Thursday 22 January 2009

Gossip - Good for you ! ... are u kidding ?

In today's Face Time, the gossip column that runs most days inside this section,

we learn that police believe last month's jewelry theft from Paris Hilton's mansion was an inside job, and the remaining Grateful Dead members are reuniting.

We'll pause here while you scurry away to read those tidbits, but only if you promise to come back rather than, say, poking around the Internet for more about Hilton's baubles.


And now that you're back (thank you!), we promise not to censure you for your morbid curiosity, your prurient interest or your moral outrage.

It's only a matter of "doin' what comes natur'lly," as it was phrased in the show tune debuted by the four-times-married Broadway star Ethel Merman, whose 32-day hitch to actor Ernest Borgnine in 1964 presaged Britney Spears' brief betrothal to Jason Alexander in 2004.

It's easy to get caught up in today's riptide of gossip. The Internet has turned it into an ever-present force, like spam e-mail and gravity, and traditional media have responded to the competitive pressure by offering more of it.

Celebrity babies, divorces and dalliances are as inescapable as daybreak, and the result has been a rise in people bemoaning the form's ubiquity and what they see as concurrent cultural debasing. Even with names that aren't often written in bold, social networking tools, from Facebook to Twitter, allow us to keep up with "status changes" in the lives of both friends and "friends" to a degree that gives many of us pause.

But we should all relax, at least a little. As much as we may hold our noses while reading it, as much as we profess to skip right past it (or wish we could), having a taste for gossip, it turns out, is as fundamental as sleep.

Gossiping about neighbors, co-workers and, increasingly, celebrities all grows from the same evolutionary root: survival. Back in the day, if you didn't care to find out what was going on, you were more likely to die and less likely to pass on your incurious genes.

"People who had no interest in the private affairs of other people just got left in the dust," says Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, who has written about gossip.

To that end he wrote a cover article for October's Scientific American Mind magazine, "The Science of Gossip: Why We Can't Stop Ourselves."

For his purposes, McAndrew chose to ignore the negative effects as self-evident and often discussed. After a brief acknowledgment that gossip can, obviously, harm its targets, can separate those who indulge in it from real life and, McAndrew says, "can undermine the cohesiveness of the group when group members become careless or aggressive in the use of gossip among themselves," we'll set aside the negatives as well, condensing them to a common-sense reminder: You can gossip, but don't be a jerk about it, and don't become consumed by it. Even if Britney's life actually is more interesting than yours, you can't trust that what you read about her is anything more than well-placed spin from a highly paid press agent.

In his article, McAndrew summed up the voluminous research on gossip: In addition to providing vital intelligence—Why is the tribe leader behaving erratically? Where are the berries?—it teaches social norms, deters deviance from group values, reinforces bonds among group members and lets us rank ourselves in comparison to others. 

Among the topics: Who's in rehab? What's the latest about Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie and their mutual interest, Brad Pitt? Are the Pitt-Jolie babies showing superior style to the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes baby?

Eckert's use of gossip underscores two of the other functions it serves, says Gary Alan Fine, the John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern.

"One is compensation," says Fine, co-author of the 1976 book "Rumor and Gossip." "People look at their own lives, which tend not to be so interesting, and celebrities provide this other side, this fantasy life. Some are leading lives we're envious of, and others are—I guess the term of art is 'train wrecks.' "

More compensation: In a time of "Bowling Alone," as Robert Putnam's book labeled the contemporary tendency to lead more isolated lives than our parents', we do less chatting in barbershops or over actual back fences. Celebrity gossip columns are a metaphorical back fence.

The second function, Fine said, "has to do with consumption. Rather than compensating for our own lives, it is entertainment in itself. You're going ... for the story. And there's an economics to it. It's a product. It's a form of consumption."

"Gossip is really a way that people show we're all part of the same sort of human community," says Grove, who now writes a much more detailed interview column for Portfolio's Web site. "The appeal is: We like reading about the high and mighty and knowing they're just like us"—members of the same tribe, hunting for the same necessities.

So the next time you think of gossiping ... do us a favour; tell your friends about Vita Beans !

...or would you be interested in this ?

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