In middle school I learned how to solve for the hypotenuse and identify properties of an atom, but the most enduring skill I picked up was how to gossip. Eighth grade in particular was consumed by chatter and rumors — my classmates and I had spent nine years together, witnessing one another’s staggered entrances into puberty. As a class of 26, we had perhaps more access to one another than is advisable at such a vulnerable age.
Our homeroom teacher, Ms. Deehr, a severe Catholic-school teacher who resembled a sitcom stereotype, had no tolerance for what she called “talking behind each other’s backs.” She quoted from Proverbs: “A whisperer separates close friends.” I burned with shame over my recess gossip, fearing that eternal flames awaited me if I didn’t stop. Yet, I whispered relentlessly and often without cruelty. My friends and I talked about a classmate’s parents’ divorce when we were trying to understand our own parents’ fighting. We speculated about someone’s trip to Victoria’s Secret while poking at our own training bras, which were really just for show. We were trying to understand things about ourselves, and the tiny world we inhabited, the only way we knew how: by observing one another and making sense of those observations together. Ms. Deehr failed to mention a verse that came later, also from Proverbs: “The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels.”
Trading information felt like an opportunity to accrue capital in a world in which we had none, providing the promise of insiderness when we were not yet inside.
For an adolescent, gossip was about currying favor, remaining on the inside of a group as a pimply teen terrified of being pushed outside. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar has proposed that humans developed spoken language not to more effectively hunt or build or conquer but to gossip. If we’re going to maintain our position within a group, we need to learn what personal behavior could jeopardize our standing there.
When I first moved to New York as a young literary publicist, I often had drinks with agents and editors who relayed the kind of casual industry gossip that emerges after a round or two. Someone’s roommate rarely spent the night with his girlfriend, though they were perceived as a literary power couple; a novelist who trumpeted his working-class sensibility on Twitter actually came from a family fortune; someone’s charming New Zealand accent was a bit put on. Gossip like this was often presented with a halfhearted “don’t repeat this” tone, to which I nodded sensitively and murmured, “I would never,” while already thinking of texting my best friend about it on the subway ride home.
My friend and I moved to New York around the same time, and we were gleeful observers to a whole city of complex rules and norms, which we made sense of by deconstructing them together. I wanted to know everything about an industry that allowed me to live in the place whose skyline I had stenciled on my bedroom wall in childhood, and trading information felt like an opportunity to accrue capital in a world in which we had none, providing the promise of insiderness when we were not yet inside. With each piece of information we shared — the slit on someone’s skirt was too risqué, and at first we recoiled but then admired it, and what did that say about us? Another assistant had asked for a raise, and was it time we did the same? — we reinforced our solidarity.
Sometimes she would text me the next day and say she felt terrible for saying so much about so many people; it gave her an uneasy feeling that if she remained overly invested in other people’s lives, she would never pay enough attention to her own. “It’s like candy,” she said. “If you eat too much, you feel a little gross.” I would try to convince her then that gossip was different from the indiscriminate spilling of secrets: The latter is an undeniable breach of trust, and the kind of gossip we relished — often secondhand or thirdhand knowledge — consisted of minor social grievances that could be aired without betraying confidential information. That doesn’t mean gossip is ever moral or fair or even true; it’s just that it can also be an enormous amount of fun.
The internet complicates that fun. Trash talk is disseminated so quickly via coded subtweets and rows of ecstatic bulging side-eye emojis that it makes Page Six look restrained. While whispering over drinks creates the sensation of being granted access to something you’re not supposed to know, internet gossip reads like a power grab in which a person announces one’s status as someone “in the know.” Social media platforms reward our meanest, least empathetic selves and push us toward extreme positions. In this context, the benign exaggerations of gossip can morph into catastrophic untruths.
‘It’s like candy. If you eat too much, you feel a little gross.’
The internet also obliterates the privacy of a personal network, undermining in-person gossip’s primary pleasure: In disclosing something to someone one on one, you’re also saying that you trust them. If humans did indeed develop language in order to gossip, it’s because gossiping creates interpersonal bonds and offers context about the lives we lead.
Despite her many attempts, my friend never completely kicked her gossip habit, and I remain hopeful that I can coax her off the wagon for good. Although I’m now less intrigued by much publishing-world whispers — how large a debut novelist’s book advance was, who chewed who out in a marketing meeting — gossip persists as a way that I formulate my understanding of the world and my place in it.
Kristen Radtke is the author of the forthcoming graphic nonfiction book “Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness” (Pantheon, July 2021).