The Politics of Gossip


Disclaimer:This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

Gossip is and has been a vital form of discourse between humans. While its meaning and the stigma associated with it have evolved over-time, in some form or another it has always been a mechanism for the creation of bonds between individuals and a manner of ensuring the adherence to social norms in a community. Researchers go as far as calling it an “evolutionary adaptation” that was shaped by “natural selection”, a tool which allowed our prehistoric ancestors to be “socially successful” within their social circles due to the resulting cooperation and protection provided. Today, gossip consists of the dissemination of information – often secrets – about others between socially close individuals. There is a negative stigma tied to the practice, with modern perceptions of gossip generally characterising it as shallow, vain, and a ‘woman’s thing’. However, in reality gossip serves an important purpose in an everyday setting and in wider contexts. 

Studies on the proportions of gossip that is actually malicious have produced different percentages, with some suggesting it consists of between 3-4% of conversations, others around 5%, and some even presenting higher figures such as 15%. Despite the lack of consensus on the specific figures, all the evidence presented points towards the fact that malicious discussions only constitute a minor portion of gossip conducted, making the defamation the practice faces statistically unfounded.

A Woman’s Thing

Picture of a woman wearing a metal mask with spikes in the mouth, also known as the “Scold’s Bridle” punishment 

The word gossip originates from the female-only social affair that was childbirth in mediaeval Europe, which involved gathering women – referred to as “God Sibs”, which translates to ‘god parent’, although these women were not necessarily family – for moral support and general chit chat. Around the time the word originated, it simply meant private conversation between gatherings of people, a practice which was especially therapeutic for women in general as they were often made to stay at home and deprived of other forms of entertainment and activities. It only began to have negative connotations around the 1800s when it quickly became clear that the tight-knit female relationships that formed as a result, paired with the in-depth knowledge of the communities these women belonged to.The solidarity between these women and their potential for disruption in their larger social circle gave them a uniquer form of power and became a threat to the men around them, and as a result gossip began garnering negative overtones. These bonds between women became one of the main target of witch hunts, where women were made to accuse other women of withcraft during torture, creating a divide between previously close individuals and perpetuating the narrative of gossip being nothing more than women ‘bitching’ about women. The stigma around it became so strong that in Europe and colonial America, brutal punishments that were both legal and backed by the church were issued to people, mainly women and often executed by their own spouse, found gossiping. These punishments were made to publicly humiliate and cause physical pain towards these women, with disciplinary tactics such as the “Scold’s Bridle”, which involved a metal mask women were made to wear, with spikes inside the mouth to ensure that any attempt to speak would lead to ripped tissue. This was often accompanied by a metal chain used by her husband to drag her around the village and a bell hooked on to garner the attention of nearby people to further subject her to ridicule and public scolding. In essence, the stigma around gossip was entirely man-made and a mechanism to shut women up.

The Weapon of the Weak

Gossip was seen as a threat because in essence it was. When wielded properly, gossip can be exceptionally valuable for the less powerful. Where power is asymmetric, those with less avenues towards information, resources, and influence stand to gain more independence from those higher up in their hierarchy, whether that be in work, social, or political settings. The intel gossip provides and interpersonal bonds it nurtures within these contexts makes it an effective weapon for the ‘weak’, giving them leverage towards their more powerful counterparts that they otherwise would not have.

It’s everywhere

Studies have shown that men and women gossip equally and in similar fashion, but there is a clear hypocrisy when it comes to the judgement of those who partake. This is especially evident when we consider how men gossiped in the past, using networks of spies to gather intel on those within and outside their circles. In the same way that gossip overlooks people’s adherence to social norms for those lower down in the hierarchy, in political context it serves as protection against internal and external threats for those higher up. 
Gossip is deeply political and present in all levels of politics, be it domestically, foreignly, locally, or nationally. The sharing of previously private information with others, which constitutes the definition of gossip, is the backbone of political processes. The dissemination of information on politicians and current affairs, through smear campaigns or electoral propaganda, has unparalleled influence on shaping public opinion, forming alliances, and creating and destroying reputations – but in essence it is all gossip. Discovering president Zelensky’s past as a comedian and actor, discussing whether Putin’s puffed face is a result of steroids, uncovering the Biden family’s shady business dealings, debating Trump’s mental health and fitness for presidency, among almost every other headline we see today, is all just gossip. The difference is that it is gossip at a different hierarchical level or power, one which has historically been dominated by men and therefore seen as substantial rather than vain. Despite the enormous power this type of gossip wields and how it is infinitely more destructive than gossip at a personal level, it is stigmatised less.

By Rafaela,

Rafaela is a second year PIR student from Brazil with a passion for journalism and current events

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