Good gossip is a glue of community

As a youth I was very critical when I overheard women who chanced to meet in the street if they merely exchanged what I considered banalities, mainly about the weather. I had failed to realise that it was simply their way of conveying their pleasure in just acknowledging one another’s presence. A professor of social science recently claimed on radio that ‘gossip is the glue of society’. We tend to think of gossip as sharing malicious comments about absent persons. But the noun can refer to any casual and idle chatter.

Its verbal roots

The origin of the word ‘gossip’ in Old English was godsibb, the ancient name for a godparent – a friend of the family who sponsored a godchild’s spiritual upbringing at its christening. The ‘sibb’ [or ‘sip’] syllable is related to the word ‘sibling’, one’s brother or sister. ‘Godsibbs’ were also close non-family women friends who attended a mother at childbirth, part of her extended social group. Harmless sibling chatter, of course, helps to build trust throughout a developing community.

Can gossip be studied?

Dictionaries say gossip covers wide-ranging trivia: trifling, almost groundless rumour, usually of a personal, sensational, or intimate nature; a friendly conversation on unimportant matters; news spoken or written in a letter, in a light style.

Since gossip is casual chatter, social scientists tried by eavesdropping on conversations at bus stops and in public parks to discover helpful hints about its specific characteristics. However, the experiment was unproductive because few of us ever disclose our deeper secrets in open places. Such topics are reserved for ‘Dear diary’ entries, although these are often written in code to guard the secrets from spying eyes. But a cockpit voice recorder recovered after an aircrash may reveal that a pilot and co-pilot were relaxed, unaware of imminent danger in their final chatter.

Nowadays, internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter are overloaded with personal opinions crudely expressed; such gossip by ‘friends of friends’ can be misinterpreted; if the original context is unknown, casual remarks can be toxic and socially harmful.

‘Small talk’ in Scripture

The plural noun ‘gossips’ only occurs once in the Bible (1 Timothy 5:3, English Standard Version; ‘tattlers’, King James Version); and as a verb only in 3 John 10 as ‘prating against [others]’, KJV, or ‘talking wicked nonsense against’, ESV’. In both instances it has a disruptive sense; in the Timothy text gossips also become ‘idlers’ and consequently ‘busybodies’ (compare 2 Thessalonians 3:11, ‘some who are not busied in their own business are over-busied in that of others’, [W E Vine’s rendering]; and 1 Peter 4:15 where ‘busybodies’ [KJV] are ‘meddlers’ [ESV]).

Since ‘small talk’ is a leisure activity it is therefore rarely recorded in any Bible narrative. A rare exception occurred during David’s enforced inactivity with his ‘mighty men’ in a cave (2 Samuel 23:13-17), when he sighed ‘longingly, “Oh, that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!’ But when three of his bodyguard got him some, his small talk gave way to worship as a libation to the Lord: ‘Far be it from me, Lord…Shall I drink the blood of these men who went at risk of their lives?’ Our communion cup, like his, does not have actual blood, but our Hero gave his life, so let’s be as grateful and awestruck as was David!

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