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Can gossip be good?

Gossip has a very bad reputation. The word “gossip” itself has negative connotations (as do its synonyms, like “idle talk,” tittle-tattle,” “hearsay,” “blather,” and “rumor-mongering”), and much of this negativity is not totally unreasonable, as gossip is sometimes very harmful.

But, on some occasions, it’s a good and useful thing for people to gossip. For instance, if someone in a community is genuinely very dangerous, it’s important that the evidence of this is spread throughout the community.

In this article, we will explore what makes good and bad, starting with a distinction between healthy, valuable gossip (which we’ll call “Noble Gossip”) and its sometimes viscous and often destructive counterpart (which we’ll call “Ignoble Gossip”). We hope this article will help deepen your understanding of this rarely discussed topic, and perhaps even change your mind about gossip:  

  • Ignoble Gossip, which tends to be destructive, you may wish to avoid (much the way many people try to avoid other unvirtuous behaviors such as lying), and

  • Noble Gossip, which can have benefits, you may wish to engage in when doing so is likely to make society or social relationships better or safer.

Ignoble Gossip is gossip with characteristics like these:

  • It involves spreading false information or information that’s unlikely to be true (without making it clear that it’s unlikely to be true).

  • It isn’t clear where the information came from (e.g., “Did you know that X did Y to Z?” leaving out the fact that this is based on a 3rd hand report).

  • It involves vague accusations or vibes (e.g., “I’ve heard that person is toxic” or “I think he’s creepy”).

  • It is mean-spirited or has the goal of hurting people’s reputations (e.g., “It's no secret that she only got the job because of her family connections, not her skills.”).

  • It involves schadenfreude or is for the purpose of entertainment (e.g., “Have you heard what happened to X? Serves him right. He’s finally getting what he deserves.”)

  • It includes information that others don’t have a right to know and that it is not important for others to know (e.g., “Have you heard the kind of depraved stuff they do in the bedroom?”)

  • It would be better handled by taking it up directly with the person who did the allegedly harmful action, but instead, it’s being spread around to others (e.g., “I can’t stand my roommate: they have the most annoying personal habits… but, no, I haven’t mentioned to them that any of the things they do bother me.”)

On the other hand, Noble Gossip is gossip with the opposite sorts of characteristics, namely:

  • It involves spreading true information or information that’s at least reasonably likely to be true, and makes it clear how much uncertainty there is in the information. It takes very seriously the possibility the information is false or misleading or even that it was purposely spread in order to harm someone, and involves caveating the information appropriately (e.g., “the source that told me this is pretty reliable, so I’d say I’m about 80% confident this happened”).

  • The source of the information is clear, or (when that isn’t possible, for confidentiality reasons) it is made clear what sort of source it is (e.g., “I was told by a close friend of Z that X did Y to Z”).

  • It involves very specific claims about behavior, not vague categories or impressionistic evaluations (e.g., “Her husband told me that she did it X then lied to him right after, telling him she had never in her life done X”). The focus on observed behaviors (rather than intent or beliefs) is important because our assumptions about another person’s intent or beliefs are often just speculations.

  • It has the goal of helping people become aware of information that is important, and societally useful or personally protective (e.g., “Before you go into business together, I think you should know that his last business partner told me that he stole money from their business”).

  • It treats the topic seriously and with gravity without making light of people’s bad situations and moral failings (e.g., “His wife told me she was devastated when he did that.”)

  • It includes information that people have a right to know or that is important for people to know to help foster a healthy community or healthy and safe one-on-one relationships (“Since I heard that you just went on a first date with him, I want to make sure you were aware that he was previously convicted of sexual assault and spent 3 years in prison for it”).

  • It’s not something that would be better to take up directly with the person who is being accused of harm (e.g., “And then they told me they would lie to my boss to get me fired if I didn’t give them what they wanted”).

One of the worst things about gossip is that it can spread false or misleading information, which can be very harmful. Sometimes false information is spread innocently due to a misunderstanding or mistaken inference, and sometimes false or exaggerated rumors are purposefully weaponized to hurt a person. 

One of the goals of the criteria for Noble Gossip is to reduce the chance that the information being spread is false or misleading (by citing sources, caveating claims, expressing levels of confidence, being concrete about what exactly is being claimed, and taking seriously the possibility it is false).

Why does the distinction between Ignoble and Noble Gossip matter?

Rather than taking either of two extreme positions on gossip (thinking of all gossip as bad or engaging in gossip indiscriminately), it’s useful to keep these distinctions in mind. Not all gossip is the same, and the negative reputation gossip has is only partially deserved. Noble Gossip helps keep people safe and helps communities thrive.

In fact, Noble Gossip is one of the few defenses that communities have against powerful bad actors who have managed to somehow create a positive reputation for themselves.

That being said, even with regard to Noble Gossip, it’s best to be cautious interpreting and spreading information about other people. It’s easy to misinterpret events. Additionally, there are usually at least two sides to a story, and even if one side is more right than the other, each side will often conveniently leave out important information because it makes them look bad, and sometimes will exaggerate what they do say to make the other side look worse. 

There are also people who purposely spread gossip with the intention of inflicting harm (sometimes this is true information, but other times it’s information that’s been made up). So, for these reasons, it’s best to spread social information with caution and care. And, when safety and confidentiality are not at stake, and you think that the information seems important, it’s usually best to try to go to the original source to find more reliable information and to hear different perspectives on what happened.

If these guidelines were followed, people would probably end up, on average, gossiping quite a bit less rather than more. That’s because a lot of gossip is Ignoble Gossip. By taking greater care with how information is discussed, sometimes Ignoble Gossip can even be turned into a Noble Gossip.

As we’ve discussed, not all gossip is created equal – some are societally valuable to spread, and some are societally harmful to spread. So, just thinking about the amount of gossip, and not the type of gossip, misses something important. 

We hope this newsletter has given you productive food for thought about what sort of information tends to be societally valuable to spread (Noble Gossip) and what sort of information tends to be societally harmful to spread (Ignoble Gossip). 

If you have some extra time today, you may want to explore some of our tools about nuanced thinking and evidence. 

Nuanced Thinking Techniques (15 Minutes)

Learn to recognize 3 common binary thinking traps and learn the nuanced thinking techniques you can use to combat them.

The Question of Evidence (35 Minutes)

There is more to interpreting evidence than you might think. Learn to improve your predictions by understanding evidence on a deeper level using Bayes' rule.

This content was originally written and published by Clearer Thinking's founder, Spencer Greenberg. Thanks to Helen Lurie for suggesting one of the forms of ignoble gossip.


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