Feeling socially rusty? Try a little light gossiping

The language of social bonding is thought to play a pivotal part in ensuring our survival and later flourishing. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Go ahead, talk a little trash. Gossip may not be good for you, per se, but it's deeply connected to human nature. And it might just help in navigating a post-pandemic world - at least in a social sense.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind that gossip helped early Homo sapiens form larger and more stable bands. He borrowed the idea from anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorised in his 1998 book, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, that language - and, by extension, gossip - replaced grooming, a social-bonding practice still seen among our primate cousins.

In other words, humans needed something that would help them keep up to date with friends and family as they spread out across distances, and networks of Homo sapiens were becoming too large for everyone to effectively groom everyone else.

Or, to put it another way, humans evolved to gossip.

Of course, no one can know exactly why or how our species developed an ability to think, communicate and transmit social information. But the language of social bonding is thought to play a pivotal part in ensuring our survival and later flourishing.

This is not to say there are not extreme downsides to gossip, and that there aren't horribly cruel ways to do it. At worst, it can facilitate xenophobia or bigotry on macro levels, and reinforce stereotypes about perceived "others". Even in more-casual social settings, gossip can ruin reputations.

But there are also OK ways to gossip. One of those is gossiping about celebrities or powerful people you don't know.

Celebrity-gossip culture began to flourish in the mid-20th century, eventually mutating into its present form as a social media monolith, because - as we all know - it is entertaining.

Famed celebrity-gossip columnist Perez Hilton acknowledged the innate and, in some ways, aspirational human urge to gossip about celebs.

"Even before social media existed, even before we graduated high school, people used to gossip about the captain of the football team, the head cheerleader," he said in an interview. "We always are drawn to perceived roles of power. It's just human nature. It's curiosity."

As humanity reenters the realm of in-person socialising, we could all benefit from considering this: How might we gossip better? How do we harness this evolutionary tool to our benefit - to connect with greater kindness and empathy after a year that brought with it so much suffering?

Consider your intention and the possible outcomes

When it comes to sharing a bit of gossip, it can help to run through the five Gatekeepers of Speech, which are interpreted from Buddhist teachings: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Is it necessary? Is it the right time?

Gossip need not fulfill all these criteria to be worth sharing, but it is probably less nasty if it fulfills some of them. Note that just because information may be negative, it doesn't mean that the gossip is. An example of this is the whisper networks that emerged from the #MeToo movement.

Consider your motives

If the gossip is negative and doesn't serve any actionable purpose, keep it to yourself. "People love new couples. People love babies. It's not all negative," Hilton said. "Of course, train wrecks - people being very messy or sloppy publicly - do get a lot of attention. I won't deny that."

Consider the merit and the source

Gossiping is bad when it sows uncertainty or confusion. And any piece of gossip loses its merit as civilisation-boosting or as a social lubricant when it's a baldfaced lie, or even something heard through the grapevine that can't be substantiated.

When gossiping, remember to exercise some compassion not just for others but for yourself. Everyone gossips - and everyone makes mistakes in gossiping - and you will too.

Don't beat yourself up for falling prey to evolutionary instincts. The best you can do, on your best day, is be kind, keep it positive and stick to the facts.

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