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PSSST! // Heard the latest? Gossip is out of the closet

(ran TP edition)

Have you heard?

Madonna has enlisted the help of a mystical guru to help raise baby Lourdes.

President Clinton was seen having a few drinks before he took a tumble down Greg Norman's stairs.

And Bob over in purchasing left his wife and three kids for a woman half his age.

If you like gossip, (and we bet you do), there's plenty to be had these days, most of it lots juicier than anything we could print in a family newspaper. What with six supermarket tabloids, a legion of glossy celebrity rags and more than 30 television shows devoted to personal revelation and sensational news, gossip has been transformed from a dirty little secret into a huge and profitable industry.

Meanwhile, traditional person-to-person dishing seems as popular as ever, a pastime that ranks right up there with drinking coffee and watching TV. Though it's hard to put a finger on exactly how much personal gossiping goes on every day, a British study cited by Temple University gossip researcher Marianne Jaeger showed that workers spent as much as 50 percent of their office time in "off-task" conversation, a great deal of that about other people. Add faxes, phones and the Internet, and gossip takes on new speed and range.

As widespread as it is, gossip is the most stigmatized form of information sharing, the Arnold Horshack of communication. It says too much, it laughs too loud, it crosses the line of respectability. To brand someone a gossip is to issue a stinging criticism.

But 900 years ago, that wouldn't have been the case. The Old English word godsibb meant a godparent, someone who was meant to nurture the spiritual and emotional life of a child. Later, the term referred to a man's drinking companions, as well as to female friends and family members who gathered at the home of an expectant mother to await the birth of a child.

Ben Franklin was reportedly proud of the gossip column he wrote in the Philadelphia Gazette in the 1730s, but it wasn't long after that gossip became associated with slander and small-minded talk. Interestingly, that's also when it became characterized as a mostly feminine activity, while men supposedly engaged in the more neutral "shop talk."

Today, nearing the end of the century that saw Walter Winchell rise to prominence on a wave of intimate revelations and Ted Kennedy laid low by disclosures about his private life, we have critics telling us that widespread gossip is a sign that society and civility are falling apart, that the media are hopelessly corrupt, and that the masses have lowered their expectations beyond hope of recovery.

But we also have academics who are studying gossip, and some of their research shows that it might not be so bad after all.

"I believe that gossip is a very positive force," says Jack Levin, a professor at Boston's Northeastern University who co-wrote the book Gossip: the Inside Scoop. "It's widely misunderstood. When people think of gossip, they think of dirt, but it has many positive values."

Levin defines gossip as personal talk about someone not present. He insists that much of it is true, contrary to the "telephone game" model in which information loses integrity every time it is passed along. Especially with gossip about neighbors, co-workers or friends, Levin says, "People have an interest in getting the real scoop, so they vent the information to make sure it is valid."

Only 27 percent of gossip is strictly negative, according to a study done by Levin and Arnold Arluke at Northeastern University. Another 27 percent is positive, and the rest is mixed. Negative or positive, it serves psychological and social purposes that are essential.

Levin says gossip helps to delineate social values, letting people know when they might cross the line. A neighbor whispering about the family around the block with the loud stereo and overgrown yard is saying "I know that you and I would never behave that way, now would we?"

He says it also conveys valuable intelligence not available through official channels: "At the office, it's required information," he says. "You learn at the water cooler more than you do in the company handbook." That manager known for her efficiency may not be the most compassionate person when you miss a deadline, but you can figure that out in advance if you question your co-workers. And that cute guy in marketing may seem like a fun Saturday night companion, but ask the other women in the office to make sure he's not the company serial dater.

Gossip's most important function, according to Levin and other researchers, is to help us make social comparisons. Knowing about our neighbor's family troubles or financial travails can make our problems seem small by comparison. And knowing that the rich and famous have mundane difficulties somehow makes our ordinary lot more bearable.

"I heard it over and over again: It's true that money doesn't buy happiness," says Elizabeth Bird, a University of South Florida professor of anthropology who interviewed hundreds of tabloid readers for her book For Enquiring Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids. "It's somehow reassuring to think about Liz Taylor, who after all she's had probably just wants to find a nice husband and to be thin."

Reassuring, also, to read another type of tabloid story, of "the regular guy does the amazing" genre. "Cracked Skull Turns Ordinary Joe into Brilliant Sculptor," read a headline in the April 1 National Examiner, an issue that also featured a story on a boy from Chernobyl who has triumphed over his radiation-induced deformities, and a piece on Princess Diana's continuing spat with her former mother-in-law.

Taken together, the stories have "a kind of leveling effect," Bird says.

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Who gossips and when is of special interest to researchers. Many, like Bird, see a gender bias in the way gossip is perceived.

"Gossip is associated with old wives' tales and women nattering together," Bird says. "The men I talked to would say "I don't gossip,' and then proceed to tell me that so and so is sleeping with so and so. But they'd insist it was important to know that."

Levin and Arluke speculate that the derogation of gossip came when men began to worry about the power of women's talk, fearing "that at least a certain amount of female companionship involved talk about their husband's shortcomings." Their book describes a predominantly Chicano town in Texas that discouraged contact between women who were not of the same family, to the point of severely punishing two women who were discovered talking together. (Both of the women, by the way, lived alone.)

But when it comes down to it, men and women spend about equal amounts of time gossiping. Where they differ is in the content of their gossip. Women are more likely to talk about people they know, while men tend to talk about people at a remove _ sports stars, media figures, politicians and the like.

Male or female, gossips are not usually social isolates grasping for popularity. In fact, according to research that Temple University's Marianne Jaeger conducted in a college sorority, gossips tended to be "the movers and shakers. They were the officers and the people who planned the parties. They weren't necessarily considered to be the nicest people, but they were the most interesting."

People who pass along rumors are a different story. Rumor is dubious information about situations and sometimes, people, like the whisperings that went around in the late 1980s about the Moonies controlling Procter & Gamble. Or the story that went around in the early 1970s about the death of Paul McCartney.

"We found that people who tended to pass on that kind of rumor had fewer friends," Jaeger said. "That's different than talking about someone in your circle."

Jaeger is planning a study on the entertainment value of gossip, something she feels has been overlooked in recent research on the subject. Gossip's function as a form of pure social connection is also of interest to her.

"Gossip is a form of sociability _ you need people to gossip about and gossip with."

Jack Levin agrees. "Gossip is a sign that people are interested in other people. I think we should be surprised when people don't gossip. We should worry about the mental health of people who aren't interested in other people."

Levin notes that the rise of celebrity gossip has accompanied increasing isolation and disconnection in American culture. In the absence of a neighbor or friend to talk about (or with), people can read about Goldie Hawn's struggle to get Kurt Russell to marry her, or Robert Downey Jr.'s troubles with drugs. Even fictional characters can take on a gossip function _ witness obsessive Melrose Place fans who talk about Amanda and Kyle and Peter and Sydney as if they were real people.

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If all this seems trivial, consider Jack Levin's boldest assertion about gossip:

"I think it's essential to democracy."

Levin says that after Sen. Ted Kennedy's fall from grace at Chappaquiddick, politicians could no longer expect to behave badly in their private lives and get away with it.

"If you're Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton, there is no place to hide. You are extremely vulnerable. You might as well be in a small village, because you can't escape. Gossip is one of our most effective tools to keep powerful people in line."

Private citizens, on the other hand, can change their geographic location to escape damaging gossip, something that comes in handy if that private citizen is a habitual non-returner of borrowed money, or a notorious philanderer.

But for law-abiding citizens, it's probably easier to follow a few simple guidelines of gossip etiquette.

First of all, you have to give as good as you get:

"There's a norm of reciprocity _ you can't receive more than you give," Levin says. "If you only tell _ you're a gossipmonger. But if you offer your own personal stories, people will be inclined to share theirs."

And if you find yourself the unfortunate victim of talk that isn't true, Levin says, "you've got to confront it immediately. But that's the last thing people do. They feel they don't want to dignify it _ they feel so misunderstood and victimized _ that they're silent. But if you confront it, it won't spread."

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