slightly negative aspects, like a women who gained some kilos, I do tell these things. I hope this is human (Female adult).


My theoretical framework indeed indicates that what she does is very human and most probably occurs cross-culturally. Gossip affects our own and others’ reputations. Several ethnographical studies report that cross-culturally people spread positive and negative gossip about the reputations of others, to increase his or her own relative status (e.g., Abrahams, 1970; Andersen, 1995; Cox, 1970; Fine & Rosnow, 1978; Gelles, 1989; Greengard, 2001; Kurland & Pelled, 2000; Noon & Delbridge, 1993; Paine, 1967; Percival, 2000;  Rosnow, 1977; Rosnow & Georgoudi, 1985; Smith, et al., 1999). 


Last, again the elderly people I interviewed reported that a lot of jealousy exists between those living in the elderly home and people say a lot of bad and mean things about others.


People talk because they are jealous of others, we are all old people, we all had our lives and you always have some who want to impress “I have this and this” (Elderly woman).


An elderly man pointed us to the differences between individual gossip and organized gossip. In elderly homes (and outside as well) people sometimes group together and all slander another person, clearly excluding this person from their group. This is of course a form of Ally Maintenance RG, in-group members slander out-group members to outline their group boundaries, to increase their own status and to level down out-group members:


For me, there exist two things: individual gossip and organized gossip. I was once the victim of gossip. I cannot tell you all. It is like politics huh. And it is very painful, because I could not defend myself. (Elderly man).


This is similar as what adolescents reported about how they group together to slander others. Ally Maintenance RG is about increasing the reputation of your own and your allies, and decreasing the reputations of your enemies. Co-operating with each other in this manipulative use of gossip seems to occur. Hess and Hagen (2002) as well noticed how young sorority girls co-operate to slander other girls, because their joint actions have more effect than acting alone.


4.3.6 Calibration Reputation Gossip


As a last form of RG, I here discuss my results for Calibration RG. Calibration RG is information about the deviant traits and/or behaviors of other people. In our interactions with others it is important to be able to predict the behaviors of our interaction partners. We mind read other people. To do this we fall back on our Theory of Mind module. However, when someone suddenly behaves differently from what we would have predicted we must calibrate our view of this person, we must calibrate our predictions we make about this person. Unexpected changes in someone’s behavior pattern are important for our long term co-operational interactions with others. We gossip about members of our social networks in order to better understand them (Goldsmith & Baxter, 1996).


I differentiated for Other Deviance Calibration RG and Self Deviance Calibration RG. The first concerns information about an individual who is different (in traits and/ or behavior) from all others. He or she does not violate a social contract, as is the case for Cheater Detection RG, but simply is labeled as ‘different’. For instance, if everyone wears trousers and suddenly Suzy wears a skirt, this will be gossiped about. We expect and predict everyone to wear pants, and have to calibrate our expectations for Suzy. She does not do what everyone else does, so we cannot predict her actions by looking at what others do.


Self Deviance Calibration RG is information about an unexpected change in someone’s regular behavior pattern. Consider Suzy never wears skirts, and suddenly wears a skirt; this will be gossiped about. Again others need to calibrate their opinion about Suzy, they cannot make predictions about her future actions based on her regular behavior pattern.


These examples I give are very trivial. Predicting what someone wears is not that important for our interactions with others. Calibration RG will be most valuable to gossipers if it is about traits and/ or behaviors of a gossipee that are of importance for interactions with this gossipee. Calibration RG functions as a learning method about specific others, so we can redirect our behavior towards these persons, and this is reflected in the statements of two female young adults I interviewed:


Yes maybe you learn something from it [gossip], for instance when you had a wrong image about someone. Or if something happened and you did not know, but you might have to take into account what happened the next time you see that person… (Female young adult).


Through gossip you learn about your friends. If you never talk about them, you cannot know them (Female young adult).


Other respondents I interviewed reflected some more thoughts about Calibration RG, both about trivial deviances and important deviances:


Someone who is stingy, while all others are not. Someone who is dating someone, while 80-90% of all other colleagues are single, those are the people gossiped about. They are different from the others. Different in many options, or just different from the rest (Male adult).


Further, the example about the skirt I wrote above was more or like mentioned by one of the adolescent respondents:


Mainly those who are different? If everyone is wearing pants and she walks in with a mini skirt… well yes [mentioned in discussion when you gossip about someone] (Female adolescent).


And not only adolescents engage in this kind of gossip exchange; among the older adults as well, I found similar reports:


We have this secretary at work, she is about 60 years old and always wears these tight tiger print pants. It is extreme and amusing to see her. I cannot imagine she does not know we gossip about this, it is not necessarily negative, it is just joking. (Female middle-aged adult).


Not only different clothing style seems to be gossiped about, also different physical traits of other people are the target of Other Deviance RG:


I have been rude on a trolley once. There was this guy with a real asymmetrical mouth and then I said ‘look at that guy!’ and I did not feel relieved when someone said to me ‘Lore you cannot laugh with such a thing!’ I felt bad, because in fact that person had not done anything wrong  (Female young adult).


The girl mentions that she feels rather guilty labeling this person as ‘different’. Reason for this might be that different clothing styles or different behaviors of others are traits and behaviors that can be changed by the person; he or she can choose to be similar to others or to be different. For physical traits, like the gossiped about man in the example, we cannot choose to be like al the rest or choose to be different. Even though this guy might not want to be different, he does not have a choice (excluding the option of plastic surgery which is popular nowadays). It is as the girls reports ‘he did not do anything wrong’. So do not all the other gossipees of Calibration Gossip, but the important difference is that some voluntarily choose to be different, while others are different because of external causes. In the first case the gossipee will care less he or she is labeled as ‘different’ by Calibration RG. In the latter case the gossipee might not appreciate this ‘difference label’ being attributed to him or her.


That Calibration RG does not merely functions to label others as different, but also to teach receivers how to interact with the gossipees in the future, also stems from the answers of my respondents. Calibration RG, as the name itself already reveals, functions to calibrate your actions towards others, because you learn something has changed about them that will influence your future interactions. Examples of such changes can be loosing your job, loosing your partner, and so on. Such pieces of gossip might also function as Mates Detection RG (he lost investment availabilities, he or she is single again), but this information also serves to calibrate your future interactions:


“You often talk about others out of concern. For instance if someone had bad luck in his or her job, you tell this to others, to assure that they will support the gossipee when they encounter him, and know how to react (Male adult).


It sometimes happens you run in to someone and you ask “And how is your boyfriend” and this person answers “Well we broke up three months ago already” Those are painful situations, you better avoid. It might not always be the best way to find out, but it is better to know about such situations so you know not to start about things to certain people. Gossip updates you, to make sure you know (Female adult).


In sum, my results indicate the presence of Calibration RG in the daily gossip conversations of adolescents, young and older adults. I did not find any quotations of elderly people that could indicate they make use of this form of gossip as well or not.



5 Gossipees and gossipers: who gets involved


According to Ben-Ze’ev’s (1994) we gossip about three classes of people: “The objects of gossip fall into three major groups: (a) people in our immediate surroundings, (b) famous people, and (c) people whose intimate and personal lives are unique.” (Ben-Ze’ev, 1994: 17). Anyone is a potential gossipee, and anyone gossips about these three major groups. As Almirol (1981) says: “Gossip is viewed as a social equalizer; everybody gossips and everybody can be subjected to gossip.” (298).  There is a ‘but’ to this, as he argues, though: “But there are persons who are more likely to be gossiped about than not. Persons who are regarded as constant violators of social values are dealt with promptly and vigorously through gossip.” (Almirol, 1981: 298).

In what now follows I report some results about how the interviewed respondents described the actors (both gossipers and gossipees) that get involved in gossip conversations. In the above I only reported how the different kinds of gossip I classified can be traced down in current gossip conversations. In the following reports it will become clearer about whom these different kinds of gossip are exchanged, and with whom this happens.


I also focused a little more on the relation between gossipers. More specific, I asked the respondents some questions about the importance of reliability. The reliability of a gossip source is the first criterion for receivers of gossip to decide whether they will act on the information they acquired or not (as explained in chapter 5). I wanted to investigate whether people are tuned to pay attention to the reliability of gossip sources or not.


Last, I also focus a little more on the relation between gossipers and gossipees; are people aware of the threat of retaliations, in which cases, and how do they react to this? I now first of all start with an overview of who our respondents gossip about.


5.1 Who we gossip about in everyday life


Most respondents report that this is a very difficult question to answer. It depends on what you say to whom, the consequences of your actions and so on. I might have been able to solve this problem by asking them who they gossiped about for all different classifications of gossip I distinguish. However, as already mentioned earlier, I did not want to guide my respondents’ responses too much. The main goal of this study was to explore if all classifications of gossip are present in our daily gossip conversations. As stems from the above results, I get indications of presence of nearly all classifications I made. In the future it could be useful to focus more on the gossipees of each classification. Here, the questions about the gossipees were formulated very general.


From the answers I did get, it shows that adolescents report that they very often gossip about boyfriends and girlfriends, or about other adolescents they dislike. They like to pick on scapegoats.


When the content of the gossip stories is not obviously malicious, young adults report that they gossip about anyone. Known people and unknowns are gossipees of their harmless conversations. Known people have more chances to be gossiped about for the simple reason that you know more about them, so there is simply more to gossip about.


The situation is different when the content of the gossip story can harm the gossipee when spread around. Young adults report to carefully choose their gossipees for gossip stories that can have consequences that are harmful to the gossipee.


That’s the way it is. Sometimes you might be able to say something that is not bad to say, but that can have negative consequences for that person. In such cases, I think it is better to remain silent, even if the story is true. (Female young adult).


Older adults report to gossip about almost anyone, but they prefer to gossip about people of their own age. If they talk about younger people, these are most often their kids or friends of their kids.


I personally talk more about people of my own age. I won’t start talking about younger people that easily, neither about people who are much older (Female adult).


Children are very common gossipees for many of the older adults we interviewed, especially women reported to talk a lot about their children with others, to solve problems.


My older adult respondents also reported that higher status people have higher chances to become gossipees of their conversations. They get more attention in general, and more easily are the targets of conflicts:


I think that higher status individuals have a higher risk to be gossiped about. People who are leaders. You can of course gossip about others, but you gossip most about those people (Female adult).


Yes, higher status people catch more attention. They have more opportunities that can lead to conflicts or jealousy (Female adult).


Those higher status or not necessarily those in a higher hierarchical position, but those who are known by many others. Those who have  a bigger impact on you or on the society, those who influence our daily lives (Male adult).


The fact that higher status others are so much gossiped about fits in my theory of Strategy Learning Gossip. If we gossip to learn from the behaviors of others, higher status others are ideal gossipees, since we might potentially learn how to increase our own status. These findings also support more or less McAndrew and Milenkovic ‘s (2003) prediction that higher status others will be the target of bad gossip in order to relatively increase the status of the gossip sender. I have however commented already that I do not go along completely with this idea. In my opinion we gossip bad about foes and good about friends, regardless of the status of these people.


To conclude this section, elderly people confessed that they often do not have many people to gossip about:


You don’t have any problems to gossip about, you don’t have any family anymore. And younger people don’t come to talk with you, because you are an old person (Elderly man).


Gossipees of their gossips are other people from the elderly home, the personnel, family members or visitors.


5.2 Who we gossip with in everyday life


Turning to the gossipers, all respondents report that they gossip with a very broad range of people. Their gossip partners vary from good friends, family members and other people they see on a regular basis to acquaintances they hardly ever meet. Most of the young adults agreed that most gossip occurs between individuals who know each other well. If gossip occurs between two individuals who do not know each other well, having a mutual acquaintance to gossip about seems to be a minimum requirement. And my interviewed young adults even report that gossip in such cases can strengthen new contacts:


You can do it [gossip] with people you don’t know well. Like for instance, a personal example: the place where I work as a trainee student, well I know that the supervisor of that program is not very much liked by the others. I don’t like him either. So it is perfect to gossip about him, as a form of first contact with the others. (Female young adult)


It happens you start gossiping with someone you do not know very well about mutual acquaintances, just to break the ice and get bonded (Female adult).


One male young adult even claimed that everyone gossips with everyone else:


I think you do it [gossip] with everyone. With friends, at home, with your professor, actually I think you can gossip with just anyone (Male young adult).


And a middle-aged adult women responded:


It starts when I wake up, I gossip with my son, whom I first meet in the morning. And it doesn’t matter who I meet next, at home, at the office, someone who happens to say something to me and I react (Female middle-aged adult).


The fact that this woman reports to gossip with her son is not an uncommon fact, if I look at other answers of adults. Many of them and especially women report to gossip with their children, to find out what they have been doing at school, at a party, to find out about their friends and schoolmates. Even young children can already become the gossip partner of their parents:


With young children as well. I have an eleven year old one, and I automatically ask “How is such and so from your class doing, or how is that friend doing?” and we talk about that (Female adult).


Further, young adults commented that you need to be more careful to engage in gossip with strangers, because these people might not be very reliable. And adolescents added to this that you need to be careful when you first talk with someone, not to gossip too much, because this might give you a bad reputation:


Yes you gossip with people you only know a little, as long as it is innocent gossip, then it can do no harm. If those people then tell this gossip to others, you have not hurt anyone huh. But with people you only saw once before, you won’t start like “hey and this and that and did you know”, that might be a bit too much. You first have to get to know these people, huh. You don’t start to talk about just anyone, and real gossip you will not tell at all (Female adolescent).


Older adult interviewees’ responses indicated that they might be a little more selective in choosing their gossip partners. They also reported to sometimes seek people who have the most knowledge if they want to know something. They compare gossiping with fishing; you first have to throw out the line yourself before you get something in return:


You always have to throw yourself first. A bit like fishing (Male adult).


My elderly respondents reported different facts about their gossip partners. Their stories were rather sad. They reported how difficult it can be for them to find other people to gossip with. In their opinion this is not only due to the fact that they are in an elderly home and have less social contacts, it is more general they say:

With whom should we talk? With our companions at lunch, we talk with them, but besides that… I tell you, if you are upstairs in your room, you are alone… (Elderly woman).


It is not only here [elderly home], remember this! Whenever you go outside, it is there, it is al for itself. If you are waiting for the bus ad say good morning or good afternoon, it is like the world is at its end… We live in a very egoistic society. Everyone for himself. But it is not that that matters. People buy new cars… you can play forever… I always used to have many social contacts; with hundreds of people from everywhere… you know what I mean don’t you… (Elderly man).


5.3 Gossipers and reliability: who we trust in everyday life


Turning to the results of my questions concerning the reliability of gossip sources, I get different results according to the age groups of respondents we interviewed. Adolescents did not respond much if we asked them if they pay attention to the reliability of (re)sources of gossip information. They reported to pay attention to it if the gossipee is a good friend of theirs, but to care less if the gossipee is rather unknown:


It depends about whom. If it is a good friend of yours, well you might unconsciously check out the truth. But if you don’t know the person very well, why would you care? (Male adolescent)


Yes and if I am nut sure, I won’t spread it any further (Male adolescent).


When listening to gossip, my interviewed young adults report to be tuned to the reliability of the source of information. When the information is first-hand and they know the gossip sender quite well, they easily believe the information. As soon as the gossip sender becomes a fairly unknown person, or when the information is second-hand (hearsay) and they do not know the primary source, they will doubt the content. As soon as gossip glides to rumors, where reliability is low, young adults are on the lookout, and pay even less attention.


For some things I take notice, I think it is important who tells you the information. If these are people you know well, you will more easily believe it compared to when strangers tell you something (Female young adult).


When they start their sentence with ‘It seems that so and so’, I hardly pay attention (Female young adult).


One young adult made a nice comment on second-hand rumors; he compared these second-hand rumors with some kind of meta-gossip, since you pass on the gossip for another person, and you add the extra gossipy information that this person is unreliable:


It is like a gossip in a gossip, because passing on gossip [I would call it rumors] and adding that the source of information is unreliable, that is like gossiping twice! (Male young adult)


Even when they are sure about the reliability, young adults report that they will not always pass on this information:


Well yes, if you know that person, and you know that you can trust him or not, then you know whether it is true or one big lie. And I will not pass along the same information, I do not see the point of sharing the same story with others (Male young adult).


If they are not fully sure, it depends on what kind of information it is and who the gossipee is. If the information can damage the gossipee (which is the case with negative gossip), they will only pass on information about gossipees they do not know very well, where retaliation threats are low.


If it is about a good friend, well then you check first, but if it is about someone you do not know very well, then you will more easily accept the information to be true (Male young adult).


Unreliable information about good friends? I won’t pass on this to others (Female young adult).


Elderly people as well report to pay attention to the sources of information. Of course their situation is quite unique. They live together with other elderly people they don’t know very well, they never met before entering the elderly home. So when we asked them if they cared about the reliability of gossip information they all replied “Yes of course” and added that they would ask the gossip sender where he or she got his or her information and always be wary of lies.


5.4 Gossip and chocolate: guilt and retaliation


As outlined in chapter 6, I compare gossip to chocolate because of the similarities in emotional responses to exchanging gossip and eating chocolate. Both actions first elicit happy feelings (due to endorphin release in the brain), and later can result in more negative feelings. For gossip these negative feelings are feelings of guilt and fear of retaliations of the gossipee. I asked my respondents about the emotional feelings they associate with gossip, to see whether positive and negative emotions follow up on each other.


Although respondents generally reported that they are not always aware at the very moment of gossiping that they are gossiping, they often realize afterwards. My results indicate that people are very aware of the fact that gossip can have retaliation effects. However, not all adolescents reported to fear retaliations of others. The elderly people we interviewed did not answer much on the question whether they fear retaliations, but indicated that they do not fear that the gossipees of their gossip will find out what was told about them.


Of course you don’t feel bad, you wanted to harm them! (Male adolescent).

If your gossip is true, you don’t feel bad (Male adolescent).

It depends who the gossipee is. I do not talk bad about my best friends, I would not do such thing. If it is someone I dislike, why would I care if they found out? I would even tell them straight in the face (Male adolescent).

I know well enough what to tell and what not to tell, it seldom happens that I am wrong. So mostly I never feel guilty or anxious (Female adolescent).


At the very moment it is enjoyable and in the end you are just talking. But afterwards I always think like ‘what will this do that person’ It might be just me, but I think about what effect my talking might have (Female young adult).


Mostly I feel bad, like ‘I should not have done this’. But it is difficult to judge, in the end, because with some people I never know how far I can go. And most of the times I feel bad, but at the moment itself I really think it is cool. Just sometimes it kills me (Female young adult).


I was once involved in a family conflict. Finally it ended all right, but there was this one person who told me “And do you know what that person said about you?”  And I said “Everything you say comes back to you, and I don’t have to know” Because that is the way things go. Everyone gossips about others sometimes and then other people need not to come up to you like “You know…” I don’t like that. And I think if good friends have comments on you, they will tell you yourself. (Female middle-aged adult).


These results indicate that when gossip is bad, and can harm the gossipee, or when the gossip information is not very reliable (which I would refer to as rumors), people fear retaliations most and feel guilty. What is remarkable however, is the fact that they report not to feel these guilty or anxious feelings at the very moment of the act of gossip; just as with eating chocolate, our respondents even report to feel happy, and only after a while negative emotions cloud their happy minds.



6 Channels of gossip


Interpersonal Gossip classically is exchanged through face-to-face interactions. Nowadays, new communication channels enable individuals to exchange Interpersonal Gossip through other interfaces as well, such as using phones, mobile phones, email and chat programs on the internet (Fox, 2001). To get an idea which channel is most popular among the different age groups I interviewed, I asked our respondents which channels they use to exchange gossip.


Adolescents and students report to use different channels for interpersonal gossip like face-to-face communication, phone, and mobile phone, e-mail and messenger computer-programs. They discuss that some channels are better than others. Face-to-face still seems to be the most appropriate channel to use for exchanging gossip, because immediate feedback can be given. Writing letters is a too slow medium for exchanging gossip, and even e-mail and text messages have the same problem. The feedback needs to be given fast enough to get full enjoyment of gossip, they say. Also, when there is a delay in feedback, our respondents report to be more fully aware that they are gossiping, and this might restrain some:


When text messaging and if you then gossip, you realize it better that you are gossiping. And that is why you will less easy do it I think. It is more confronting than just sitting and talking (Male student).


Still, these slow media are used when no other option is possible, such as when someone is living abroad, or when you feel the urge of sharing something with a friend and no other option is possible at that moment:


I have a friend who now lives abroad, with Erasmus [student exchange program], and then you cannot do it any other way. Because someone from our old school gave birth and I wanted to tell her this, then there is no other option than using e-mail. (Female student).


Adults report to gossip most face-to-face and on the phone. They sometimes use e-mail, but are rather suspicious about that medium, since then the receiver has the written proof of your words, and you never know to whom this might be passed on. Also problematic is that emails can be checked by others:


They can check e-mails, and if someone found such things [gossip] it would be annoying. I once experienced this, luckily it was not such a bad gossip, but it was not that fun! (Female young adult).


Because e-mails can be dangerous in that way, adults suppose that this medium is rather used to pass on positive gossip:


I think positive news will be spread by e-mail. For instance recently a friend of mine was pregnant, and I was told by e-mail. If it is not that big a secret… (Female young adult).

Adults seem to be aware that different media might provoke different kinds of gossip. Face-to-face has the most controlling aspect, which is therefore the safest way to gossip, they report. On the phone only two people can gossip and others cannot defend the gossipees. The worst media in their opinion are internet messenger programs, which they notice are very frequently used by their teenage kids. They think messenger provokes a lot more negative gossip, because people who chat feel safe behind their computer screen and more easily say bad things about others.


On the telephone it is just two people. Mostly I gossip with five to six people, hanging out in a bar. Self-control is a lot bigger then. In a group, some people will always defend others and it is safer for the people gossiped about (Male young adult).


I can imagine that people more easily talk bad when they are chatting on the internet. It is a disease among young people; because of their chat-behavior they cannot uphold a normal conversation anymore. It is also easier and safer. If I tell someone that I don’t like something here, I immediately get reaction to that. While, when I say this while chatting, you might get angry as well, but I won’t see this. It is always safer, and I can imagine it is a lot easier for these young people (Female young adult).


Elderly people reported they only gossip face-to-face, and do not use other channels to exchange gossip.


It is a conversation from man to man (Elderly male).


In conclusion, face-to-face communication seems to be still the most used medium to exchange gossip, especially when it concerns negative loaded gossip. Our respondents report to fear written gossip, such as with e-mail, because retaliation threats are more likely. Elderly people did not answer much on this question. The younger respondents (adolescents and students) reported most diverse use of channels to gossip, but even those respondents still regard face-to-face communication to be the most favorable and reliable interface.



7 Men, Women and Gossip


Studies about sex differences in gossip behavior show no differences to occur at young age (Evaldsson, 2002; Goodwin, 1980). At adult age women seem to outscore men in time dedicated to gossip, and also differences in gossip topics are shown to exist (Levin & Arluke 1985; Nevo & Nevo, 1993,1994). Men do gossip, but talk more about colleagues, their profession and this in a rather non-detailed manner, which clearly differs from the content of women’s gossip, which focuses on friends’ and family’s private lives. At the end of my interviews I opened up this vivid debate by asking the respondents their opinion about male/female differences in gossip.


7.1 Who gossips most: men or women


The adolescents I interviewed were not sure whether girls gossip more than boys. Some of the girls thought this was the case, but according to other girls boys gossip as much as them. Boys as well were divided in two camps, some said that they definitely gossiped less, but some others said that there were no sex differences in amount of time dedicated to gossip. Some boys did add that it is mostly a girl that starts the gossip conversation, and then boys join in.


When asked whether women gossip more than men, the young adults started a very vivid debate. The female young adults immediately claimed that their male colleagues gossip as much as they do, but are less aware of their gossipy behavior, while the male young adults immediately ‘defended’ themselves by saying that they do gossip, but much less than their female colleagues.


Women REALLY do not gossip LESS often than men! (Female young adult).


I think men do not realize they gossip; they just think they are talking. Like when they are talking about soccer. While we realize we are gossiping. If you ask ten men, almost none of them will admit to gossip, while all women will admit they gossip. Men just don’t realize, and I don’t know how come (Female young adult).


They [women] gossip as much as us, but with different intentions (Male young adult).

But I have to comment that women value gossip more than we do. They know more gossip stories, always (Male young adult)


Yes, the same is true for me; I always am surprised when it comes to gossip stories. And they always say like “but yes, and this has been going on for so long already”, I never know (Male young adult).


The older adult respondents as well agreed that women devote more time to gossip than men. Both male and female adult respondents reported that men gossip, but not as much as women. As one middle-aged adult woman reported:


Put ten guys in a room and they will start playing cards. Put ten women in a room and they come out fighting with each other. Men talk more, while women gossip. (Female middle-aged adult).


The male adult and middle-aged adult respondents attribute the bigger tendency of women to engage in gossip to the fact that they are more socially engaged, they are more concerned in general with the people around them, and women can be seen as some naturally born psychologists, analyzing the doings of others:


A woman will try to take a central position in a society, while men are more individualistic (Male adult)


Women are more interested in other people, they observe people more often, they want to acquire facts about people. (Male adult).


Women just have more attention for human relationships. And that is why they have a topic to gossip about so much (Male adult).


Elderly people do not disagree so much when they are asked whether women gossip more or equal as men. They all tend to agree that women gossip more, both the male and female respondents:


Yes I guess women gossip more (Elderly man).

Maybe now a little les than in past times, because in past times women stayed at home and had more time to gossip (Elderly man).

Men think more about sports and games (Elderly woman).

They talk about their hobby’s more (Elderly woman).


One man event reported that in his opinion, women have a sixth sense to gossip:


Women are far more curious, they mix up with everything; A woman has a sixth sense for that… (Elderly man).


7.2 What do men and women gossip about


Although adolescents were not sure if girls gossip more than boys, they all agreed that the topics of girls’ gossip and boys’ gossip were different. Boys reported that they talk more about soccer and gossip about soccer players. Stunning is that the most answers I got from all interviews were about what the opposite sex talks about. The female respondents vividly reported about typical male gossip topics, while the boys and men I interviewed made fun with mentioning typical girls’ and women’s gossip topics. According to the adolescent girls interviewed boys talk more about sex and material possessions:


Yes, girls gossip about sex, but maybe boys still do this more often! (Female adolescent)


Boys just talk about their achievements.  Their cars has to be as big as possible, their mobile phone needs to be as small as possible and so on… (Female adolescent).

It is boatful talk, they always exaggerate (Female adolescent).


According to the boys, girls gossip most about physical appearance, and soap actors:


They talk about clothes! (Male adolescent)

Oh hell yes! Clothes! (Male adolescent)


Yes, that’s true! Well and I don’t talk about that so much, like when I see a guy walking by, and I think like what is he wearing? But with girls it’s different huh, they really discuss this. But with boys, I don’t have any complaints, I just say “What does he wear?!” and that’s it. Among girls this would last for like half an hour huh! (Male adolescent).


Yes clothes! And soap actors! They complain about that a lot! (Male adolescent)


The adults I interviewed gave similar answers. According to the adult and middle-aged adult men, women gossip more about clothes and celebrities than they do. Next to clothes and soap actors, adolescent girls and adult women also care about personalities of others, the boys and men report. And they admit that this is less of their own interest, they report to pay more attention to the outside, especially when talking about girls:


And personality. Women care much more for the inside (Male adolescent).

The outside is much more important for us guys, huh. Well, at least for some girls (Male adolescent).


This difference in gossip about physical appearance also is present in the reports of my young adult interviewees. They too mention that male young adults gossip more about the physical appearance of girls than female young adults gossip about the physical appearance of boys:


I don’t know if they [men] gossip more about women or not, but I think they do. I think that men gossip more about the physical appearance of women, than women gossip about the physical appearance of men (Female young adult).


If I overhear men’s gossip, it is mostly about the physical appearance of other women. They walk on the street and go like ‘Ah 9/10’, that is so typical male behavior (Female young adult).


In general, the female young adult respondents report that their male colleagues gossip most about women. Female young adults indicate that girls gossip about situations to compare how others deal with similar problems (see also above under Strategy Learning Gossip) and how girls see gossip as a way of problem-solving. In contrast to this, they further report that men favor gossip about men’s things, such as ‘women’:


I think women talk more about situations, while men talk more about typical men’s things and women. Yes in general they gossip about women, and not only about the physical appearance, but also about women’s behavior and personal traits (Female young adult).


When looking at the results of the male young adult interviewees, it shows that they agree with the female young adults to gossip more about women, but they also add other topics to their gossip lists. They mention soccer and broader topics, such as situations that happened at work or in a relation:


Boys talk about facts, things that happened (Male young adult)

Boys talk about women and soccer (Male young adult)

Boys talk about almost anything, relations, work, … it can be anything (Male young adult).


Among the older adults the debate on sex differences in gossip topics concentrated more on the fact that men care more for talk about soccer and women analyze relationships and care for details about other human beings:


Women talk about stuff that is written in those magazines [gossip magazines] as well, while we [men] talk about games and sports matches (Male middle-aged adult)


Yes and if we men talk about soccer players we don’t say stuff like ‘Ronaldo has gained some weight don’t you think?’ (Male adult)


Even among the elderly people we interviewed, all agreed that men and women gossip about different topics. Again the answers indicated that women gossip more about physical appearances, with special attention to clothes, while men gossip about sports people and earnings.


Yes we talk about earnings. “I have so much money and you have so much money” and so on (Elderly man).


7.3 Male and female motivations to gossip in everyday life


As a very last item, I here discuss the responses on our question if men and women have different motives to gossip. Most respondents we interviewed all agree that women’s gossip is more hurtful than men’s gossip. Women gossip because they are jealous and want to hurt others, while men gossip to show off their social knowledge:


Guys gossip to be cool, while girls gossip to hurt (Male young adult)


Guys gossip to increase their self-image. yes like, if I tell you like “I have a friend and he did so and so and he went out until 8am” This is to appear cool, with the intention of ‘oh boy’. I do not think girls do this, girls are more like, yeah… (Male young adult).

I also think people gossip to show like “Hey I have this interesting story, all listen to me”. You want to get attention for the story you were able to com up with. I think this has something to do with it as well (Male young adult).


Yes I also think they [women] gossip more because they are jealous. Men argue less than women. Men are straightforward, clear cut with each other. We discuss facts and so on. Women always complicate stuff. (Male adult).



8 Conclusion


In this study I explored some general aspects of Interpersonal Gossip using focus group interviews. This qualitative research method is ideal to explore a topic little is known about, or to delve deeper into some detailed aspects of a topic. The goal of this study was mainly to explore if all different kinds of gossip I put forward in my classification system of gossip can be traced down in our current everyday life gossip conversations. Respondents were not informed about this classification system of gossip, to secure that their answers were not guided towards my theoretical framework.


In total 103 respondents were divided in 14 groups, controlling for sex and age. The results I here presented come from the answers of 103 respondents on questions about (1) how we define gossip, (2) whether gossip is good or bad, (3) who we gossip with and about, (4) gossip and reliability, and (5) sex differences in gossip behavior.


Starting with how my respondents define ‘gossip’, I noticed that as age increases a negative view on gossip increases as well. Adolescents do not see gossip as something inherently bad, while elderly people cannot associate gossip with good talk. An accumulation of bad experiences throughout their life history might be the cause of this, since it has been shown that negative news has a stronger and longer-lasting impact.


When looking at the presence of the different kinds of gossip I classified using a functional analysis to approach gossip in the most general sense, in our daily conversations, I find indications of presence for each category.


Strategy Learning Gossip was not mentioned very frequently by my respondents. Still, I did not explicitly ask them if they gossiped about behavior-focused gossip topics, and in the answers of all age groups Strategy Learning Gossip was present. In general, adults reported to make the most use of Strategy Learning Gossip. Adolescents, and especially girls reported how they discuss how to deal with problems of babysitting, and problems of dating. This last was popular among the young adults as well. Older adults, and again especially the women, mentioned how they use gossip to learn how others deal with problems of parenting. The elderly people I interviewed talked a little about behavior-focused gossip as well. Their interest goes to Strategy Learning Gossip about health problems.


Mating Strategy Learning Gossip and Mating Reputation Gossip is most present among adolescents, young and older adults. Elderly people do not gossip (anymore) about who is sleeping with whom and who is a good potential mate or not. They reported to be too old for that kind of talk. The younger respondents describe to mostly gossip about the reputation of potential mates, while the older respondents tune more to relational troubles; who is having troubles (Mating RG) and how do these people deal with these problems (Mating SLG). The slanderous use of gossip to combat same-sex rivals (Sexual Rival Slander RG) is used mostly by girl adolescents and female young adults, as stems from my results. Mates Control Gossip was hardly mentioned by any of our 103 respondents. Especially for our adult respondents, of whom most were involved in a long-term relationship, this was a surprise to me.


Social Strategy Learning Gossip and Social Reputation Gossip as well seem to occur in the daily conversations of men and women of all ages. From the answers I especially get indications of the use of Cheater Detection RG to be popular. All respondents reported to gossip about the deviant and wrong doings of others, to label them as cheaters and to punish them. Among the elderly people this form of gossip is highly popular. They control each movement of each other in their residence. The violation of simple rules, such as showing up too early at breakfast, is gossiped about among the inhabitants of elderly homes.

For Ally Detection RG, Kin Detection RG and Ally Structure RG I did not find much indications of presence in my results. It might be that people do not gossip a lot about the skills of potential allies and the structure of their social network, although I doubt this to be the case. I think future more focused research on these specific forms of gossip is necessary.


Ally Maintenance RG, on the other hand, did pop up spontaneously in the answers of my respondents, and especially in the answers of my adolescent interviewees. They mostly report about their bad gossip conversations about their foes. They gossip negatively about those they dislike and those pupils that do not belong to their group of ‘cool’ friends. Also in older age groups the same indication was present, though less strong. In line with this out-group labeling use of gossip, I also found some indications of the use of Calibration RG that focuses on individuals who deviate from the average or from themselves. My respondents spontaneously mentioned how gossip is used to learn about specific others in order to calibrate their view about and their attitude towards members of their social network in future interactions.


When asked who they gossiped about, the elderly respondents reported not to have many social network members anymore to gossip about and with. They gossip with and about other inhabitants and the personnel of their residence. All other age groups I interviewed indicate to gossip with and about just anyone. Among the adolescents and young adults boyfriends and girlfriends are easy gossip targets, as well as other friends. Older adults report to gossip quite a bit about their own and others’ children. To control their doings and to compare how their children behave compared to others’ children.


In their gossip exchange with others all of my respondents reported to be tuned to the reliability of their resources. Especially with new people they do not know well enough yet, adolescents and young adults seem to be very conspicuous. At the time of the gossip conversation itself, respondents report not to feel guilty or fear retaliations from the gossipees, but on the contrary even feel happy. It is only later, if the conversation has ended that they become consciously aware of their doings, and start repelling things they told. In this sense gossip is like chocolate, first eliciting happy feelings that later change into a bad mood. The elderly people I interviewed were the least fearful of all and did not care much about the fact that their gossip conversations might reach the ears of the gossipees.


When interviewed about the channels they use to exchange gossip all respondents agreed that face-to-face communication is still the best option. Elderly people do not use another channel to exchange gossip than this. The adolescents, on the contrary, seem to use a large variety of channels, such as e-mail, messenger programs, phone and mobile phone –including text messaging- and writing letters, but most of these media are too slow in their opinion. When the medium is slow, gossipers become aware of their actions, and that spoils the fun, they say. Older adults’ argument not to use channels as e-mail and letters is because they fear that their written gossips will be passed on to others and used against them. They also think that gossip where face-to-face contact is missing is more negative.


The last topic I presented to the 103 respondents about male and female differences in gossip behavior elicited vivid debates among the young adults and older adults. They disagreed about the fact if men gossip less than women; some respondents think this is the case, others disagreed on this. Among the adolescents and elderly respondents less disagreement occurred, but their opinions were radical. Adolescents agree that boys and girls do not differ very much in their time devoted to gossip, while the elderly respondents all agreed that women gossip more. When focusing on sex differences in gossip topics, it follows from my interviews that girls and women gossip more about clothes, relations with family and friends, and celebrities, while boys and men are more tuned to gossip about sports and sports people. And last, from the answers also followed that the reason why women engage in gossip is most often because they envy others, while men gossip to impress others with their social knowledge. I want to stress that these results are only indications though, and cannot be generalized to a broader population than the 103 respondents I interviewed.



9 Discussion


Gossip can be expected to be a topic where social desirability plays an important part. Respondents can be expected not to be eager to admit they gossip and to report about their gossip behavior. In this study social desirability did not dramatically affect the behavior of the interviewees. I noticed that most of my respondents did not have much trouble talking about gossip both as an act and as a noun. The adult respondents were a little shy at first, and especially felt a little embarrassed to talk about their use of Media Gossip, as I will discuss in more detail in paper 5, but in general, social desirability was not really disturbing this study. In their answers all respondents reflected both about the gossip behavior of others and themselves. I got little or no answers for Mates Control RG only, though, this might be due to the fact that I did not explicitly asked to discuss all the different gossip categories I distinguish. 


In general I conclude that focus group interviews can be a very fruitful way to learn about gossip in our everyday interpersonal interactions. People do not feel threatened sitting solely in front of an interviewer, and the fact that they do not have to write down their responses and reflections elicits spontaneous answers. It has been suggested (Morgan, 1998a,b) not to put together respondents knowing each other in one focus group. In this study I have secured that respondents did not know the interviewer and assistant, but I could not always secure that respondents did not know each other. Some of the groups consisted of several people who did know each other. But contrary to what would be expected, this did not influence the discussions in a negative way. Even more, I noticed that the answers of the groups where some respondents knew each other are more vivid, especially at the beginning of the interview. More examples are given, since the respondents discuss with each other in forms as ‘Oh yes, remember that incident with X’, where X is then a mutual acquaintance. I therefore suggest future focus group research not to hold on too strong to the rule that respondents preferably do not know each other.


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[6] This semi-directive questionnaire is added to the electronic attachments of this dissertation.