Rumors, on the other hand, usually involve larger numbers of people. Rumors are an unverified account of events circulating from person to person, and deal with something of broader public concern. Rumors circulate about topics that people perceive as important. They arise in situations of ambiguity, threat, or potential threat.
Gossip relates to individuals talking about other individuals. Rumors usually are about events either true, partially true, or totally facetious. Rumors can be intentionally inaccurate (disinformation) and meant to mislead (misinformation).
Historically, gossip was shared by word of mouth, often depicted as being “woman to woman” communication over the backyard fence. This stereotyping, of course, is wrong, especially when you consider many historical examples, particularly from the French royal court of Louis XIV.
Gossip has evolved and propagated with the advent of the printing press, daily newspapers, telephone system, and most recently, social media.
Other people are the world’s most fascinating subject. Apart from other people, there can be shoptalk or gab about sports, politics, clothes, food, books, music, or another general subject, according to the author Joseph Epstein in his book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit. This entertaining review covers this “much-excoriated yet apparently unstoppable human activity that knows neither historical nor cultural bounds.”
Gossip is often mean-spirited. It can be vicious and ugly. However, gossip can also be witty, daring, educational, entertaining, charming and even helpful, depending on how the purveyor and listener feel about the person being talked about.
Rumors are also a fundamental phenomenon of social beings. Rumors proliferate wherever people interact. Like gossip, rumors have evolved from face-to-face communication to transmission by written, printed, phone, digital and all the newer forms of social communication. The classic “water cooler” or “coffee klatch” interaction has been accelerated multifold by these modern methods of mass dissemination. That’s probably why journalist Shana Alexander once said, “Trying to squash a rumor is like trying to unring a bell.” Rumors and gossip share a regular part of everyone’s existence for two major reasons, according to psychologist and author Nicholas DiFonzo.
• First, we are all social and relational creatures. Our species cannot survive from birth without intense interaction with caregivers. (Obviously, just the act of propagating our species necessitates, shall we say, intense interaction.) Pundits have said if there had been three people in the Garden of Eden, gossip and rumor would have originated then.
• Second, we as humans have a deeply rooted motivation to make sense of the world. We are uncomfortable with uncertainty. We are not always rational beings, but we have facilities for sensing, perceiving, thinking, deciding, believing, and choosing. When we are confused, worried, or uncertain about our future or our environment, we want to create some structure or sense of control. Gossip and rumors, to some extent, can do that. Gossip and rumors also share certain common characteristics:
• Both gossip and rumor circulate. (If thoughts are held privately, they will die on the vine.) In this way, rumors and gossip are both fundamental acts of communication.
• Gossip and rumor are generally of significant interest to both tellers and hearers. What qualifies as “interesting?” Topics which are juicy; who is going out with whom; what person in an organization is advancing or likely going to be let go; why did someone take a certain action? Topics which are urgent, consequential, embarrassing, and/or upsetting are most likely to get “legs” and circulate widely and quickly.
• Gossip and rumor grow best on the fertile ground of uncertainty and ambiguity. Being candid and transparent helps to quell this potentially noxious form of communication. Sharing information fully, quickly, and consistently over a period of time builds up trust and credibility; those are the antidotes for disinformation and misinformation.
Organized propaganda campaigns—such as those spread during wartime—are best defeated by credible, frequent communication. FDR’s weekly fireside chats and Churchill’s inspirational radio messages are good examples from the World War II era.
Those who have nothing to hide are relatively immune from the consequences of gossip. (They are just not that “interesting.”) In a similar vein, organizations which “stick to their knitting” and are true to their missions—be they service professionals or manufacturing firms—are not likely to be great subjects for rumors. But human nature being what it is, there will always be opportunity for gossip and rumor.
Was Alice Roosevelt Longworth speaking with tongue in check? You’ll have to decide for yourself. In the meantime, we can all keep the gossip and rumors at a minimum—or at least make them positive and complimentary to our family, friends, neighbors, and organizations.