Gossiping used to mean female closeness, so when did it change?


XOXO, keep gossiping girl.

We all gossip. I know I do. I talk to my friends about my family, to my parents about my friends, and I vent to different people on a daily basis, about the things I encounter, the people I meet, and the circumstances I face. 

But when we hear the term ‘gossip’, it has a nasty undertone and connotations of hateful remarks and hurtful comments. If you fire off a Google search for synonyms of gossip, you get words like ‘rumour’, ‘scandal’ and ‘defamation’, all of which have blatantly negative implications.

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But for myself and many other gossipers, the gossip rarely, if ever, has such intent. The conversations are often carried out in order to get a fresh outlook on something, advice, or to just get things off your chest. Gossiping strengthens bonds, builds trust and helps maintain relationships between the parties involved.

Confirming my suspicion that my TikTok For You Page can read my mind, a video focusing on this very topic appeared on my feed recently, and what it taught me about the origins of gossip was eye-opening, to say the least.

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TikTok creator Lara Kelly’s video was inspired by the statue The Gossipers by Rose-Aimeé Belanger, a bronze sculpture that depicts three women engaging in an animated conversation. Kelly used The Gossipers as a jumping point to unpack the history of gossiping, particularly its relation to men and the patriarchy. 

The video explores the stigmatisation of gossiping and explains that before the patriarchy tarnished the word and turned the meaning into ‘idle backbiting talk’, the term gossip actually referred to close female friendships.

It particularly applied to the female friends a woman would invite to be present at her birth. These tight-knit communities of women and the deep understanding and detailed knowledge of society they accrued through these connections made them powerful.

This growing collective female power was perceived as a threat by men and by the sixteenth century, women’s position in society had begun to deteriorate. Greater enforcement of gendered rules and a focus on punishment and obedience became widespread.

Sometimes women were forced to wear ‘branks’, a device that tore their tongues when they tried to speak. They were subjected to the ‘cucking stool’ if they displayed rebellious behaviour and many were accused of witchcraft and subjected to torture, something that made women turn against each other in droves.

Unfortunately, gossiping in the contemporary age is still tainted with the misogynistic meaning it was wrongfully given, and to this day women getting together to chat is often painted as being conspiring or malicious in some way.

It’s evident in pop culture – just look at the way the media portrays female friendship groups as untrustworthy, two-faced and competitive, like in Mean Girls, one of the most iconic Y2K movies.

But if we strip the term gossip of these sexist connotations, studies have shown that gossiping actually makes you more reflective, with positive gossip inspiring self-improvement efforts, and negative gossip making people feel proud about themselves.

Ironically, studies have revealed that men engage in gossiping just as much as women. Pretty hypocritical, right? Research also explains that gossip likely originally started as a method of survival when building hominid societies. Prior to the development of spoken interactions, grooming was the way in which monkeys and apes were able to build closeness.

But grooming is one on one and time-intensive, and over the course of human evolution, we’ve required larger groups around us in order to cope with the challenges the world presents. As a result, gossiping developed as a way for humans to ‘groom’ or create closeness and share information with several people simultaneously, ultimately strengthening their groups. 

As humans we require communication and interaction to survive, making gossiping a vital everyday tool. Gossiping has also been shown to aid in cultural learning, as it enables people to learn how to live in their societies and understand communication rules through observational learning. 

And although 75 per cent of gossip has been coded as neutral, this does not mean that negative gossip does not exist. To keep yourself and your gossiping in check, you need to get introspective about the way in which you socialise.  

There is an appropriate way to share something you see, to talk about someone, or to address a situation and you can often pick out a bad gossiper – it’s someone who shares information or talks about others to feel better about themselves or to belittle or gain an advantage over them. 

But to understand what is right or wrong, and to explore the idea of good or bad gossiping, you need to partake in it, allowing yourself to recognise the ways in which you and others communicate, integrating yourself into your culture and society, and making judgments based on social cues, emotions and reactions. 

So go gossip! Strengthen your relationships, become more introspective, and enjoy being able to share life with those around you.

Eager to learn more? Head here for more on the history of gossiping.

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