Is the pandemic killing gossip? Why humans need to spill the tea

Writer Ian Leslie believes we’re missing out on a very human need when we can’t gossip. The murmured stories we’d normally share as we meet at a pub after work, or when we pass by neighbours, are the most informative, says Leslie. Without those conversations -- which we can’t have during a pandemic -- we risk living in a world that’s “a lot less human.”

Gossip may have unexpected virtues, but lockdowns threaten our chance to dish.

Writer Ian Leslie says gossip can be great if used in moderation, but also dangerous and destructive if used unwisely or uncaringly. (Shutterstock)

Writer Ian Leslie is pining for a lot of things in the pandemic – including, gossip.

He says those of us in lockdown are missing out on the dopamine and adrenaline of daily face-to-face encounters. And he's particularly longing for those often juicy conversations that reveal semi-private news about others.

Gossip has been stifled by the lockdown, he says. With offices, bars and restaurants closed, people are less likely to do anything gossip-worthy, and even less likely to swap stories about it.

I don't really feel like I've struck up a solid relationship with somebody until we've shared some gossip – like, the moment somebody looks around the room, and leans in and says, "You know what's really going on here?"- Ian Leslie

Stuck behind our computer screens, our daily conversations, especially with colleagues, have become regimented. We meet over a Zoom-like platform to address a specific task, with a specific goal. These conversations leave no time to dish the dirt.

But it's the murmured stories we'd normally share as we exit a meeting room, head for coffee, or meet at a pub after work, that are the most informative, he says. Without those conversations -- where we can learn about a bad boss, or who someone really is -- we risk living in a world that's "a lot less human."

Ian Leslie thinks a lot about communication. He's been a BBC presenter, an advertising consultant, and is the author of Born Liars: Why We Can't Live Without Deceit, and CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It.  (Submitted by Ian Leslie/Basic Books)

Tapestry's Mary Hynes spoke with Leslie about why we need gossip, what's at risk if we lose it, and how the pandemic endangers this very human need.

Here is part of their conversation.

How do you use gossip strategically with new clients?

During normal, non-pandemic times, I'm dropping into different workplaces over the course of a year. I'm called in to help a team achieve something fairly quickly. I've learned, the quickest way to find out what's what in any workplace, is to take your team for a drink. After the first or second drink the gossip will start to flow. Suddenly you learn the official version of who's important in this company, and who's not so important, who's nice and who's nasty.

If you really want to know how to get things done – who to work with, and who to avoid – then you need "the goss." To borrow a phrase from technology, gossip is a very compressed form of information. I can get more useful, rich information in a 20-minute gossip with somebody, than I can in any induction meeting. 

Do you think your new colleagues ever have a morning-after regret? Do they wake up saying, "Oh my God, what did I tell Ian Leslie last night after my fourth gin and tonic?"

I'm sure they regret having me around for all sorts of reasons! But no, I don't think so, because it's also about establishing a relationship.

I don't really feel like I've struck up a solid relationship with somebody until we've shared some gossip – like, the moment somebody looks around the room, and leans in and says, "You know what's really going on here?" 

It's really nice, because I feel like they're trusting me. It's a little moment of vulnerability. They're taking a risk. It's a leap of faith – a little leap of trust. To me, it signals that we're going to get on. We're going to have a good, proper relationship. We're not going to keep a distance.

Tell me about the kind of thing gossip can get at. How can it get behind my game face? You know, that bright shiny face I'm very, very careful to show the world?

Right. The sociologist Erving Goffman talks about the way that people in modern society – and by the way, this is long before the internet – Goffman talked about the fact that people have "front-stage selves" and "backstage selves."

There's your front-stage self, which you put on when you're at work, or when you meet somebody in the street – your best face. You show who you want people to think you are. And then, there's your backstage self, the person you are at home and with people you can just be yourself with. In a way, that's the slightly more authentic version of you. What gossip does is it helps us peek behind to get backstage a little bit. Through gossip, we get a richer, more rounded picture of what the people around us are like.

In a world where everybody is putting forward that best-self on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and so on, I think that grittier, richer picture of a person is more important than ever. I'm wary of painting too bright a picture here though. What happens when the cost of this human bonding is really high for the person who's the subject of said gossip?- Ian Leslie

Well, as they say in alcoholic drink advertisements, we should (act) responsibly. Like any other human activity, gossip is great in moderation, and with moral moderation as well as quantity. It's dangerous and can be destructive if used unwisely or uncaringly.

When the pandemic ends, do you imagine all the pent-up gossip in the world bursting through some dam?

Yes! But, in two stages. First, there'll be the generation of gossip. There's going to be a huge amount of gossip-worthy activity in those first few months! There's going to be a lot of pent-up social energy going on in the bars and the restaurants and everywhere else. And then, there's going to be a massive deluge of gossip – like an earthquake followed by a tsunami of gossip.

I have the feeling you'll be right there in the thick of it.

I hope so.

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Written and produced by Kate Adach



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