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Is Your Confidence of No Consequence?

Pretty Little Liars (season 1)

Pretty Little Liars (season 1) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Got a secret, can you keep it? Swear this one you’ll save! Better lock it in your pocket, taking this one to the grave. If I show you, then I know you won’t tell what I said. Because two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.”

This catchy opening song from the hit ABC Family show Pretty Little Liars, while dramatic, does seemingly  sum up the darker underbelly of human interactions. Sure, the dictionary defines gossip as: “Idle talk or rumor, especially about the private or personal affairs of others.” But are we just talking amongst ourselves to pass away the time, or does gossip serve a higher (or lower) purpose?

One lecture I attended in college made the argument that members of small communities love to talk about each other in order to stay connected and feel part of a group. And certainly, some gossip is good gossip, as we spread positive stories of others’ accomplishments and happy moments through our literal and virtual social networks. But what about when gossip turns ugly? As a woman, I cannot speak much about what men talk about amongst themselves, but I have noticed that my male friends and acquaintances focus much less on others during our  conversations than my female friends do. Women seem to want to jump straight into the nitty-gritty details of their own relationships (romantic, platonic, familial, work, you name it) and their perceptions of how the relationships between others are faring. Men, on the other hand, most often talk to me about their school and work accomplishments, their future plans, what they did last Saturday, why Obama / Romney /fill-in-the-blank is a moron, whether the Big Bang Theory is ludicrous or not . . . you get the idea.

So if this aforementioned blanket statement can be taken as somewhat factual–and I know there are many exceptions out there, but I’m only speaking of generalities at the moment–why might this be? Evolutionary psychologists often argue that women, as the historically more nurturing and child-oriented partner in the battle of the sexes, evolved to communicate quickly and effectively with their children and neighbors. They might say that men, as hunters, did not need to speak much to their fellow men as they tracked game and hunted in Africa tens of thousands of years ago. Yet the groups of women left alone back at the camp site or small settlement  needed to forge relationships with other women, to “tend and befriend” if you will for their communal survival as they reared children, gathered nearby fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts, warned of intruders encroaching on their territory, and generally tried to win everybody over in the “united we stand, divided we fall” ideology. For that to happen successfully, these women would need to know their neighbors’ news almost as intimately as they knew their own.

Once again, this is not to say all men avoid discussing the dynamics of relationships or that all women run around gossiping about each other every day. Actually, I am more interested in gossip as a method of communication than I am in who said what to whom. So the bottom line is: Why can’t we keep that juicy piece of information our friend texts us about or whispers to us right before we enter the party to ourselves? Were the lecturers right that gossip makes us feel like we are tightly knit into the fabric of a community, that we are in the know and have friends? Otherwise, let’s be honest, who else would have told us something worth sharing in the first place?

I was taken aback one day when I shared personal information with a friend (Person A) only to have one of her friends (Person B), who I didn’t know as well, discuss it with me later that afternoon. When I asked Person A how Person B found out, she said, “Oh come on, you know that when you tell one of us, you tell all of us.” But is that right? No matter how close a group of friends–male or female–may be, shouldn’t your own individual confidence count for something? Maybe I should have explicitly said, “Please don’t pass this on down the grapevine,” but isn’t that implied once the subject matter gets personal? Yet, on the other hand, if you have no idea that your friend’s mother was just in a bad car accident because nobody tells you, that could put you at a distinct disadvantage because you just won’t be as sensitive and sympathetic to your friend as you would be if you knew.

There are no clear-cut answers, and perhaps people just gossip because they’re bored or because it’s fun. But I also tend to think that we are comparing and judging ourselves against each other too. I have one relative who is convinced that nobody wants to hear other people’s good news, but if you have something to complain about, everyone will roll out the red carpet for you to come moan with them in the peanut gallery. Do we feel better about ourselves when we hear someone is worse off than we are or inwardly cringe when we hear of a friend’s great achievements if our own lives aren’t clicking along like a well-oiled machine? At the very least, gossip provides us an idea of what’s possible. If, for example, your neighbor’s son Bob just got accepted into Yale, than you can ignore those cliches that “Nobody ever gets into the Ivy Leagues” when it’s your own child’s turn to apply to college.

Those same evolutionary psychologists from before who were opinionated about the nature of female and male conversation also tend to think that gossip about who is romantically involved with who serves a higher evolutionary purpose. They say it is in our best interest to find out if someone is available to us as a mating partner or not, arguing that one of our primary goals in life is to pass along our genes to the next generation. That’s definitely something to think about when one considers the recent swirl of rumors and speculation surrounding the break-up of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise. Do we only care about such Hollywood gossip–and our own friends’ love lives for that matter– because in the depths of our subconscious minds, we know that break-ups place both partners back on the meat market?

There’s no doubt about it, information is power. But just how much power do you want to wield? And why?

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