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Evolution, Alienation and Gossip
The role of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century
By Kate Fox

Executive Summary

Kate Fox with Lemur

Gossip is not a trivial pastime: it is essential to human social, psychological and even physical well-being. The mobile phone, by facilitating therapeutic gossip in an alienating and fragmented modern world, has become a vital 'social lifeline', helping us to re-create the more natural communication patterns of pre-industrial times.

Key findings:

Mobile gossip is good for us

Gossip is the human equivalent of 'social grooming' among primates, which has been shown to stimulate production of endorphins, relieving stress and boosting the immune system. Two-thirds of all human conversation is gossip, because this 'vocal grooming' is essential to our social, psychological and physical well-being. Mobiles facilitate gossip. Mobiles have increased and enhanced this vital therapeutic activity, by allowing us to gossip 'anytime, anyplace, anywhere' and to text as well as talk. Mobile gossip is an effective and important new stress-buster.

Mobile phones are the new garden fence

The space-age technology of mobile phones has allowed us to return to the more natural and humane communication patterns of pre-industrial society, when we lived in small, stable communities, and enjoyed frequent 'grooming talk' with a tightly integrated social network. In the fast-paced modern world, we had become severely restricted in both the quantity and quality of communication with our social network. Mobile gossip restores our sense of connection and community, and provides an antidote to the pressures and alienation of modern life. Mobiles are a 'social lifeline' in a fragmented and isolating world.

Additional findings:


Introduction

The subject of gossip is increasingly attracting the attention of researchers in social psychology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, sociolinguistics and social history. Even philosophers are being drawn in to the debate. Although the word 'gossip' was originally a positive or at least neutral term (deriving from 'God-sibb' – a person related to one in God, a close friend or companion), it has more recently acquired some pejorative connotations. Yet most of the research highlights the positive social and psychological functions of gossip: facilitating relationship-building, group bonding, clarification of social position and status, reinforcing shared values, conflict resolution and so on. One moral philosopher goes so far as to claim that gossip, by enhancing our knowledge and understanding of human nature, qualifies as a 'saintly virtue'.

Whatever its moral status, there is certainly some evidence to suggest that gossip is a deep-seated human instinct: evolutionary psychologists have compared the evolution of gossip in humans with the practice of 'social grooming' among chimps – where the animals spend hours grooming each other's fur, even when they are perfectly clean, as a form of social bonding. This would indicate that gossip, far from being a trivial pastime, actually performs a vital and socially therapeutic function.

Until now, however, there has been no specific research on the role played by mobile phones in this context. Given the important social functions of gossip – and the role of mobile phones as a modern medium for gossiping – this is a significant omission.

Has the mobile phone become the contemporary equivalent of the garden fence, for people with more fast-paced lifestyles and fragmented communities? How have mobiles affected the way we gossip? What does gossip mean to the new 'mobile generation'? What are the social and psychological effects of this new gossip medium? BT Cellnet commissioned the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) to conduct the first scientific study of 'mobile gossip'.

Methods

The research was conducted in three stages: a literature review, focus groups and a national survey. We have also drawn on material from SIRC's ongoing 'social intelligence' monitoring of sociocultural trends and patterns, including data from observation fieldwork and interviews.

Literature review

Using international database and library searches, SIRC collated and reviewed all of the most recent academic research papers, books and journal articles on the subject of gossip. A selected bibliography is included in this report.

Focus groups

Focus groups were conducted with a representative sample of mobile users. The focus groups explored the extent to which mobile phones are used as a medium for gossip, the different types of gossip involved, perceptions of the impact of mobile phones on patterns of gossip, the role of gossip in participants' lives, the social and psychological functions of gossip, and related issues.

National survey

Analysis of the focus-group material provided the basis for a national survey, involving interviews with a representative sample of 1000 mobile users across the country. The survey was conducted by ICM; analysis and interpretation of the data by SIRC. Respondents were asked a series of questions about when, where, how, why and how much they use their mobile phones for gossiping, and how mobile gossip affects their lives.

What is gossip?

Chatty talk among friends

In Old English, gossip – or god-sibb – originally meant a person related to one in God, specifically referring to a woman's close female friends at the birth of a child (those she would choose to be godparents to her child, her 'god-sisters', if you like). The word later came to mean more generally a close (female) friend or companion, and then the kind of talk characteristic of intimate friends, i.e. chatty talk about the details of personal matters and relationships, the sharing of secrets – more or less what we currently mean by gossip.

Involves evaluation

Academics engaged in defining gossip have also focused on the evaluative element of gossip, which perhaps distinguishes it from other forms of informal, chatty conversation. Gossip has been defined as "evaluative talk about a person who is not present" (Eder & Enke, 1991) and, less narrowly and more accurately, as "the process of informally communicating value-laden information about members of a social setting" (Noon & Delbridge, 1993).

These definitions do not imply that all gossip involves criticising or disparaging others. One recent study showed that criticism and negative evaluations account for only five per cent of gossip-time, with another five per cent devoted to asking for or giving advice on how to handle social situations, but the bulk of the conversations focusing on 'who is doing what with whom' and personal social experiences.

Evaluations are often positive: we may express approval of someone's choice of lover, job, car, holiday or shoes – or of their behaviour, as in "she was right to dump him; it was obvious he was never going to commit". The important point about evaluation is that gossip generally involves more than the sharing of information about people's lives and relationships: it usually includes the expression of opinions or feelings about this information. The opinions or feelings may be implied, rather than directly stated, or conveyed more subtly in the tone of voice, but we rarely share details about 'who is doing what with whom' without providing some indication of our views on the matter.

Can be about oneself as well as others

Although many people might initially agree with the first of the two definitions of gossip quoted above, the second is more accurate and more helpful in several ways. It conveys the informal, chatty nature of gossip; it allows for forms of communication other than talk (such as letters, gossip columns, emails and text messages); and it indicates the range of people about whom information may be communicated – including the people actually engaged in the gossip.

Gossip is not necessarily confined to discussion of the doings of a third party or parties. In the research reviewed for this study, and in our focus groups, there was general agreement that information about one's own doings – or those of the person one is communicating with – counted as gossip, providing it met the broad criterion of being 'socially interesting' information. "My car broke down yesterday" would clearly not be an appropriate response to the question "So, what's the gossip?", but "I met this really gorgeous man at the garage." would certainly qualify. Equally, "What's the latest with you and that bloke from the garage?" is a perfectly acceptable gossip-opener. To be 'socially interesting', gossip about oneself is of course highly likely to involve some information about third parties, but a definition of gossip must include participants as subjects.

And even about celebrities

The Noon & Delbridge definition does, however, seem to exclude one quite important type of gossip, namely gossip about celebrities and other public figures – unless the concept of 'members of a social setting' is intended to include film stars, soap stars, pop stars, royals and politicians, which seems unlikely. Yet there is certainly a sense in which our gossip about celebrities does involve treating them and talking about them as though they were members of our own social group – indeed, this is one of the most interesting features of celebrity gossip. Our conversations about the conflicts between characters in soap operas, the relationship problems of supermodels and the marriages, babies and careers of film stars are often indistinguishable from our gossip about friends, neighbours and family. Overhearing such discussions on a bus or in a pub, someone who was not familiar with the celebrity names in question could easily conclude that Victoria Beckham, Kate Moss and the Dingle family were friends, relatives or next-door neighbours of the gossipers (and note that they were concerned about Victoria's eating disorder, but approved of Kate's new hairstyle).

How much do we gossip?

Most conversation is gossip

We gossip a lot. Most of the much-vaunted human capacity for complex language is dedicated to gossip. Perhaps the most striking finding of recent research on human conversations is that about two thirds of our conversation time is entirely devoted to social topics: discussions of personal relationships and experiences; who is doing what with whom; who is 'in' and who is 'out' and why; how to deal with difficult social situations; the behaviour and relationships of friends, family and celebrities; our own problems with lovers, family, friends, colleagues and neighbours; the minutiae of everyday social life – in a word, gossip.

This finding has been consistently repeated across a wide range of settings, ages and social backgrounds. Even in universities and the headquarters of multinational companies, where one might expect conversations in common rooms and restaurants to focus on matters of wider importance such as politics, business, cultural or intellectual issues, no subject other than gossip occupies more than 10 per cent of total conversation time – and most of these 'serious' topics only account for about two or three per cent.

Men gossip as much as women.

Perhaps even more surprising is that, contrary to popular belief, researchers have found very little difference between men and women in terms of the amount of time spent gossiping. In one study, both sexes devoted the same amount of conversation time to social topics such as personal relationships (about 65 per cent), in another the difference was found to be quite small, with gossip accounting for 55 per cent of male conversation time and 67 per cent of female time. (As sport and leisure have been shown to occupy about 10 per cent of conversation time, discussion of football could well account for the difference.)

Males were certainly found to be no more likely to discuss 'important' subjects such as politics, work, art, academic matters, etc. than women – except (and this was a striking difference) when women were present. On their own, men gossip, with only 0-5 per cent of conversation time devoted to non-social subjects such as work, politics, cultural matters, etc. It is only in mixed-sex groups – where there are women to impress – that the proportion of male conversation time devoted to these more 'highbrow' subjects increases dramatically, to 15-20 per cent.

.but talk more about themselves

In terms of content, recent research has revealed only one significant difference between male and female gossip: men spend much more time talking about themselves. Of the total time devoted to conversation about social relationships, men spend two thirds talking about their own relationships, while women only talk about themselves one third of the time.

These findings should explode, once and for all, the myth that men spend their conversations 'solving the world's problems', while the womenfolk gossip in the kitchen.

In our focus groups, many of the male participants initially claimed that they did not gossip, while almost all of the females readily admitted to gossiping. On further questioning, however, the difference appeared to be more a matter of semantics than actual practice: what the women were happy to call 'gossip', the men defined as 'exchanging information'. One endearingly honest male participant confided: "We don't like to call it gossip, because it sounds trivial – as though you have nothing better to do."

Why do we gossip?

Social and psychological functions

Although the term gossip has, relatively recently, acquired some negative connotations, earlier definitions – and almost all of the research on gossip reviewed for this study – emphasise the beneficial social and psychological functions of gossip.

We gossip because gossip helps us to establish, develop and maintain relationships; to bond with other members of our social circle; to clarify our social position and status; to assess and manage reputations; to learn social skills; to learn and reinforce shared values; to resolve conflicts; to build support networks; to win friends and influence people.

Evolutionary programming

We may also gossip because we are genetically programmed to do so. According to the psychologist Robin Dunbar (to whom we owe most of the above findings on gossip), gossip is part of our evolutionary hard-wiring – perhaps even the single most important part. Language, he argues, evolved to allow us to gossip. Gossip is the human equivalent of what is known as 'social grooming' among our primate cousins. Among humans, language evolved to replace this physical mutual grooming, because physical grooming became too time-consuming for the larger human social networks (primate social groups are no larger than 50-55; while the average human social network is around 150). Language evolved to fill the 'grooming gap', because it allows us to use the limited time we have available for social interaction – keeping in touch and bonding with a wide social network – more efficiently.

The 'chat-up' and 'gossip' theories of language evolution

There are of course other theories about the evolution of language, the most convincing of which is Geoffrey Miller's proposition that language evolved as a courtship device – the human equivalent of the peacock's tail – allowing us to compete for, attract and retain sexual partners. Language, and by extension everything else that goes with the super-sized human brain such as art, culture, science, religion, etc. (i.e. civilization as we know it) evolved to enable us to flirt. Fortunately, the 'chat-up' theory of evolution and the 'gossip' theory of evolution are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, Miller agrees with Dunbar that language is mostly gossip, although he argues that gossip has functions other than helping us to manage large numbers of relationships: namely as an indicator of social status and social intelligence, which evolved as a status display for courtship purposes. This view would seem to be borne out by Dunbar's findings on male gossip, in particular, which shows many features which he describes as 'advertising' or 'self-promotion'. In any case, Miller does not reject the gossip-as-grooming theory; he merely suggests that it should be integrated with his gossip-as-status-indicator theory.

Gossip is good for us

Whatever their respective evolutionary roles, it is clear that both social grooming and high social status make us feel good, and may even be good for our health. It has been shown that the mutual grooming performed by primates stimulates production of endorphins – the body's natural painkilling opiates – which makes them relaxed, and reduces their heart rate and other signs of stress. It is highly likely that the 'vocal grooming' of gossip among humans has similar effects. Experiments have also shown that raising of social status is associated with increased serotonin in the brain, which has equally beneficial physical and psychological effects. By gossiping, we may effectively be giving ourselves the natural equivalent of small doses of morphine and Prozac.

Gossip is clearly far more than just a trivial pastime: it is good for us. In fact, the research evidence would suggest that gossip is essential to our social, psychological and physical well-being.

The role of mobiles

Survey findings

Mobiles used mainly for gossip

The research findings on gossip outlined above are borne out by our own focus groups and surveys of mobile phone users. Most human conversation is essentially gossip, so it should come as no surprise that most conversation on mobile phones is also about social matters. Only 17 per cent of respondents in our national survey said that they use their mobile phones mainly for 'work purposes'; the majority use their phones mainly for 'keeping in touch', social chatting and gossiping. Our survey found that three quarters of respondents gossip on their mobiles at least once a week, with about a third indulging in mobile gossip every day.

Re-defining 'emergencies'?

Although 33 per cent currently say that they use their phones for 'emergencies only', focus group discussions revealed that phones purchased for this purpose gradually become more and more of a 'social lifeline', increasingly used for therapeutic gossip with friends, family and colleagues. Perhaps the term 'emergency' becomes subtly and gradually re-defined, to the point where the urge to tell one's best friend what so and so was wearing last night, and why another mutual acquaintance disapproved, qualifies as an 'emergency'. If this urge is indeed a deep-seated human need for the endorphins released by vocal grooming, possibly the foundation of civilisation as we know it, such re-definitions do not sound too unreasonable.

Men gossip as much as women.

Women in our survey were somewhat more willing (27%) than men (21%) to admit to using their phones primarily for gossip. Men seemed to prefer the term 'keeping in touch' (26%), which on closer probing in focus groups turned out to be essentially a euphemism for gossip. Men were significantly more likely than women to say that used their mobiles mainly for 'work purposes' (27% vs 7%). As we have seen, however, 'work' conversations among males often consist largely of what females would call gossip. Females were significantly more likely than males to say that they used their phones 'for emergencies only' (40% vs. 26%). This makes sense, as women are often advised to buy a mobile phone for this purpose, being more vulnerable than males when out on their own. The findings from our focus groups suggest, however, that many of the women currently using their mobiles for emergencies only will find themselves increasingly making non-emergency, gossipy calls.

.about much the same subjects

The subjects of gossip, however, are much the same whether you are male or female. Both men and women in our survey gossip on their mobiles about members of their social network, family, friends and colleagues – with only very marginal differences between the sexes. Gossip about family members and colleagues is highest among the over 55s, while gossip about friends peaks in the 16-24 age group – although it must be stressed that most respondents said that they gossiped about 'everyone'. Very few admitted to gossiping primarily about celebrities, but our focus-group discussions indicate that gossip about celebrities does form a significant part of some people's mobile chat – particularly during important events such as murder mysteries in soap operas and crises among participants in 'reality-TV' programmes. One of our focus-group participants admitted "My friend called me when Aliyah [a singer] died. Are we sad or what?". Many of the men in our groups also confessed to gossiping on their mobiles about football players.

.and just as often

The mobile gossip sessions of teenagers and young people tend to be slightly longer than for older people, but for most people (70%), an individual gossip session lasts no longer than 5 minutes. Men are more likely than women to have somewhat longer gossip sessions of up to 10 minutes (20% vs 15%), but very long chats (over 15 minutes) are slightly more common among females (9%) than among males (6%), although this difference is too small to be significant. Our survey showed that men also gossip more frequently on their mobiles than women, with, for example, 33 percent of men indulging in mobile gossip every day or almost every day, compared with 26 per cent of women. These findings confirm those of observation studies in natural settings conducted by other social scientists, which showed that, contrary to popular myth, men gossip just as much as women. As we will see in later sections of this report, the myth that gossip is a female pastime may arise at least partly from the fact that male and female gossip sound different.

.but with different 'gossip partners'

There were some sex differences in 'gossip partners', with men being more likely than women to gossip with work colleagues (16% vs 6%). Perhaps this comes under the 'work purposes' for which they say they use their mobiles – and if social scientists' current theories about gossip are sound, such gossip would indeed serve a useful function in the workplace, providing participants with a valuable social 'map' of their work environment which allows them to 'navigate' through this psychologically difficult terrain.

Women are more likely than men to gossip mainly with family and with friends of the same sex, but men in the survey admit to gossiping at least as much with their spouse or partner, and with female friends – a finding which was also highlighted in our focus groups, where many men said that they found it easier to gossip with women. Young people (16-24) in our survey gossip significantly more with friends of the same sex than older people, particularly the 65+ age group, who mainly gossip with family. Gossip with both work colleagues and spouses/partners increases, as one might expect, during the middle years of life (35-54).

Texting increasingly popular

As far as the 'medium' of gossip is concerned, we were not surprised to find that a preference for 'texting' was highest among the 16-24 age group, where 41 per cent normally use text rather than voice calls, and 45 per cent use both voice and text, while older people were much more likely to use voice calls. Some recent research, however, indicates that texting is increasing in popularity among the over-35s, so a repeat survey in year's time might show a different pattern. We did notice a slight rise in the popularity of texting among the over-65s, 14 per cent of whom use text in preference to voice calls. Women are also currently more likely than men to express a preference for texting. We should, however, guard against reading too much psychological significance into variations which may be largely based on cost factors: it is perhaps no accident that those who tend to have relatively lower incomes (teenagers, pensioners and women) show a preference for the cheaper option. When we analysed the preferred 'medium' of gossip by social class, we found that, indeed, the preference for texting was somewhat higher among the lower-income (C1, C2, DE) groups.

Sociable mobility – the benefits of mobiles

Our survey found that the main advantage of the mobile as a new medium for gossip, for most people, was what we jokingly called the 'Martini benefit' – the ability to gossip anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Over half of the survey respondents cited this, the mobility of the mobile, as the most important benefit – and our focus group participants confirmed that being able to gossip 'anytime, anywhere' was a significant and welcome change in their lives. For some, particularly teenagers and young people, the ability to exchange gossip by text as well as talk was the most important advantage of mobiles, while others stressed the benefits of being able to exchange information immediately and privately. Our focus-group participants all felt that these new factors had resulted in an overall increase in the amount of gossip they engaged in. One way or another, it is clear that mobiles facilitate gossip. The specific benefits of mobile gossip are discussed in detail below, but given the overwhelming research evidence showing that gossip is good for us, any technological advance which helps us to gossip must be enhancing our social, psychological and perhaps even physical well-being.

Stress and the city

In the fast-paced and fragmented modern world, social bonding through gossip becomes even more important – but also more difficult. We no longer live in the kind of small, close-knit tribes or communities for which we are 'designed' by our evolutionary heritage, where we would naturally be in daily contact with the members of our social network. Our Pleistocene hunter-gatherer brains, hard-wired for constant grooming-talk with a tightly integrated kinship and friendship network, are struggling to cope with the social isolation of modern urban life. Most of us no longer enjoy the cosiness of a gossip over the garden fence. We may not even know our neighbours' names, and communication is often limited to a brief, slightly embarrassed nod, if that. Families and friends are scattered, and even if our relatives or friends live nearby, we are often too busy or too tired to visit. We are constantly on the move, spending much of our time commuting to and from work either among strangers on trains and buses, or alone and isolated in our cars. These factors are particularly problematic for the English, as we tend to be more reserved and socially inhibited than other cultures; we do not talk to strangers, or make friends quickly and easily.

Telephones have helped to alleviate some of the stresses caused by fragmented modern lifestyles, but before the advent of mobiles most of us were severely restricted in both the quantity and quality of communication with our social network. Landline telephones allowed us to communicate, but it was not the sort of frequent, easy, spontaneous, casual communication that would have characterised the small communities for which we are adapted by evolution, and in which most of us lived in pre-industrial times.

Communication by landline telephone involved a certain amount of deliberate effort and planning: we could only talk at specific times and places. Gossip on work phones was frowned upon and often forbidden. We had to wait to get home, hope the other person was at home, overcome tiredness and make a conscious effort to call, often in the presence of noisy children or demanding partners. There was no telephonic equivalent of the regular brief and breezy encounters in a village or small community, where frequent passing exchanges – such as: 'Hello, nice day isn't it?', 'Yes, lovely – oh, how's your Mum?', 'Much better, thanks', 'Oh good – see you later then' – ensured that everyone felt connected to their social and support network.

Back to the future

Perhaps ironically, the space-age technology of mobile phones has allowed us to return to the communication and gossip patterns of an earlier time, when keeping in touch in such small but socially and psychologically important ways was easy and taken for granted. Thanks to mobiles, we can now be in constant contact with a wide network of family and friends. We can gossip anytime, anywhere: the stresses and strains of work, traffic jams, tedious train journeys, supermarket queues and other frustrations of modern life can be instantly relieved by a bit of 'verbal grooming', by talk or text.

One focus-group participant explained: "Mobiles allow you to keep up with the small details of what's going on in people's lives, and that's what makes you feel close to them. It allows you to maintain that relationship or friendship."

Others agreed: "It's a connection – a feeling of bonding."

"It's comforting. If you're bored on a train or fed up in a traffic, you phone someone for a chat and feel better."

"Everyone's so busy these days that it's the only way of keeping in touch."

"You gossip more on the mobile with friends you don't see often – you can report things to them as you hear them"

An antidote to alienation

Much has been written about the loneliness, isolation and alienation of modern urban life, but few commentators have noted the important role of the mobile as an antidote to these evils. You may be surrounded by uncaring strangers in a busy city street, or working in a competitive, unfriendly office, but your mobile gives you a lifeline connection to your own social world, your village green, your garden fence. Carrying your social support network in your pocket, you'll never walk alone.

Many of our focus-group participants initially bought their mobiles "just for emergencies", but increasingly found themselves using the mobile for chatting and gossiping with friends and family, and now believe that the mobile provides a quite different kind of 'social lifeline'.

"It was a safety thing to begin with, but now it keeps me in touch with the outside world."

"It's my only means of communication – I'd feel completely lost and lonely without it."

"I've got a very close group of girlfriends and we know all about each other's lives. Yesterday on my way to work my friend called me on her way home from a one-night stand."

"What you get out of it [mobile gossip] is a sense of being included, being trusted – a sense of belonging to a group"

"And also a sense that people care about you as well"

"Having your phone stolen turns your whole world upside down – without my phone, I feel left out of my social group"

"It's exactly that [a 'garden fence']. Women need to network. Especially when in a work environment that may be a competitive environment, you need to have your feelings acknowledged sometimes. Only other women can do that."

These networking and social-bonding factors are particularly important, as the last comment above highlights, to those who work in alienating environments, where there is not much opportunity for intimate or sympathetic chat. When two women in one of our focus groups said that they did not feel much need for the cosy reassurance of mobile gossip about personal problems and relationships during their working day, another female participant astutely asked "but do you work in a more nurturing job?". It turned out that one was an aromatherapist and the other worked in an advice and counselling centre. Both agreed that their need for a sense of human contact and intimacy was satisfied by their work during the day – although even they still gossiped with friends and family in the evenings and weekends. Those working in more competitive, unsupportive environments needed more regular 'infusions' of mobile gossip to help them through the day.

"When it's all getting me down, I'll go to a quiet corner or even to the loo and call a friend on my mobile – that's the really good thing about mobiles is that it's private"

"I'm not allowed to make personal calls at work, but I can call my sister on my mobile and we'll chat about family and boyfriends and relationships. Even if I'm sitting at my desk it feels like I'm at home, that sort of warm feeling – it's like I can escape from work into a different world for a bit, you know? A more familiar world."

A symbolic bodyguard

It is interesting to note, in this context, that in our fieldwork observation studies we found lone females increasingly using the mobile itself as a form of 'protection' from the potentially threatening world around them. Women on their own in cafes and bars and on trains now use their mobiles as 'barrier' signals in the way that they used to hold up a newspaper or magazine to indicate to predatory males or other intruders that they were unavailable. Women we have interviewed about this said that they found the mobile even more effective as a symbolic bodyguard.

"If I'm on my own in a café or whatever, I always take my mobile out. If I need to look occupied I'll listen to my messages, or scroll through my phone book – but sometimes I just hold it while I'm drinking my coffee."

"You just feel safer if it's there – just on the table, next to your hand.Actually it's better than a newspaper because it's real people – I mean, there are real people in there you could call or text if you wanted, you know? It's sort of reassuring."

The idea of one's social support network of friends and family being somehow 'in' the mobile phone means that even just touching or holding the phone gives a sense of being protected – and sends a signal to others that one is not alone and vulnerable.

The joys of text

Our focus groups revealed that texting is particularly important in maintaining contact with a large social network. The brief 'village-green' conversation quoted earlier sounds uncannily like a typical SMS exchange: not much is said – a friendly greeting, maybe a scrap of news – but a personal connection is made, people are reminded that they are not alone.

Almost all of our focus-group participants said that they found text messages an ideal way to keep in touch with friends and family when they did not have the time, energy, inclination or budget for a 'proper' phone conversation or visit.

One young woman explained: "I think it's a sign of the times. We haven't got loads of time to be keeping in contact with people, but just to be able to send that one message to someone is really nice. It means they know they're being thought about – and it's lovely when you get one."

Another female participant said: "Texting allows you to stay in touch with people you haven't got the time to call – and you couldn't do that before mobiles."

Another agreed: "And it's cheap. If you're say at work, you'll use it even for silly little things, just to stay in contact – especially with female friends."

A male participant commented: "Texts are useful to stay in touch with people you don't see or can't have a conversation with – or even if you don't have enough information to have a conversation, you can send a text as it avoids awkward silences."

Although our national survey showed that women use texting more than men, this last comment also reflects a tendency among some male participants in our focus groups to use texting as a way of avoiding talking – particularly where they feel too shy or awkward, or in some cases too lazy, to have a conversation. One participant, for example, always sends text messages to his mother, as he knows that phoning her would tie him into a long conversation. Before mobiles, he simply avoided calling her at all. (The notion of needing to have "enough information for a conversation" also seemed to be peculiarly male: the women in our groups could conduct long conversations on the basis of very little factual information, or indeed none at all.)

A female focus-group participant wondered aloud about whether a new man in her life "really liked" her, as she complained that "he always texts me, but practically never phones". Other participants offered the opinion that he was perhaps shy or insecure, and found texting less stressful as one has the time to think of "witty and articulate" things to say. There is certainly strong research evidence to suggest that women generally have better verbal and communication skills than men, and it may be that mobile texting will provide men with a new means of overcoming their difficulties in this area.

Teenage text

Problems of shyness, awkwardness and difficulties with social and communication skills may also help to explain why texting has become so popular among teenagers (along with the obvious cost factor). Adolescence is a difficult time: teenagers tend to be highly self-conscious, concerned about what others think of them and anxious about their social status within their peer group. The social functions of gossip outlined above suggest that this is one of the principal ways in which such difficulties are 'negotiated' and overcome. Through gossip, young people learn the rules of their social circle: what kind of conduct is and is not acceptable, why people are liked or disliked, how to resolve conflicts and navigate status issues.

Texting, because it allows that extra time to formulate one's thoughts and express them more clearly, or more diplomatically, is an invaluable tool in this process. Interviews with teenagers indicate that texting can help them to overcome their awkwardness and develop their social and communication skills: they communicate with more people, and communicate more frequently, than they did before having access to mobile texting.

One teenage boy said: "I never used to call my friends, or only just to arrange to meet, just practical things, but we text a lot – it's cheap, right, but there's also that you have time to think what you want to say."

Another added: "You'll text someone just to say hi, or with like maybe just a little joke or something – something you wouldn't phone them for."

A teenage girl whose phone bleeped during our discussion laughed and said: "Oh, you see, look, someone likes me, I'm important! With my friends we text each other all the time, but you still feel so good when you get a message."

While the craze for texting may do little to improve teenagers' grammar or spelling, it does help them to overcome inhibitions and build confidence and social skills – and even to develop some specific communication skills such as the ability to summarize and express oneself concisely.

Text as 'trailer'

Among our focus-group participants, we found that mobile gossip is often enhanced by the use of the text message as a sort of 'trailer', alerting friends to the fact that one is in possession of an interesting item of gossip, but without revealing the details, which are saved for a phone call or meeting.

"You can set someone up with a text message – create the anticipation of what you're going to say, before you meet up with them."

"In our text messages we write the word GOSSIP then dot dot dot so that you know you're about to receive a bit of juicy gossip."

"It's like a sort of sneak preview thing, you know? I'll just say enough in the text to get her interested, so when I phone she's like "Oooh, what is it? Tell me! Tell me!"'

"I'll text with the gossip, but then I'll want to see them to carry on discussing the gossip"

"We often start with a text but if it gets too bad then phone calls have to be made and if it gets worse then we have to meet!"

Gossip as entertainment

The 'trailer-text' practice seems to be mainly used by females, and highlights the importance of mobile gossip as a form of entertainment. While the entertainment function of gossip is important to men, our focus groups indicated that women were more skilled at making their mobile gossip entertaining. Many of the female participants felt that this was the main difference between male and female gossip: that women had the knack of making gossip interesting and exciting.

There seemed to be three principal factors involved in this skill: tone, detail and feedback.

Tone

Women agreed that a particular tone of voice – high and quick, or sometimes a stage whisper, but always highly animated – was important in generating a sense of excitement.

"Gossip's got to start with something like [quick, high-pitched, excited] "Oooh – Guess what? Guess what?" or [quick, urgent, stage whisper] "Hey, listen, listen – you know what I heard?""

"You have to make it sound surprising or scandalous, even when it isn't really. You'll go "well, don't tell anyone, but." even when it's not really that big of a secret."

"Women are more animated than men when they gossip."

The women in our groups complained that men fail to adopt the correct tone of voice, delivering items of gossip in the same flat, unemotional manner as any other piece of information, such that, as one woman put it dismissively, "You can't even tell it's gossip." It is interesting to note, in this context, that the men in our groups found the lack of body-language signals in telephone communication a bigger problem than the women. Both sexes commented on this problem, and both tended to use 'emoticons'(symbols representing emotions – such as smiles, sad faces – normally expressed in body language) in text messages, but the men seemed to find talking to 'a disembodied voice' more of a handicap. It may be that men are not only less verbally skilled than women, as noted earlier, but also less 'vocally' skilled – less adept at conveying mood and emotion through variations in tone, pitch and volume.

Detail

Perhaps even more critical, for our female participants, was men's failure to recognise the importance of detail in the telling of gossip.

"I find men can gossip, but they never know the detail."

"It's like you're telling a story. My boyfriend phones me with information and I turn it into gossip."

"Yeah, it's definitely how you tell it, the detail – some people have the ability to make the smallest thing funny."

"Men just don't do the 'he said, she said' thing – and it's no good unless you know what people actually said."

"My boyfriend gets very impatient when I take twenty minutes to tell him something that happened in thirty seconds. Whereas if he's telling me something I have to spend twenty minutes asking questions to get the detail!"

"Women tend to speculate more.they'll talk about why someone did something. give a history to the situation."

The notion of detailed 'speculation' as a crucial element of gossip was particularly important to the women in our groups. They felt that their mobile gossip conversations were much longer than those of males, not only because they gave more detail but also because each detail could be the subject of speculation about possible motives and causes, which in turn required a detailed raking over of 'history' – what led up to the situation under discussion – and speculation about possible outcomes.

Feedback

It is very difficult to be a 'good gossip', however lively your tone and however detailed your stories, if you do not have a good audience. For women, we found that this means listeners who give plenty of appropriate feedback. This feedback must be at least as animated and enthusiastic as the delivery of the gossip, if not more so. The speaker has gone to the trouble of making the information sound surprising and scandalous, so the least one can do is to reciprocate by sounding suitably shocked.

"Men don't get this, they don't understand that you're supposed to go 'NO! Really?!'"

"Yeah, with women it's always 'Oh My GOD!'"

"That's right. For women, gossip is a two-way thing."

The women agreed, however, that a man who did respond in the approved female manner would sound inappropriately girly, even disturbingly effeminate. Even the gay males in our groups felt that the 'NO! Really?!' type of response would be regarded as 'camp'. It was agreed that the unwritten rules of gossip etiquette allowed men to express shock or surprise on hearing a particularly juicy piece of gossip, but that a suitable expletive would convey such surprise in a more masculine fashion.

Explaining the 'gossip is female' myth

Perhaps the most striking finding of research on gossip, including our own on mobile gossip, is the fact that men gossip as much as women. This explodes the popular myth that gossip is something women do – the familiar image of the men discussing 'serious' matters, or sports and cars, while the women indulge in giggly, girly gossip. The etymology of the word 'gossip' may go some way towards explaining this misconception – 'gossip' did originally mean a close female friend, and then the kind of talk characteristic of such friends – but one cannot help wondering why the myth has proved so resilient, despite compelling evidence of its inaccuracy.

It is possible that the sex difference in manner and tone, both in the delivery of gossip and in the verbal 'feedback', may help to account for the persistence of the 'gossip is female' myth. All of the available research shows unequivocally that men gossip just as much as women, but it is clear that male and female gossip-sessions, whether conducted on mobile phones or face-to-face, sound very different. If popular perceptions equate high-pitched, quick, animated speech and frequent use of expressions such as "Guess what, guess what?!", "NO!, really?!" and "Oh my GOD!" with gossip, then male conversations will very rarely sound like gossip, although the content of their conversations will in fact be identifiable as gossip. Gossiping males sound as though they are talking about 'important issues' (or cars, or football), whereas female gossip actually sounds like gossip.

Gossip as risk

It was clear from our focus-group discussions that enjoyment of gossip had much to do with the element of risk involved. Although most gossip is in fact relatively innocuous (research has shown, for example, that criticism and negative evaluations account for only five per cent of gossip time), it is still talk about people's 'private' lives, and as such involves a sense of doing something naughty or forbidden.

This element of 'invasion of privacy' is particularly relevant for the naturally reserved and inhibited English, for whom privacy is an especially serious matter. Our homes are our castles, we are taught to mind our own business, keep ourselves to ourselves, not make a scene or draw attention to ourselves and never wash our dirty linen in public. As a result – thanks to the inevitable 'forbidden-fruit effect' – we are a nation of curtain-twitchers, endlessly fascinated by the 'tabooed' private lives of our neighbours, friends, family and colleagues.

The 'risky' aspect of gossip is also important to modern humans of other nations, however, as we all have an inbuilt need for risk-taking. In modern industrial societies, we live longer, healthier and less dangerous lives than at any time in our evolution. Our brains, however, are still much as they were in what sociobiologists call our 'environment of evolutionary adaptation', the Upper Paleolithic, or Stone Age. We have learned to live much more comfortable lives, but the hard-wiring that allowed us to experiment with fire, attempt to ride wild horses, explore new territories and defend ourselves against animal and human aggressors is still in place. If the risks are not there, we tend to create or invent them: hence participation (or vicarious participation) in apparently pointless dangerous sports, obsession with an ever increasing variety of spurious health scares and panics (note how these fade when there is something real to be frightened of, like a war), and, of course, the regular thrill of 'risky' gossip about people's private lives.

The benefits of negative gossip

While we would not wish to dwell disproportionately on the five per cent or so of gossip-time devoted to criticism and negative evaluation of others, it is important to recognise that such gossip is not just a verbal form of 'gratuitous violence'. It is not pointless or unnecessary, but in fact has a perfectly reasonable purpose, and clear social benefits.

The main benefits are rule-learning and social bonding. We all have to learn the 'unwritten' rules of our society or social group, and critical gossip helps us to discover, negotiate, transmit and reinforce these rules. Negative evaluations in gossip teach members of a group what behaviours are considered unacceptable, or allow them to negotiate about what should be approved or disapproved. If you want to become an accepted member of a new social group (e.g. when you start a new job, or join a club) or more popular within your existing social circle, listen attentively to critical gossip: you will find out exactly where the boundaries are, and how to avoid overstepping the invisible marks.

Negative gossip also promotes social bonding between the gossipers. By criticising someone else, we are affirming the values and opinions we share with each other – emphasising what we have in common, cementing our friendships, building alliances. The shared values and opinions need not concern matters of world importance: a mutual preference for a particular style of dress or make of car (and disparagement of the misguided folk whose sartorial or vehicular tastes do not coincide with ours) is quite enough to establish or reinforce an alliance.

Stone-age gossip, new technology

In the beginning was the word, and the word, if the evolutionary psychologists are right, tended mainly to be used to form sentences such as "Hey, guess what I heard about Og?!", "Don't tell anyone, but I think Og and Ogga may be splitting up!" and "I shouldn't tell you this, but Og tried to get off with me at the rain-dance last night!" – or even "Ogga is still wearing that deeply uncool bone necklace – soo Lower Paleolithic, don't you think?"

Put like this, the 'gossip' theory of language evolution may sound rather far-fetched, but it is in fact rather more compelling than most other attempts to explain how language evolved, particularly when integrated with other theories emphasising status-indicator and chat-up functions. It is most likely that a variety of these essentially social factors influenced the evolution of language, rather than a single element, but gossip clearly played a central role, and still has a central function in all human societies.

Gossip is, and always has been, good for us – essential to our social, psychological and even physical well-being. The mobile phone, by facilitating therapeutic gossip in an alienating and fragmented modern world, is helping us to cope, adapt and survive. This is perhaps the most striking and important finding of this study: that a technological advance is helping to counteract the adverse effects of previous technological advances. Mobile phones are re-creating the more natural, humane communication patterns of pre-industrial times: we are using space-age technology to return to stone-age gossip.


The research was commissioned by BT Cellnet © 2001

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