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Monday, July 9, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Haven't you heard? Guys gossip too

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Men, someone needs to tell you this, so it might as well be me.

You can deny it. You can call it "shop talk," "locker-room banter," "keeping in touch" or "networking." We heard last week about a study confirming that you talk as much as women, but here's a little known fact: You gossip just as much as women do, too.

This juicy tidbit comes courtesy of the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), a nonprofit think tank in England, which recently interviewed 1,000 cellphone users about how they use their phones for gossip and how gossip affects their lives. Many male participants initially denied that they gossip, according to the study, while nearly all of the females readily admitted to it. But come closer and listen to this: The study found that 33 percent of men indulge in gossip every day or almost every day, compared with 26 percent of women.

The study quoted a definition of gossip as "chatty talk among friends," and "the process of informally communicating value-laden information about members of a social setting."

Other findings essential to pass on to your 100 closest friends:

• Men are more likely to gossip with work colleagues, love partners and female friends; women prefer to dish primarily with female friends and relatives.

• Men gossip about work, politics or other highbrow topics less than 5 percent of the time, unless women are present. Then the proportion of male conversation devoted to sounding impressive increases to 15 or 20 percent.

• Men spend much more time than women talking about themselves.

Other studies, including those at the University of Virginia, Northeastern University in Boston and the University of Wisconsin, confirm that gossip is universal and gender-neutral.

Good news about gossip

It's important to note that gossip isn't all bad and is, in fact, defended by many as essential to human survival. Some scholars say gossip fulfills an important role in our daily interactions.

Gossip can unite us, calm us, entertain us. Sometimes, gossip leads us to improved livelihoods ("Did you hear about the new job postings?") or home situations ("I heard your neighbor does in-home day care"). Gossip can warn us about bad behavior, bad weather or, worse, bad people.

Gossip can even be deadly dull. ("So, that cashier, you know, the one who likes bright pink lipstick? Well, she's moving into a bigger house with a basement apartment so her mother-in-law, the one with the bad heart, can move in, but not until she sells her house but she needs to get a new furnace first.")

Mostly, though, this form of banter gives us something we never feel we have enough of: power.

"Gossip," said Ken Stewart, a St. Paul-based marriage-and-family therapist, "is the mutterings of the powerless." While women historically have drawn the short stick when it comes to power, Stewart said men have plenty of their own insecurities to work though. Gossip is one way of trying to regain control. A former professor, Stewart said one of the worst gossip mills is academia, "with a lot of smart people with time on their hands who are not as powerful as they'd like to be."

When someone else gets the promotion to full professor, for example, sharing dirt on him or her isn't kind, but it sure is comforting. And when the mighty fall, the dignified response is to be supportive and gracious. But what fun is that compared with behind-the-scenes high-fiving with others equally delighted with the comeuppance?

"Girl talk"? Really?

Gossip wasn't always viewed as naughty. The Old English term "God-sibb" literally meant "Next-Sibling," and typically referred to a woman's close female friends during the birth of a child. Through gossip, people learned about the good works of others that they could try to emulate. Only later did it lose its saintly status and come to mean the chatty talk about an unwitting third party that we can't resist today and that is frequently, and mistakenly, tied to females.

"Girl talk," said Jack Levin, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The professor at Northeastern, suspects that "gossip-mongering," as he calls it, became associated with females as a way for men to discredit them. "Women would stay at home and talk about men. Those men got very nervous. It was a way of belittling them."

But his research also found that men, from teenage boys talking about girls to middle-age businessmen trashing sports stars, gossip plenty. While women are more likely to talk about relationships, when it comes to "nasty, vicious, backstabbing information about other people, men do that just as much as women."

Bringing us together

Yet, if Levin's research and the SIRC study are to be believed (and we assume here that you do believe everything you read), only a tiny percentage of gossip — as little as 5 percent in the SIRC study and about 33 percent in Levin's work — is critical or negative (aka the stuff we can't wait to read about in the grocery-store checkout lines).

Most of us indulge largely for a far less cynical reason: We're genuinely interested in other people.

"We cannot not communicate," said therapist Stewart. Gossip, he said, "is a way of creating a network of information, a way of saying, 'I heard about something that made me curious.' In that sense, it's a good thing. It knits together community."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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