The tongue is the sword of a woman –and she never lets it go rusty (Chinese proverb). “Would anyone watch a TV spinoff called “Gossip Guy”? wonders Cari Neirenburg, in her article Gossip Guys. “No, the network isn’t considering it,” she claims. “If it did, the show would definitely have different story lines and dialogues than the original hit show, Gossip Girl.” People don’t usually think of men when thinking about gossip. Gossip Girl Indeed, at its origins, the term ‘gossip’ described a phenomenon strictly reserved to women. The word derives from the old English godsibb, and refers to the female friends of a child’s mother who were present at the child’s birth and “idly chatted among themselves” (Grosser et al, 2010). The friends were almost always women, and “the hours were passed in conversation and moral support” (McAndrew, 2014).  These sessions were never considered as negative or morally objectionable. Godsibb However, by the 1500s, the word started to take on a negative connotation. For the first time, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare used the term ‘gossip’ pejoratively to describe a woman “of light and trifling character” who is “a newsmonger” and a “tattler” (McAndrew, 2014). Today, there is still a strong perception that gossip is mainly a “woman thing,” and it doesn’t have such a good rap. Just listen to Arman Khatchaturian’s piano piece: Two Ladies Gossiping. According to Clegg and van Iterson (2009),  people tend to think that it is mainly female employees and secretaries who indulge in gossip at work. Men would not normally reduce themselves to “such a petty activity” (Rosnow & Fine, 1976, Rabeau, 2008). When women gossip, they engage in “idle talk,” “tattle,” and “run about,” while men “shoot the breeze” and “talk about shop,” according to Michelson and Mouly (2000). Contrarily to women, when men gossip, it is often considered as “positive discourse” (Clegg and van Iterson, 2009). As Callahan puts it: “When women do it, they call it gossip. When men do it, they call it networking.” However, according to Foster (2004), researchers have found very little empirical evidence that women gossip more frequently than men (see Dunbar, 1993; Nevo et al., 1993; Luna and Chou, 2013; Michelson and Mouly, 2000). If there are any differences, they are not significant. But while men and women may spend as much time gossiping, Rabeau (2008) observes that the differences lie more in terms of how they gossip: women tend to gossip more about “intimate and personal matters of other people as well as physical appearance.” If you trust the 1939 film The Women, starring Joan Crawford, the gossip is “all about men.” The underlying intent to gossip also differs: women are more prone to use gossip as a way to “establish group solidarity” and “make social comparisons” (McAndrew, 2014). According to Watson (2012), men tend to be more interested in achievement gossip, as they consider that obtaining information is a good way of attaining status. Bitchy Gossip Mc Andrew (2014) even goes as far as to claim that “women are more likely to use gossip in an aggressive or socially destructive manner.” While men may be interested in the doings of other men, women are “obsessed” by the doings of other women. “And that is not benign.” Women are more likely to use gossip to exclude and ostracize others. “The motivation for this relational aggression can be as trivial as simple boredom, but it more often transpires in retaliation of perceived slights or envy over physical appearance or males.” Women will try to exclude competitors from their social groups, and “damage their ability to maintain a reliable social network of their own” (McAndrew, 2014). mean girls Scores of studies use evolutionary psychology and biology to show that it is in a woman’s DNA to gossip and display “bitchy behaviour,” as she is competing for males and needs to dismantle the competition (see for example, Tracy Vaillancourt ’s study published in the Journal Aggressive Behaviour). But as Soraya Nadia McDonald from the Washington Post observes, such studies are usually based on flawed research. “These claims aren’t just irresponsible because they reinforce sexist and pernicious stereotypes about women. (…)  Too many researchers merely end up providing pseudo-scientific justification for the status quo.”

Dominique Darmon has been a senior lecturer at The Hague University for Applied Sciences since 2012. She is the award winning author of "Have I Got Dirt for You: Using Office Gossip to Your Advantage" and "Roddel je naar de top: De ultieme kantoorgids." She teaches international communication management and is a member of the Research Group Change Management at the university. Dominique has more than fifteen years of experience as a television producer: she worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, for Vision TV, (Canada’s national, multi-faith television network) and produced documentaries for OMNI Television, (a Canadian multi-cultural station). Dominique then worked for SNV (Netherlands Development Organisation) as international campaign manager. Her work took her around the world, to places such as Russia, Indonesia, Cuba, Iraq, Cambodia, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea.

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