In my earliest memory of being an insufferable gossip, I am 5 years old. I am at the top of a very tall playground slide with a friend, both of us cross-legged, as she tells me about how a boy in our class (the dreaded Chris!) pushed a girl off the swing. This was big news because most girls in our class had a crush on Chris. He was very good at kickball.
“Who told you?” I remember asking. I wanted sourcing, to know how good the intel was. It was innate in me, even then, to be nosy as hell.
Throughout my childhood, people confided in me. They told me other people’s secrets, and sometimes their own. But by the time I hit puberty, I had learned that gossip was a sin. That’s when I started attending “Big Church” — upstairs in the large auditorium with the adults at my Double Oak, Texas, nondenominational church, instead of with other children. In Big Church the message was simple: Men were prone to lust, women to gossip.
That, I realized, was me: a woman and a gossip.
Whenever asked in Bible study to confess my sin, I would always pick gossip. “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down,” reads the New International Version’s translation of Proverbs 26:20. In my high school study Bible, this verse is both underlined and starred. I was trying to learn, to rid myself of this thorn in my side. Gossip, the church leaders reiterated, was something to despise.
Now when I look at this verse that brought me so much pain, I see more nuance. Fire, after all, keeps us warm and cooks our food. It is not always destructive.
It can also be seen as an essential part of who we are as a species. In his 1996 book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” the anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar identified two group practices that are uniquely human: religion and storytelling. In both of those, he added, “we have to be able to imagine that another world exists.”
In a recent email, Dr. Dunbar told me: “Positive gossip is one of the ways we bond communities. Negative gossip can be useful because it allows the community to police itself.” But he makes a distinction between negative gossip that alerts the community to an individual’s bad or dangerous behavior and destructive gossip that’s intended to hurt or undermine. “If it becomes malicious,” he said, “it can actually cause communities to break up into smaller subsets that don’t interact.” Gossip that is cruel or false is something any community leader would want to tamp down, whether it comes from women or from men.