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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Ooh, gossip

Really loved this article in today's NYT science section about the value of gossip; it appeals to the social scientist (and perhaps also the gossip) in me. The authors argue that gossip is essential to keeping social units functioning, serving to reinforce group norms and bond more loosely affiliated individuals--and while that "enforcing group norms" sounds ominous, neither the article nor (I think) one's own experience bears that out, particularly when the gossip concerns friends. How often do any of us really treat a friend differently because of something scandalous we learn about them? We may natter on disapprovingly and thus cement our bonds with our other friends, but in the end I think we judge people on much more complex grounds than one failing or bad habit.

The article also notes what prime social currency gossip is, and this is certainly as true in the academic setting as anywhere else. At one of our job market meetings last year, our then-Job Placement Officer lectured us on the dangers of gossiping during an on-campus interview (at dinner, for example, or over drinks), telling us how that sort of thing reflected badly on a candidate, making the interviewers nervous about one's obviously loose tongue . . . and would inevitably get back to INRU. And while this isn't bad advice--one shouldn't go around talking about the sexual escapades of senior scholars or rumors that they plagiarized their latest book, or anything--I think it fails to recognize the kind of collegiality that can be established by sharing the occasional juicy detail.

In my own case, I've certainly told stories on my advisor at conferences--mainly because I'm always asked, "so what's it like . . . working with Advisor?", in a tone that perfectly conveys what the interlocutor is expecting to hear. I'd never talk about the rumors surrounding her married life, but I'd certainly tell humorous anecdotes that, while they might not make her look particularly good, are essentially harmless and basically conform to what everyone already knows or believes to be true about her. And I've cemented friendships with junior faculty at other schools by mentioning the nicknames we grad students have for certain of our own junior faculty--but only when it was clear that the person I was talking to also disliked said faculty member. I don't trade in rumors with new acquaintances, but the illustrative, little-known fact? Absolutely. Because, as the article notes, when you share what you've got, you gain valuable currency in return.

Give, and ye shall receive!

link | posted by La Lecturess at 11:55 PM |


Blogger BrightStar commented at 9:44 PM~  

True confession: I'm a gossip! Not about my advisor, but more like... about people who annoy me. I will say things like, "omg, did you hear what so-and-so said?" and that sort of thing... I hadn't thought about it like reinforcing norms, but I see how gossiping like I do communicates how NOT to act around me.

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