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Gossip-end of the Grapevine

Heather Sylvawood, www.writegear.co

I have lived in small towns or villages in New Zealand for most of my life, and I have been amazed to find that I’m the last to hear the latest in gossip. At one time I commented to my partner: “We need to put up a sign – The End of the Grapevine.”

A grapevine is a wonderful illustration of how news travels in small communities. The tendrils snake into the smallest crevices and cling tight, and then the flowers that the tendrils support blossom and develop into fruit.

grapevineBlog

Looking for evidence

Like grapevines, gossip sneaks into minds and our minds look for evidence to validate what we’ve been told (true or false). We rarely look for evidence to refute the gossip, just to substantiate it.

When we’re intent on seeing what we’re looking for, more evidence that supports the gossip appears. At this stage our minds are headed in one direction: “the news is true”. When it’s based on a misinterpretation of something, these creeping Chinese whispers can cause irreparable harm.

A modern twist on gossip

We tend to think of gossip as titbits of news passed on from person to person as opposed to being broadcast through accepted media – television, newspapers, news websites etc.  Prior to the invention of printing presses by German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, however, word-of-mouth or letters were the only way to disseminate information, person-to-person. Nowadays our gossip comes through more sophisticated sources, yet it’s really no more than an expanded version of person-to-person chat.

Our ability to observe and translate what we see, is the basis of all news. Reporters see violence and in a split second translate this, based on the evidence around them, into a report that purports to be the truth of the  matter. The next step in their process is to corroborate their observations before jumping into print or broadcast. Yet even these trained observers can sometimes get things wrong. 

But is gossip all bad?

Individuals are not held back by the constraint of hard evidence. They see something, translate it, and tell others. The ‘others’ add this information to knowledge they already have and hey presto the news flows. If something really is happening that needs to be in the public eye, gossip will do it. The fear of causing gossip is a natural constraint to keep most of us honest.

“Reputation systems promote cooperation and deter antisocial behavior in groups,” according to The Virtues of Gossip: Reputational Information Sharing as Prosocial Behavior by Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer, Jennifer Stellar, and Dacher Keltner. 2012.

The researchers claim that when an individual observes or experiences antisocial behaviour, they are generally compelled to share it with other potentially vulnerable people. As the information spreads, the perpetrators of the antisocial behaviour are likely to be ostracized and brought into line with accepted community behaviours.

That works well unless the individual who first passes on the information is not telling the truth, or embroidering the information to enhance their own reputation.  But on the whole, gossip gives us new ideas, alerts us to wrong-doing, and makes us feel we’re a trusted member of the group. Not “at the end of the grapevine”.

Heather Sylvawood, www.writegear.co