'Gossip': It's Salacious, Yes, But Never Trivial

Dec 6, 2011

Gossip is arguably one of humanity's oldest pastimes. It can be entertaining, it's occasionally helpful, it's often salacious and even, at times, vicious.

What it's not, argues Joseph Epstein, is trivial.

The author and essayist has already traced the history and practice of two other human weaknesses, snobbery and envy. In his new book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, he turns his eye on our deep desire to hear — and share — the secrets of others, even if we feel guilty about doing so.

Epstein talks with NPR's Neal Conan about why we engage in gossip, what makes for a particularly juicy tidbit, and why he says the art of well-told gossip is being lost in our tell-all, celebrity-obsessed digital age.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The only problem with the Garden of Eden, writes Joseph Epstein, is that there wasn't a third person there for Adam and Eve to gossip about. Much as we may hate to admit it, most of us love a salacious tidbit about a colleague, a rival or a loathed political figure, and few can resist the urge to pass a story along.

To be sure, gossip can tank a marriage or torpedo a career, but Epstein argues that there's purpose, value, even good in it. The key, he writes, is motive: malice, vengeance, titillation, curiosity, information for just a few. And when tempted to gossip, he asks himself - why?

So call us. When you passed along some gossip, what did you get out of it? What was in it for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, why social networks can't be private no matter how stringent your privacy settings, but first author Joseph Epstein joins us. He was with us previously on snobbery and envy. His new book is "Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit." And he joins us today from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Nice to have you back.

JOSEPH EPSTEIN: Thank you very much. I was here more recently. You may forget. You invited me to talk about the debasement of honorary degrees and to...

CONAN: Yes, of course, I apologize.

EPSTEIN: Right, and I mock them. And such is the power of your show, I have to tell you that I haven't, in the past four years, been offered a single honorary degree. I can't tell you how grateful I am to you.


CONAN: Let me describe a meeting, you ran into a former colleague of yours at a coffee shop in Chicago, and you write: She went on to puncture the exaggerated pretensions of the so-called - her qualifications - scholars in the department she knew, who had attempted suicide, who was living with a lesbian partner, who had a secret drinking problem, who spoke against a putative friend at a closed meeting who was up for tenure, who attained to new heights of pomposity and unreality in his or her behavior.

I added my own on-the-whole less-rich bits to this splendid stew of gossip. I couldn't remember when I had such a delightful time.

EPSTEIN: Well, you know, an academic department is a perfect setting for gossip. It's like a little village, isn't it? I remember this, I asked how the faculty is doing, and this woman said: Oh, you mean the three D's? The depressed, the disappointed and the deranged. And, you know, and we sort of took off from there. And the delight then, and it was an hour and a half, and as I say at the end of the little sketch, I don't remember when I've had such a nice time.

Now, of course, there's a kind of guilty pleasure in gossip, is there not? You know, every religion has made a stand against gossip. In fact, Orthodox Judaism even goes so far as to say in the Talmud, you shouldn't even say nice things about a person, because you start saying nice things, pretty soon you're kind of, you know, (unintelligible) into slightly critical, more critical, and then you're gossiping.

But none of these religions has made any headway about gossip because gossip is about the most interesting thing in the world, which is other people.

CONAN: And probably unavoidable for that. Let's get into some of those motivations, though, that you write about, and you cite the philosopher Emrys Westacott, giving several possibilities among the countless ones that are available, the first and most miserable is that whoever the gossiper is wants to do dirt to the person he is gossiping about.

EPSTEIN: Exactly, that's - gossip has its bad name because of its often vicious aspect, somebody wants to sink somebody else's reputation in a way that's - the motive is simply viciousness, and one has to sort of guard against that kind of gossip.

My own favorite is gossip about the foibles of other people, their pretensions, their little hypocrisies, their pretensions, that to me is the most amusing of all. I had a dear friend, I don't mention his name in the book, but he's since died. His name was John Gross(ph), and he was the editor of the Times literary supplement.

And as I mentioned in the book, he dined at higher tables than I and had wonderful stories. I'd get these transcontinental calls, and it begins something like: Joe, John Gross here from London. Joe, I'll bet you can't tell me with whom Fidel Castro is sleeping. You know, and then he'd put me through guessing, and, you know, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir - no, no, no, no, Joe, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Or he would have a story about a Nobel prizewinner. In this case, Harold Pinter is sending out little poems to his friends, even though he's won the Nobel Prize, he has all the recognition in the world, needing more praise still for his small poems. And it's that kind of gossip that I find so charming.

CONAN: There's a funny comeback that one of his correspondents has when a two-line poem delivered to him from the great man and asked, well, how did you like it.

EPSTEIN: Yes, the poem was, as John told it to me over the phone, a pukey little poem, you see. He said, it goes like this. You probably don't know Len Hutton's name. He's like a cricketeer, comparable to your Joe DiMaggio, you see. I knew Len Hutton in his prime, another time, another time. You see, that was the whole poem, John says.

In any case, he sends it out to various people, and they all write back and praise him: You've nailed it this time, Harold. Oh, Harold, how you captured this is beyond my reckoning. Except one friend doesn't answer, and after two weeks, Harold Pinter calls the friend and says: Simon, have you - did you - not that it matters, but did you get that poem I sent you? He said: Yes, yes I did, Harold.

He said: What did you think of it? And he said: Well, actually, haven't quite finished it. And that's a perfect John Gross story, if I may say so. And that's artful gossip, I think, it's very good.

CONAN: There are other motivations, including, you say, the purely informational. Gossip is a form of news.

EPSTEIN: Absolutely, and sometimes it's crucial news. For example, if you're working for a large corporation, it would be very helpful to know that your CEO is having a nervous breakdown, you know, or in an academic department what sort of changes are being made in universities. In small corporate bodies, gossip is the only kind of form of news that one - that is available to one and can be of greatest significance.

CONAN: We're asking you, our listeners, for your motives. What was in it for you when you passed along a piece of gossip? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Luke(ph), Luke with us from Cokeville, Tennessee.

LUKE: First I'd like to say that I think Adam and Eve might have been gossiping about Lilith. I just think something to throw out there. But the reason I have gossiped in the past and what I got out of it was when I was a kid, being a particularly introverted individual, I took it to heart not to gossip about anybody.

But now that I'm grown up and out of college and with a better friend group, I find that when I'm dishing on somebody, I suppose, that I feel closer to the people that I'm actually talking with, sort of - I feel like I'm closer friends with them, warmer, more accepted. And at particular times when - oh goodness - that I've been talking about girls that I have a crush on or would like to ask out or how things are going in a romantic field, it's good to hear feedback on that, and it makes me feel closer to who I'm talking with.

CONAN: And...

EPSTEIN: I think that - I'm sorry.

CONAN: No, I was just going to put it back to you. But go ahead.

EPSTEIN: Yes, I was going to say that's absolutely so, what you said. I think gossip is an act of kind of social intimacy. When one comes to another person with a delightful bit of gossipy news, one is kind of conferring a gift on that person, and I think it ought to be accepted as a gift, you know, if the motives are purely that of entertainment and/or analysis of character. It's a very intimate act.

You know, one wouldn't gossip with just anybody. It - it means there's a kind of friendship before you can convey delightful gossip, I think.

CONAN: Luke, thanks very much.

LUKE: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Samantha(ph) in New Orleans: I think I enjoy gossiping because I get a little thrill, excitement at the unique response gossip brings. However, I think in reality it's a form of narcissism. It brings attention to myself, makes me funny, interesting and clever.

EPSTEIN: Much to that, too. That's a very savvy remark. I think it is - you know, what you are saying when you convey gossip is I'm a kind of insider, I have the lowdown, the true gem, and I'm now going to give it to you. But in fact you're saying I'm the man who has it or the woman who has it.

And there is a slight narcissistic aspect to it, though I don't think it's crucial, it doesn't have to be. I don't think my friend John Gross, mentioned earlier, was a narcissistic person at all. I think he just thought isn't this delightful, Joe should know.

CONAN: Joe should know. Well, there is also, you note, another motive, as suggested by Emyrs Westacott, jolly prurience.

EPSTEIN: Yes, yes, very good. No, it is that. So much of gossip often is about sex and sexuality, and although I think it's less, perhaps, today than it once was, when now the people are more tolerant about all sorts of sexual conduct. Today if I tell you did you - if I say did you know that X's sister is a lesbian, I don't think that's going to stimulate your interest or excitement very much in the way that 50 years ago it would have been a shocking piece of news to convey to you.

In fact, I'm trying to think of what sort of - I suppose the only time that sexual gossip is really of great, great interest is when there's a large element of hypocrisy entailed.

CONAN: Perhaps involving a politician perhaps, yes.

EPSTEIN: Exactly what I was going to say. You know, the one thing, if I were a politician, the one thing I would never be for is family values because I'm almost certain to be caught coming out of the YMCA with an underage boy or girl. You know, it seems as soon as you're for family values, you're done for because you've sort of set yourself up as, you know, for the great hatchet of hypocrisy to fall on you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Nina(ph): In many religions, gossip is a sin. Being Jewish, I know it's called evil speech. It hurts three people: the one who tells it, the one who listens and the one being spoken of.

EPSTEIN: It is thought a sin. Lashan Hara, I think, is the Hebrew that is called evil speech. And it has evil consequences, very often, you know, as we've talked about. But the thing about it - and one of the things that drove me to write this book is the paradox that even though one knows it can do awful things, it also yields a kind of pleasure.

You know, there's - I talk in the book about four great - what I call great gossips of the Western world. And one of them is the Duke de Saint-Simon, who wrote these brilliant, brilliant memoirs. They are really built on gossip at the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

And gossip was the only mode people had of finding out what was going on. In fact, Louis XIV loved gossip, if only to find out what people thought of him.

CONAN: So did John Kennedy, as you point out in the book.

EPSTEIN: Exactly.

CONAN: Joseph Epstein latest book is titled "Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit." Call and tell us when you've passed along some gossip, what did you get out of it? What was in it for you? 800-989-8255. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Gossip has long been considered the intellectual equivalent of chewing gum, Joseph Epstein writes in his latest book. Despite all the criticism of idle chatter, he argues the major rap against gossip, that is too trivial, is no longer the main thing to be said about it, if it ever was, for gossip has come to play a larger and larger role in public life and, as I argue, in ways that can thrum with significance and odd side effects.

The book is titled "Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit." Call us. When you passed along some gossip, what did you get out of it? What was in it for you? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's see if we can go next to - this is Orly(ph), Orly with us from Boulder.

ORLY: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

ORLY: Thank you. I went to a small woman's college, and gossip was rampant, about wintertime, when there was not much else to talk about. And I think one year I just felt like it was sort of destructive and nasty, and I just didn't want to hear it anymore. So I decided to just not gossip.

And it was interesting. People would start to tell me things, and someone would say, no, no (unintelligible) gossip. Don't (unintelligible) and it was very peaceful. I just really enjoyed not hearing it and not listening to it and not passing it along.

And it sort of - I think it changed the environment around me. People started to think about what they were saying and whether it was something that was nasty or something that was actually just amusing. And it sort of changed a lot.

But of course, you know, after about a year or two, I slipped back into it. But it was an interesting, very peaceful time, not participating in gossip.

CONAN: And why do you think you slipped, as you say?

ORLY: Well, I think what happened, now sort of that I can think about it and analyze it a little bit, I think people stopped being so nasty. It - the nature changed because people weren't telling me nasty things and talking about it in front of me. I think then I didn't feel quite so bad about it. So I thought, you know, I mean, that was many years ago, but I just remember that as a very sort of peaceful, peaceful time, not participating in that kind of talk.

JOSEPH EIPSTEIN: Interesting. You know, one of the first things when you said I went to a small women's college, one of the false suppositions about gossip is that it's a womanly activity. You know, the origin of the word comes from a godmother at a christening, but in fact it turns out it's not - that the one realm of equality that we can be assured on is that men, as well as women, are quite as interested in gossip.

EPSTEIN: As for falling out of the loop and finding peace in it, that too is of great interest. I wonder if you ever wondered while you were out of the loop whether people were gossiping about you and your being prudish or difficult or, you know, stiff-necked. Who knows.

ORLY: I suppose I did think about that, but I made it sort of clear, I think, to my friends, who I actually cared what they thought, that it wasn't out of any sense of, you know, morality or ethical superiority. It was really just out of a sense of I didn't want to hear it. It didn't make me feel good to hear it.

And not that I judged them for it, but it just - and I think that, at that time, you know, when you're that young, and there's not really much else to talk about, a lot of it was so - it was just, though the stakes were so low, there was nothing interesting it. It was sort of rehashing the same critical judgment of other people that we shouldn't have. And I think that was - and I don't know. Maybe they did talk about it, but so what?

EPSTEIN: Well, you know, that too is full of interest to me, the stakes are so low. I used to have someone who worked in the same academic department I did. Sometimes at 9:00 he would call me, at the start of the day, to give me some gossip that was, you know, beyond what I was interested in. I'd say: Alfred, this is lower than I wish to go at this hour, you know?

In fact, there even is, I think, levels of gossip. No one has ever talked about it. I sort of suggested I wished I'd used the phrase in my own book. But I think there's also highbrow gossip, you know, gossip about figures in the great world. Or I say at some point that I'm more interested, for example, in Conor Cruise O'Brien, the Irish writer and diplomatist, than I am in Conan O'Brien.

You know, I don't want to hear any gossip about Jennifer Aniston or Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. But I am interested, even now, in hearing rumors that Guy De Maupassant's father was Balzac. You know, that's historical, antediluvian gossip, as somebody once called it, but it's still full of interest for me, if the stakes are higher and the subjects themselves are up there where it qualifies as sort of highbrow gossip.

ORLY: And it doesn't seem quite so personal.

EPSTEIN: No, that's true. I agree with you about that. It strikes me too that a lot of the gossip you had heard at that time had a kind of nasty edge to it and did have malevolent motives and that too much of that, or even a little of that, is appalling.

CONAN: Orly, thanks very much for the call.

ORLY: Thank you.

CONAN: Getting on to that point exactly, this an email from Pete: Gossip often hurts others. When it does, it's like bursting a pillow on a hilltop. Once the feathers have scattered, it's impossible to put them back, and the damage is done.

EPSTEIN: Brilliant metaphor, I must say. I think it's true. One of the sadnesses of - especially of public gossip, there was a story that ran in the New York Times sometime about a year and a half ago about a famous physician, pediatrician, who was accused of some slight pedophilia among his male patients.

And the Times, the New York Times, a respectable newspaper, God knows, made every effort to be fair. It quoted his colleague saying that this was a man of great significance, you know, he's added to the field of pediatrics in the most serious ways. Yet there were these parents of these young boys who now wanted him fired.

And now, if this all proves untrue and the man didn't do any of these things he's accused of by this small number of patients, the fact is his reputation is ruined forever. And I wondered in a case like that why the New York Times didn't let it play out in the courts. Why did they have to run that story?

I suppose maybe a journalist would say, well, when running the story, we're saving other children from being molested in this way by this man. But he's done for, in a way, for having this story run. So it is - you can't get the feathers back in the pillow, in that splendid metaphor. They're gone.

CONAN: Once it's in the courts, it's of course in the public domain anyway, but...

EPSTEIN: Correct.

CONAN: Is truth a defense?

EPSTEIN: Well, as you know, it's a defense for libel in this country. It isn't in England, oddly enough. In England you can, you know, prove that a man did something outrageous. So there was a case of Max Mosley, the son of the Brownshirt Oswald Mosley, who hired women to undergo sort of Nazi dominatrix sex scenes with him. And one of the English gutter-press tabloids hired somebody to have a camera of all this, and they ran the story.

And Max Mosley was able to show that even though it was true, it harmed his life. It harmed his business life and his family life, and the tabloid had to pay a fine in courts. In America, if something is true, it's not libelous.

CONAN: Let's go next to Natalie(ph), Natalie with us from San Antonio.

NATALIE: Hi, I have just an anecdote about gossip on a kind of micro-international relations level. I studied Chinese in college, and then as a graduate student I had a classmate from China who when we started school would look to me for help with American culture or sometimes with English questions.

And he came into my office one day, and he seemed a little distressed, had a frown on his face. I asked him, you know, what's going on, how's it going. And he said: You know, not too good. I'm missing something. We have this thing in China, and I feel like I don't have it here. And I said: Well, what is it? Maybe I can help you out.

And he said: Well, I don't know the English word. And so he said the Chinese word bagwa(ph) , and I thought I heard him wrong, or I thought maybe my Chinese was wrong, but I was like, do you mean gossip? And he said maybe. I said, you know, people talking about each other? And he said yes, yes. I miss this from China. I don't have this here.

And I said, oh, we have that here. We have gossip here. But at that point, I realized that he - his feelings of not quite fitting in yet were related to the fact that nobody had really included him, as helpful as everyone had been, nobody had included him in that kind of day-to-day conversation about - that you get in academic departments about, you know, whose research is working and which professors are difficult to deal with and who's dating whom and things like that.

CONAN: I hope you promptly told him that his English professor was a notorious plagiarist.


NATALIE: Exactly.

EPSTEIN: Yes, to comfort him, to calm him down and comfort him.

CONAN: (Unintelligible) yes.

EPSTEIN: Yeah, it occurs to me, you know, in my book - I know nothing about the Eastern world at all - but how subtle Chinese gossip must be or must have been certainly at the great courts of the past. You know, maybe this is an inferior - you know, Western inferior culture speaking next to ancient Chinese culture, but I imagine it must have been so elegant and subtle.

NATALIE: I imagine so. And this classmate was the type of person I've never heard him say - speak ill of anyone. But he certainly wanted to hear what was afoot and...

EIPSTEIN: Well, and he was right too in that, you know, he wasn't being allowed into the intimacy of - the intimate circles in which gossip flows.

CONAN: Natalie, thank you.

NATALIE: Thanks.

CONAN: Email from Valone(ph): A few years ago, I worked for a food service company that serves a local university. A rumor was going around that the restaurant I was working with was going to be closing over the summer. The upper management continued not to confirm or deny until two days before we were going to close. They finally made the announcement. The manager then presented the announcement, apologized that the rumor had gone around, but it was only because of the rumor that I was prepared for the possibility of being laid off. I find it unfortunate that the manager who let slip the rumor received a severe scolding, but she saved the rest of us a shock that we would not have been prepared for. And that raises the question and the distinction between rumor and gossip.

EIPSTEIN: You know, rumor and gossip - the dictionary is not very helpful here. They - when you consult the dictionary, rumor kind of elides into gossip and gossip into rumor. So holding myself above all dictionaries, those cowardly little books as some Englishman, Beverley Nichols, once called them, I make a distinction that rumor tends to be about events forthcoming - whereas gossip is always about people, and it's particular and specific, where rumor is about instance and event. I don't know if that's a useful distinction enough, but it's one I found myself drawing.

CONAN: Well, you have the definition for what makes good gossip: feasible, uncheckable and deeply damning.

EIPSTEIN: Yes, it's true. It has to be something that can't be checked. I'll give you a piece of gossip that I learned the other day. A friend of mine said of a bookseller in Chicago, now deceased, that upon his death his son learned that he, the bookseller, had another family in another state. Now, I don't know how I could check this. I suppose I could call the son, but the son might be deeply offended if I called to say, is it true that your father had another family?

And yet it's full of fascination. I knew the bookseller and somehow I thought I had him put into analytical clarity in my mind. I now have to rethink this man and his enormous energy at being able to keep two families going in two different states. Very impressive. But it's feasible because he was a man of great energy. He had seven children with his first family. But it's uncheckable. And now whether that's damning - I guess it is damning. I'll go back on it. It is damning.

CONAN: Joseph Epstein is our guest - essayist, short story author, novelist. His most recent book is "Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I have to ask you about you - as much as you like gossip, it has taken over large parts of our culture.

EIPSTEIN: Yes, that's one of the reasons I think that set me on the writing of the book, that it, I think, politics without culture is nowadays unthinkable. I see leaks as a form of culture. And leaks, as you know, are having a larger and larger role in gossip - in political life. If you look at recent stories in the news - Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Herman Cain, the whole Joe Paterno Penn State story - these are stories that may once have been gossip stories, they're stories without satisfactory, factual grasp on them. And yet they're stories now that appear, as you used to say, above the fold, they're stories, many of them, that lead off the primetime national news broadcasts.

I think once upon a time they would not have done. I think, too, that there's been a great change, and it's affected gossip radically, in the idea of decorum. That is to say, we can spell out details now of gossip in the press that we could not have done years ago. Just to think of American politics, I think Washington insiders knew - if not everybody in the country, certainly Washington insiders knew that FDR had been having a liaison, as they used to call it - with a woman named Lucy Rutherford. Just to be bipartisan about this, I think something similar was known about Dwight David Eisenhower and a woman named Kate Summersby.

CONAN: In his time in England, yes.

EIPSTEIN: Exactly. But it never got into the press. There was a kind of - it's the presidency. You don't want to fowl it up. And I think the last person in American political life who was given this past was John F. Kennedy, who, of course, had a very gaudy personal life, as we've now come to understand.

CONAN: And when he shares a mistress with a Mafia boss, suddenly it's beyond interesting. It's beyond titillation. That's news.

EIPSTEIN: That really is news. And it's - but it's also - and it's, you know, when it starts out, it's gossip to the highest power, is it not? You know, and it - when you go from that to the little blue dress from Gap, and you've come a long way, where you now have to struggle with what Cokie Roberts' immemorial phrase called the yuck factor, you know? It's - we get all the details now. And I think it lowers the tone of the country, in a way. I think to have all the details shared between friends is one thing. To have them sort of out in the public may not be such a good thing.

CONAN: And uncheckable once something is on the Web. Again, it may make for good gossip. It may not make for a very civil society.

EIPSTEIN: It's - you've formulated that perfectly. Do you know on the Web today, I actually learned this from a book written by a man named Daniel Solov(ph) . There is a website called Bitter Waitresses, and it allows waitresses and waiters to put your name on the website if you tip less than 20 percent to them. There's another website called Girls, Don't Date Him, which is there for if you've gone out, you know, as a single man, gone out with a woman and proved aggressive, boring, ill-dressed. They can put you down there, and you're there, as far as we know, for eternity.

EPSTEIN: So what's happened, in a way, the sweep of gossip is, you know, it started out being a very private, over-the-fence kind of arrangement. Then with the beginning of the printing press and the spread of newspapers, suddenly celebrities, the rich, the famous in England, the royals, became the subjects of gossip. And now it's returned back to where private people are in the public realm. It's a giant step for gossip, not a good one.

CONAN: I was going to tell this terrible story about you, Joseph Epstein, but I'm afraid we're out of time.

EPSTEIN: Ah, just in time.

CONAN: Just in time.

EPSTEIN: Free again.

CONAN: Thanks very much for joining us today.

EPSTEIN: Pleasure as always, Mr. Conan.

CONAN: The book is "Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit." He joined us from our member station in Chicago. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.