The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

“What do you need to feel like you’re a person?”

The question was posed to the newsroom of The Daily Tar Heel to determine what we can do to help each other feel grounded when we’re overwhelmed.

Some of my coworkers need a warm shower after a long day, while others need to exercise and sweat it all out. Some need 40 minutes of alone time. Some need a 40-minute rave.

I need gossip.

Admitting this might seem bold. Gossip has a profusely negative connotation. Gossipers are seen as rude, cruel and two-faced.

Don’t get me wrong — some gossip can be hurtful. But it doesn’t have to be and often it isn’t. In fact, only 3 to 4 percent of gossip is malicious, according to a 1997 study.

So what makes up the other 96 to 97 percent of talk?

Gossip is a way for those with less power to communicate information and protect one another. Having a conversation with a coworker about your unequal pay, communicating with other students about the questionable things a professor has said or even talking to family about an older family member's actions you disagree with — all of these conversations are gossip. 

And they all disrupt power dynamics by allowing those in at the bottom of some hierarchy to check the actions of those higher up. 

Think about it — who are you most likely to gossip with? Your boss? Absolutely not. Your coworkers, however? It’s a given.

Gossip is also used to maintain social norms and emotionally process personal events. For example, because people frequently gossip about cheating on your significant other in a negative way, it reminds us that cheating is not acceptable. It encourages us to maintain a norm that protects people and ensures they don’t get taken advantage of. 

Gossip also brings people together. It makes us feel united and connected. It gives us a sense of shared social identity. That’s gossip in action.

So if gossip is good for us, why does it have such a negative connotation? 

Despite the fact that we may start gossiping as early as age five, we’re taught just as quickly to fight this natural impulse — especially if you’re a girl.

The word "gossip" comes from the Old English term “god-sibb,” or godparent. It was a name given to the closest female friend of a woman after she gave birth and was a term of trust and endearment.

However, the institutional oppression of women has stripped the term of its affectionate character. 

Across cultures, women who gather in groups have historically been seen in a negative light. The Bible refers to women who gossip as followers of Satan. Ancient Chinese proverbs admonish women who gossip and say gossip is a solely female affliction.

Historically, women have even been persecuted for female friendships. Female friend groups were often the target of witch hunts in the 1400s. The Middle Ages popularized a scold's bridle, or an iron muzzle created to physically injure and embarrass a “nagging” woman.

Gossip changed into a negative term to prevent women from advancing their social status. It was done to keep women subservient to men.

The relationships I have with close female friends are some of the most important bonds in my life. And having conversations with them, or anyone for that matter, are the times which I feel most connected, most informed and most myself. 

We may be having challenging conversations about socioeconomic divisions. We also might be talking about getting a new haircut. It doesn’t matter — it’s all gossip and it’s all valuable. 

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I need gossip to “feel like a person” because part of my personhood is linked to the sincere connection I have with the people around me, particularly my female friends. I need gossip because I recognize its expansive value.

Gossip isn’t shameful and it’s definitely not pointless. It gives us the power to subversively shape the world with our words alone. Water cooler conversations and class GroupMes aren’t chintzy spaces of the public. They’re powerful networks. Their influence is feared by those who are too “good” to be a part of them.

After all, what is a newspaper if not a means to communicate with the masses? What is this column if not gossip?

When people in power converse, they are just speaking. When marginalized groups converse, we are dangerous. 

So thanks for gossiping with me. I hope you pass it on.