Gossip, rumours and conspiracy theories 

Social media is full of conspiracy theories. Currently those about Katherine Princess of Wales are rife. There is great interest, in certain groups, as to whether the stories about her abdominal surgery and public appearance and photograph are real or fake. The thing that interests Ed and I is why is it so important? What is it about gossip and rumour that we all get so hooked up in?

In evolutionary psychology it is suggested that the development of language and the depth of language across the world was developed by women. The men were out either hunting or fighting or the like. Such activities require simple language to convey action such as ‘forward’, ‘back’ or ‘go that way’ and so on. While the men were out the women were back at the home, or the cave, and were conversing in a more nuanced way. There conversation were about what was going on between the different groups in the tribe on the basis of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The women needed to know what was going on. It is assumed that this talking, sharing or gossiping required and greater depth of language that was more descriptive than the make simple commands to action. It is also likely that the process of gossiping and considering rumours kept groups or even whole tribes safe. The women knew what was going on or at least what was suspected was to be going on and could pay attention to and respond to it.

Historically when a pregnant lady went for her ‘lying in’ as she was in or coming up to labour she would invite a group of women to accompany her and help her through the experience. The profession of midwife came from this sort of process. However, so did gossip. The women invited to the lying in were known as the ‘gossips’ and attending a labour was known as ‘gossiping’. It was one of the few instances when women were able to be truly alone together without the men and could say and discuss whatever they wanted or needed to. It was from this that the word gossip moved from the simple title given to the participants of this lying in to the concept of people sharing things behind someone’s back. 

The people most effected by this gossip were the men who were excluded from the birthing event and therefore the women were able to talk about them without feeling restrained or the men knowing. Eventually the word gossip was taken to describe this talking behind someone’s back and was seen by men as an exclusively female thing. If you listen to the podcast you will hear Ed admitting to gossiping with his friends. The reality is that all people, men and women, gossip. That is they talk about other people without that person knowing what is being said about them. It is maybe good to mention at this point that gossip, in the sense of what is spoken about someone without their knowledge, behind their back, may not be negative. It could be true or false, positive or negative. People might be talking about someone’s good points and their good qualities. 

So why do we gossip? The assumption by evolutionary psychology is that creating a small gossiping group was a way of bonding the group together. The gossip would normally concern people outside of this small group who would be open to criticism. Yet, we can also be a part of the group and still be the subject of gossip by the group when we are not there. Have you ever walked into a room and suddenly it goes quiet and the question in your mind is ‘what were you all talking about before I came in?’ With the advent of social media the scope for gossip becomes huge and extends beyond a small group in a tribe to include a global or international community.

Is gossip a good thing? 

Over all I would say ‘yes’ but with some caveats. The first being that you need to be aware of is the source. A good source provides us with real and true information. A dodgy source can create negative and untrue conspiracy theories that may cause greater levels of disquiet, conflict and strife.

Gossip can also be an informal stress management. 

If in the workplace we have a colleague or a manager who’s behaviour is difficult, but because of their position we feel unable to challenge their behaviour, then gossiping with colleagues can be active informal stress management. This enables us to let off steam, to off load and deal with the stress and frustration that we are experiencing.  

Yes, it would always be better if we could talk to the manager/colleague directly and give them feedback about their behaviour. This would give them the opportunity to change and that would be a good thing for the entire organisation. Being honest to someone’s face about their behaviour is feedback and doing it behind their back is gossip. It would seem obvious that the feedback route is the more positive but not always possible in which case the informal stress management of gossip does have a valid and useful role. Often it is the positive ethos of the organisation that encourages feedback and a negative ethos that creates gossip.

A couple of years ago during my cardiac illness and hospitalisation Rie and I were the subject of gossip both positive and negative. The problem for those gossipers sharing negatively was that the people that they gossiped to came to us and told us what had been shared about us. This is the one big problem with gossip. It only works as a stress release and informal stress management function when it is kept within the gossiping group. As soon as it leaks out of the group it can become destructive and can even wreck families, relationships, organisation and even governments. 

Social media can be an even greater problem in this regard. We had what was termed The ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial all based around who said what on social media which eventually led to a very public court case. Both in workplaces and in family relationship I am dealing with more and more cases to do with damage caused by what has been said or implied on social media. 

In an online world that has become so immediate it is important that we learn to be more aware of what we are saying and what we are sharing both verbally and on social media. I would include all forms of trolling and accusations or innuendo in this as well. These posts can be the start of an untrue trail of gossip or lies that is shared and then re-shared until it is believed to be the truth and then lives can be completely ruined.

My resource for this podcast is that you re-visit the first three steps of the live in the present course and consider how you see yourself and other people and decide if you need to adjust your behaviour. Remember:

If we all look after each other we will all be okay

It may also be a useful exercise to review and examine your own current relationships both personal and professional. Which of these relationships are conditional? Do you have to act in certain ways for them to be maintained? Such as agreeing with the other person’s views? That may mean that you may need to be seen to agree with gossip about people that you know to be untrue? However, you may need to agree anyway in order to maintain the relationship. In so doing the rumour mill is powered up and the information that you have shared is then shared again and again until it grows into a conspiracy that is then believed as being the truth. 

Perhaps the only counter that we have for negative gossip is to call it out. Now on X you are able to post ‘community notes’ that …

… “aim to create a better informed world by empowering people on X to collaboratively add context to potentially misleading posts. Contributors can leave notes on any post and if enough contributors from different points of view rate that note as helpful, the note will be publicly shown on a post” …

I guess that we could all respond in the same way to posts on any app that we know to be incorrect. We do have a choice as to how much we are controlled by gossip if we call it out.

Going back to where we started I don’t really see what right we have to know anything about Kate’s abdominal surgery or need to know why she was playing Photoshop with her own photograph. And, in the unlikely event that she was using a body double this would say more about us than her! Why would she need to use a body double, not that I think she did, other than to avoid the negative speculation of a negatively gossiping public and press.

Let’s all just play and live nicely.

Take care

Sean x

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