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Books by (l to r) Professors Fine, McAdams, and Phillips explore the irresistible topics of gossip and reputation.

Say WHAT? Gossip Isn't Idle After All

Books by (l to r) Professors Fine, McAdams, and Phillips explore the irresistible topics of gossip and reputation.

Gossip and its more respectable cousin—reputation—are undergoing an image makeover. Once confined to celebrity TV shows, salacious websites, and supermarket tabloids, commentary on gossip and reputation has entered the realm of thought-provoking scholarship in the last several years. Academics are taking a serious look at a topic usually seen as trivial, recognizing gossip’s power to forge bonds between individuals and groups, to obscure class boundaries, and to sway public opinion.

“Some psychologists argue that gossip is the fundamental form of social communication, and that the reason humans have such large brains is because of gossip,” explains Dan McAdams, professor of psychology and human development. “We live in social groups and a big thing we do is sort out each other’s characteristics, which takes a lot of brain power. Gossip has a bad rap, but it’s endemic to a social group. It’s a cool, deep, important behavior.” 

McAdams is one of three Weinberg professors who have recently explored the juicy topic of gossip and reputation from angles as divergent as 14th-century English literature to mid-20th century politics to the decisions made by President George W. Bush. Their books delve into the uncharted territory of chatter and informal comments, which can coalesce into reputations and ultimately affect broad political and cultural landscapes.

Gossip, of course, has existed ever since people have had a spare second to comment on other people’s behavior. In "Transforming Talk: The Problem with Gossip in Late Medieval England", Susan E. Phillips, associate professor of English, traces the word “gossip” back to the 14th century, when it began to evolve into its present-day meaning. Originally the word referred to the religious position of “godparent”—the person, either male or female, responsible for a child’s spiritual and physical well-being. The word for gossip as we know it today was “jangling” or “ydel [idle] talke,” which encompassed chatter, insolent and unproductive speech, tale-telling, news, disturbing reports, bawdy jokes, and scorning one’s neighbor. In other words, anything interesting that one person might say to another.

Apparently jangling was a big problem in late medieval England, because Phillips found many sermons, letters, and literature condemning it. Priests railed against the sin of idle talk to their parishioners, many of whom chattered blissfully unaware throughout services. Janglers were a big enough threat to ecclesiastical authority to warrant their own demon, a nasty-looking creature named Titivillus who wrote down their words to be read against them on the Day of Judgment. (Carvings of Titivillus can be found in the misericords of medieval English churches to this day.)

Ironically, priests themselves jangled, telling each other secrets they learned in the confessional and in some cases going so far as to blackmail their parishioners. “Gossip isn’t just women’s work,” Phillips remarks. “Even though all the priests complain about gossip, they also use it in their sermons to get people to listen. Associating gossip with women was a way of trivializing it.”

Phillips contends that one exception to the general censure of jangling was Geoffrey Chaucer, whom she argues treated gossip sympathetically. She points to the House of Fame in the "Canterbury Tales" in which Chaucer celebrates gossip as both an essential social activity and a productive poetic tool. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale highlight the biggest gossip in the "Canterbury Tales"—she uses idle talk to dominate her narratives as well as her husband’s. Phillips reads the fables as commentary on jangling’s power to blur societal and familial boundaries rather than as cautionary tales about the evil of gossip.

“My argument is that idle talk isn’t really idle. It does all kinds of literary work and it can change certain perceptions or practices into other ones,” Phillips says. “It’s secret-sharing that can transform both the speakers and their secrets.”

But how did gossip come to replace jangling? Phillips describes how the role of “gossips”—that is, godparents—expanded throughout the 14th century. The church encouraged gossips to forge alliances that involved mutual financial, social, and political benefits with the child’s parents. New mothers in the upper classes held increasingly large and lavish baptismal feasts for their gossips. During and after the birth, women gathered around the mother to share personal and practical information, comment on authority figures, and strengthen friendships. Church officials felt increasingly threatened by gossips’ growing power, and by the late 15th century, texts—including several popular songs—mocking gossips were circulating widely. Soon the term gossip was relegated to women’s idle talk, trivializing the gossips’ important roles in medieval society.

Jump forward roughly 400 years, and one can see that the art of gossip has changed a lot. The printing press and, more recently, television and radio all speed the sharing of informal information. Replacing the merry gossips are, as sociology professor Gary Fine identifies, “reputational entrepreneurs”—people interested in shaping and presenting reputations to the public. Whether politicians, journalists, government officials, or campaign managers, these individuals act as agents who draw from historical and contemporary information to influence public opinion.

“I look at the battles between various political and economic actors, who take on the role of agents determining what is true,” Fine says. “It makes for interesting drama. The reputational entrepreneur sees it in his or her interest to influence events. The public relies on their interests to determine its response.”

Fine helped pioneer the study of gossip and reputation in 1976 with his first book, "Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay". In his recent book "Sticky Reputations: The Politics of Collective Memory in Midcentury America", Fine looks at culturally unique 20th-century political figures and movements. A few figures have such entrenched reputations that to speak out against the majority opinion is to make a statement about oneself. He uses the examples of Adolph Hitler and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to illustrate his point. Praising Hitler in any way—say, the Nazis’ provision of good public healthcare to Germans—will certainly invoke moral backlash. Similarly, any negative remarks directed at Dr. King will most likely provoke anger and perhaps charges of racism. For this reason Fine describes their reputations as “sticky,” meaning they rub off on the dissenter. People may oppose the prevailing opinions about these men, but in doing so they stand outside civil society.

“You can’t talk about people with sticky reputations without having to justify a deviant belief,” Fine asserts. “A good case to look at is Christopher Hitchens and his book and essays criticizing Mother Teresa. People think, ‘How could someone trash Mother Teresa?’ Part of that criticism stuck to him. He was a controversialist but he still had to justify his statements.”

Fine goes on to investigate other, not-so-sticky public figures, including Charles Lindbergh, Pete Seeger, and Lillian Gish, all of whom had to contend with the power of reputational entrepreneurs in the court of public opinion. For instance, after attaining some success as a musician in the 1940s, Seeger came under intense governmental scrutiny for his Communist activities. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 and cited on 10 counts of contempt. Afterwards he was dropped from his record label. Eventually, the public’s attention was diverted to other scandals. The reputational entrepreneurs who had first pushed for Seeger’s disgrace were replaced by a new generation, and no one else took on the task of attacking Seeger’s leftist pursuits. Over the next few decades the public grew increasingly disinterested in his political beliefs, and today Seeger stands a beloved folk hero; in 1994 he received the National Medal of Arts, the highest official honor for an American artist.

According to Fine, “Seeger was highly controversial at one time but his reputation has solidified in a generally positive way because people don’t want to make the effort to fight those battles. Reputational entrepreneurs need interests, resources, and organizational support.”

While Fine examines external influences on reputations, McAdams explores how individuals’ personal identities affect their actions and how they are influenced by others’ judgments.

McAdams studies a particular set of character traits that personality scientists have identified through roughly 75 years of research. “They are really personality dimensions that are consolidated through gossip and social reputation,” he notes. “Reputations emerge from social observations, and these are not completely bogus. They’re not right all the time, but they correlate to traits of personality.”

Interestingly, most people are well aware of others’ opinions about them. “People rate themselves, too, through feedback and how they observe themselves.”

An acronym for these five personality traits is OCEAN: “O” for openness to experience; “C” for conscientiousness, which includes discipline and organizational skills; “E” for extraversion, the tendency to be outgoing; “A” for agreeableness, which includes humility and altruism; and “N” for neuroticism, the tendency to be sad, anxious, or distressed. These traits are strongly driven by genetics and early experiences in life, remain largely stable throughout the lifespan, and greatly influence an individual’s path in life.

In "George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream", McAdams focuses on specific personality traits that led the 43rd president to insist on the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which has become the cornerstone of his legacy.

McAdams applied concepts and theories from contemporary personality, social, developmental, and cognitive psychology to analyze Bush’s traits. He argues that Bush is extraordinarily extraverted, a trait he has showed from early childhood, and as such he is confident, decisive, and upbeat. At the same time, he rates very low on his openness to new experiences, which is connected to the willingness to appreciate multiple points of view. McAdams argues that this combination produces a self-assured protagonist who will act boldly and harbor no doubts—exactly the kind of leader who would charge into battle, untroubled by the complexity of the situation.

“Bush’s strong dispositional traits predisposed him to approach the problem of Iraq as a highly energized, optimistic, and confident actor on the world stage, for better and for worse.”

Although our own decisions may not exert the same wide-reaching influence as those of President Bush, all of us play a starring, if less visible, role in our lives. It’s what makes us human, after all. McAdams observes, “We’re all acting onstage all the time. We check out each other, we rate each other. As complicated social animals we’ve evolved to be that way, and gossip is a way of building social reputations. As far as we know we are the only species to do this.”

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