In the English language and culture, the word ‘gossip’ is closely associated with femininity. Think about it; can you imagine two typical English males non-ironically describing their conversation as gossip? Here is an example; “Don’t worry about it, love, we were only having a gossip.” I don’t know about you, but, for me, reading that sentence aloud in a gruff, masculine tone of voice sounded downright comic. ‘Gossip’, as a word, also has negative connotations, despite being defined rather impartially by Oxford Dictionaries as “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true.” Contrasting synonyms further complicate the matter, with such examples ranging from the neutral ‘talk’, to the innocuous ‘babble’, to the dramatic ‘scandal’.
However, in her excellent anthropology book, Watching the English, Kate Fox writes, “Contrary to popular belief, researchers have found that men gossip just as much as women. In one English study, both sexes devoted the same amount of conversation time (about 65 per cent) to social topics such as personal relationships” (49) She found, however, that the difference lies in definition; “what the women were happy to call ‘gossip’, the men defined as ‘exchanging information’.” (49) I personally believe that it is completely normal, for both men and women, to discuss ‘social topics such as personal relationships.’ We, as people, speak, for the most part, about our immediate surroundings and the situations we find ourselves in. We chat about the ones closest to us. We gossip about our neighbours and our eccentric friend who is into interpretive scarf-based dance. We talk about our lives.
Different genders view this everyday talk on a scale of polar opposites – we have seen that while ‘gossip’ is recognised by females as a normal, feminine behaviour, males define the same talk in a much less evocative manner, as ‘exchanging information’. I would argue that this attitude stems from the perception of gossip as a negative, female attribute which is stigmatized by males. As Fox points out, “the myth is still widely believed, particularly among males, that men spend their conversations ‘solving the world’s problems’, whilst the womenfolk gossip in the kitchen.” (50)
Whilst there are undoubtedly differences in the ways in which females and males communicate, with males often favouring a more competitive, assertive discourse, the assumption that the content of female conversations are more trivial or banal than the content of male conversation is both insulting and outdated. A possible cause for the continuation of this myth is that in mixed gender groups, men often act as the unnamed ‘leaders’ of a conversation. That is to say, “In group discussions, men talk more, more often assume a leadership position, receive more positive statements and fewer negative statements, are more likely to show non-verbal (…) dominance cues” (Interruptions in Group Discussions, Brody & Smith-Lovin) With this unequal balance of power in group discussions, it is no surprise that women often adopt a backseat role; occasionally encouraging or adding to a male-dominated conversation.
Women’s contributions to a conversation should not be trivialised, and men’s should not be glorified. We are equals, and we all have valuable contributions to make, whatever the topic. Let’s lay this out clearly; men sometimes gossip, and women sometimes solve the world’s problems.