WHY I LOVE GOSSIP

I was taking to a lady last night who works in an organisation where gossip is banned. It’s simply not considered cool to talk about other people behind their backs. What’s more, she thoroughly approved of this rule, saying that gossip is poisonous to organisational relationships, individual self-esteem and organisational culture.

Well, yes. If it’s the wrong kind of gossip. But as an ex-journalist I have to add that good gossip makes the world go round.

Gossip is simply news. It’s interesting stuff about other people. We enjoy it because we’re interested in people. Information without gossip is just facts. People don’t like facts. You have to bribe them to absorb facts. Or add some gossip. Then they can’t resist them.

The origin of gossip, according to Professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford University, is that it evolved as a way for a human group to police itself informally. In the Stone Age, human groups got a lot bigger. Which meant letting in strangers. Which meant keeping an eye on them, to make sure they were not thieves or cut-throats. And reporting to others within the group on their behaviour. So what do you call that kind of talk? Gossip.

So gossip is how we keep peers in check without resorting to higher authority. Mostly it’s pretty dull to anyone outside the group. “How’s old Charlie getting on?” “Oh, they moved him to Bought Ledger. His daughter just got married.”

But when something is amiss, it’s still really useful. If you had a colleague or boss who was lazy, dishonest or incompetent or had made a serious mistake, wouldn’t want to know about it? And tell others? If they were very sensitive about a certain topic, or had strengths and vulnerabilities in certain areas — as we all have — isn’t it better for colleagues to be briefed so they don’t put their foot in it?

Of course, large modern groups also have to be regulated by formal rules, and when gossip turns into spite or bullying, managers have to intervene. But mostly peer pressure, largely unspoken, gentle and transmitted through gossip, keeps people in line.

But what happens when you want to communicate effectively with an audience who aren’t close enough to you to care about your gossip? You have to use the “rules of interesting” to make what you say as riveting as gossip.

These rules come partly from the world of news and partly from the study of myths and storytelling. They’re descriptive, not prescriptive. That’s to say, they’re based not on what must be done but on what works. And trust me, they do work. They’re the only way to keep an audience awake, listening, understanding and agreeing during a speech, a video or a media interview.