Mark Twain once said, “A gossip is one who talks to you about others; a bore is one who talks to you about himself; and a brilliant conversationalist is one who talks to you about yourself.”

perpective_thumnail.jGossip has long been dismissed as little more than background noise and blather with no useful function. But, it is absolutely necessary to society and just about unavoidable.

As often as it sullies reputations, gossip offers a foothold for newcomers in a group. A friend, Smitha Shankar, overcame the initial discomforts of her office environment by engaging in some light-hearted gossip with fellow newcomers. “It helped me laugh at a time when some people were making my life miserable. And this stopped me from quitting,” she shares. Gossip is an integral part of our lives and even though at times it has put us in a spot, one cannot challenge its “therapeutic” powers.

The word, gossip, is derived from the Anglo-Saxon English term, “godsibb,” a concatenation of “god,” short for godparent, and “sibb,” meaning relative. In the 14th century, the term connoted a close conversation between women friends invited to attend a birth. It was in the 16th century that the meaning extended to include “anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk” and then later in the 19th century to “trifling talk, groundless rumor.”

Primitive societies used negative information to discredit the reputation of their rivals and defeat them. People commonly understand gossip to mean the spread of rumour and misinformation through excited discussion of scandals. Some newspapers carry “gossip columns” which retail the social and personal lives of celebrities or of elite members of certain communities.

“Do you know what type of dress she was wearing?” “I heard that she married him not for love but only for his money and admitted that to her best friend Sheetal, who is my neighbour’s sister and I got to know of it from her.”

I watched two ladies in a garment shop, recently, cackling away. My eyes bounced from face to face as though I was watching a tennis match. It seemed as though they wanted others to overhear their “conversation,” and at the same time it appeared that they were each trying to outdo the other, in a “I know a bigger scandal than you” kind of way.

Even though what they were saying sounded absurd, it reminded me of Chinese whispers, the Asian way (with our own masala added). I’m sure we all know of people who can make a living out of selling scandals, but why would you want to rub someone else’s unfortunate affairs in their face?

It is not that men do not gossip. At a recent party, I overheard some men talk about “Narang making tons of money illegitimately.” Is it really implausible to believe that Narang worked hard to earn that money? Though, I have noticed that men tend to gossip about others’ business affairs.

Recently, I read the following interesting quote—“Gossip is the tool of the poet, the shop-talk of the scientist, and the consolation of the housewife, wit, tycoon and intellectual. It begins in the nursery and ends when speech is past.”

I am basically an introvert, but occasionally I like to have a “little chat” with my neighbors, during which I get to know the happenings in our neighborhood, location of new offices and shops, actual prices of several items and the current salaries of house help, all of which translate into useful information. It lifts my spirits, making me realize that problems are universal. I often gossip with my domestic help about life. I have peeped into her world which is so different from mine. It has been a revelation.

Gossip has been shown to strengthen relationships between friends and work colleagues, reinforce shared values, offer increased feelings of “connectedness” and community spirit, assist in controlling the poor behavior of others, particularly in an office situation, and offer a sense of status by being included in the “gossip circle” which boosts our self esteem and increases our sense of wellbeing. Gossip can even help ward off depression. Half an hour over tea listening to others’ dilemmas can make you realize that things are not that bad in your own backyard after all. Gossiping about the lives of people who seem to have it all, like Bollywood celebrities, also reinforces the idea that life is not all rosy in tinseltown, despite beauty, money, and fame. The financial and health problems of Amitabh Bachchan, the broken engagements of several film stars, and split in the Ambani family are all grist for the rumor mill, reassuring us that we are all very much human.

Before you go racing off to spread the latest tidbit, it pays to differentiate between “good” gossip and “bad” gossip. We can easily tell the difference between the kinds of gossip at either ends of the spectrum—gossip that is harmless and informative, and gossip that is toxic accumulating into false rumours and wrecking lives. Should this happen, it is best to extricate yourself quickly from the conversation.

Most people love a good chinwag. The Daily Mail reported that women spend about 298 minutes a day on gossip and about 24 minutes a day discussing “weight, diets and dress size.” As enjoyable as it may be to bond with someone through gossip, the harm to all parties is immeasurable if it is damaging. Resist the momentary temptation. Reprisals from negative gossip are definitely not good for mental health. Human dialog can be a great healer or a great destroyer. Gossip is nature’s telephone. Use it wisely.

Sudha Chandrasekaran is a writer, based in India.

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