February 20, 2007

Guess what?

Men gossip as much as women -- they're just more likely to call it "keeping in touch". That's one of the conclusions of a study commissioned by BT Cellnet, published as Kate Fox, "Evolution, Alienation and Gossip: The role of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century", Social Issues Research Centre. The study was commissioned and published in 2001, but I guess that it has gotten some recent play on the net, since three different people have sent me the link in the past 24 hours. [Turns out it was featured on AL Daily yesterday...]

The report is long on anecdotes and generalizations, and relatively short on facts -- it was based on a literature review, focus groups and a survey, rather than on any observations of behavior -- but it makes some interesting points about sex and gossip:

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.

This sounds plausible, though I'm not so sure about the "high-pitched, quick, animated" part -- a group of guys might be called "boisterous" instead of "animated", but I bet that they're likely to be talking just as fast, and to raise their pitch just as much within their (anatomically lower) range of fundamental frequencies.

In more detail, here's Fox's theory about "gossip as 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.

This theory is elaborated with quotes from focus-group discussions. Here's the stuff about "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."

This is interesting and plausible as a contribution to the meta-sociology of discourse -- what people think about how people talk -- but in my plodding, masculine way, I'd still like to see some evidence about what idioms different sorts of people really use in gossipy interactions.

Here's the stuff about "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.

These focus-group claims are not consistent with Fox's survey results:

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.

And the survey results themselves are suspect, in my opinion, since they represent people's presentation to a stranger of how they believe they typically behave. It would be nice to see some real facts about the relevant aspects of mobile phone usage.

As for the "feedback" dimension, here's how Fox summarizes her focus-group results:

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.

There's certainly a consistent ideology about "language and gender" that emerges from all this. One of the interesting subtexts is the extent to which the women in the focus groups -- and Fox as the author -- appear to emphasize the differences more than the men do, and are disdainful of men's alleged lack of verbal (or at least gossip-connected) skill. This way of playing traditional group stereotypes seems to have become our current cultural norm: it's the up-tight white people rather than the fun-loving darkies who are pictured as deficient, and it's often members of the traditionally subordinated group who promote the stereotypes.

A clearer example of this tendency appears in a survey of 350 undergraduates cited in Jackie Guendouzi, `You'll Think We're Always Bitching': The Functions of Cooperativity and Competition in Women's Gossip, Discourse Studies 3(1), 2001:

  Female responses Male responses
"Only women gossip"
"Everybody gossips"

As usual, the relationship of this meta-sociolinguistic ideology to the facts of people's lives remains to be explored in future research.

In the SIRC report, Kate Fox adopts Robin Dunbar's theory of "gossip as grooming". Here's a summary of these ideas, taken from my online lecture notes for Ling001:

In Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, Robin Dunbar proposed that our ancestors evolved language so as to use gossip as a more efficient substitute for the grooming behavior that other primates use to establish and maintain social relationships. In outline, his argument is as follows:

Among primates, "encephalization" (brain size normalized for body size) varies in proportion to social group size. Apparently, the larger the group a primate lives in, the more brain it needs to keep track of social relationships within the group. This is plausible, given the intricate micro-politics of primate society, as documented by ethologists. If we take the step from correlation to causation, and assume that larger brains evolved in primates in order to permit larger social groups (e.g. for better intra-species competition or better defense against predators), we have what has been called the "Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis."

If we look at human brain size from the perspective of this hypothesis, and extrapolate the relationship between brain size and social group size found in other primates, we predict a "natural" group size for humans of about 150.

In primate societies, grooming (picking nits out of fur) is a major factor in establishing and maintaining social bonds. There are interesting hypotheses about why grooming fulfills this function, but for now, we can just note that the bigger the primate group, the more time on average each member spends in grooming others. If we look at human social relations in this perspective, then with a group size of 150, we should have to spend 40% of the day in grooming. This is far too high to be practical -- the highest actual proportion observed among primates is 20% (Gelada baboons).

Dunbar suggests that our ancestors, facing hard times on the African plains, very badly needed to live in larger groups. "Gossiping" (in whatever form it first arose) made it possible to form and maintain social bonds more efficiently than grooming, both because more than two can do it at once, and also because you can actually do some useful work (like gathering or processing food) at the same time. The development of sense and reference -- and especially of proper names for group members -- enabled political maneuvering at a higher level in larger groups.

In other words, rather than bonding by picking nits out of one another's fur, we bond by picking nits in one another's behavior.

Fox spins this in a way that surely pleased her sponsors at BT Cellnet -- and might be true all the same:

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.

But listen, you know what I heard? Derek Bickerton says it was really all about the dead elephants.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 20, 2007 08:41 AM