In the Church the word “gossip” is usually used in a negative connotation, primarily to shame women. Throughout history, gossip has often been tinged with misogyny. Gossip is related to reputation, a way to share information to either establish someone’s reputation or to warn others about someone not being trustworthy. Social media is a modern form of gossip in that it is reputation management and cultivation, a way to provide information to others about whom to trust or distrust. Without gossip, we would only have our own direct personal experiences to rely on, and we would be hopelessly vulnerable to freeloaders and predators in our social groups.
I was listening to the You Are Not So Smart podcast about the pro-social value of gossip and how it works psychologically. First, a few facts that were shared on the podcast:
- The majority of all human communication is gossip. (Most studies put it north of 50%).
- Men and women gossip in roughly equal amounts.
- Gossip can be pro-social or anti-social.
Why is anti-gossip counsel usually directed at women? There are a few reasons:
- The Bible (which was written by men in a very patriarchal society) does it.
- In patriarchal cultures women don’t have the types of power men do (e.g. money, governmental roles, and war) and instead generally only have “soft” power like reputational vengeance through slander to strike back at enemies or to take down those more powerful; shaming women when they use soft power is a way to curb this very effective weapon.
- Religious groups rely heavily on gossip and want to use it toward the aims and preservation of the organization, not toward individuals’ needs and wishes. Clever individuals know this, and can use #3 to do #2.
When I was writing my mission memoir  I found a memo in my missionary notebook that said that any flirtations between elders and sisters would not be tolerated and that it was a missionary’s responsibility to report any such conduct to the President. I rolled my eyes hard when I read this as a missionary, and again as a much older adult. But this is actually something that happened to me as a missionary. One of my companions reported to the President that I was having a relationship with one of the elders. The elder was interrogated about it, then transferred to another island, and we never served on the same island again. The President never said one word to me about this incident.
When I confronted my companion about it, she said she had wanted to get me transferred because she had always hated me. Her candor was surprising, but at least I knew where I stood. Unfortunately, we were still together for one more really long month. This is an example of anti-social gossip (that in this case wasn’t true), but a way for someone to take down another person with negative reputational information. I was suddenly the talk of the mission, but what I discovered was that rather than damaging my reputation, it had kind of raised my standing among the missionaries. Several of them thought the rule was stupid and felt more empowered to say so now that I bore the scarlet letter.
Because gossip is such a valuable commodity, there are also people who try to mine others for information that they can then share with the group to raise their own reputation as a valuable contributor. We call these people busybodies. Talking to them can feel intrusive. While their aims aren’t necessarily to harm others, they are using the currency of gossip to raise their own status in the community. Whether they are actually valuable depends entirely on the accuracy and usefulness of their information.
The podcast discussed a study in which individuals were asked to work together as a group. Group members were able to evaluate one another based on their cooperation and contribution to the group. This feedback had consequences in that the group could (Survivor-style) kick one member out based on the scores. That person could then join another group with a clean slate. The study found that having been kicked out, then starting with a clean slate altered the individual’s behavior in a pro-social way. It also found that the rating process itself had a pro-social effect on everyone’s participation level. Nobody wanted the rejection of being voted out.
The study also showed that contribution and participation were relative to the others in the group. In a highly participative group, the standards for participation were ratcheted up. It was harder to maintain reputational status in the group and to avoid being targeted as a freeloader. These high expectation groups had a sort of brinksmanship built in with escalating requirements to prove one belonged.
I met up with some other women this weekend, and we were talking about our experiences in life and in the Church. Two of us who are Gen X were talking to a woman who is a Millennial, and we were explaining some of the cultural shifts we were seeing in our lifetimes. Some of what we were saying was kind of mind-blowing to this younger woman compared to how things have always been in her life experience. For example, we mentioned that back in the 1970s, it was very common for Church members not to pay tithing regularly and not to hold a temple recommend, that it wasn’t required to have a calling in the ward. We also talked about how different BYU was before they started requiring annual ecclesiastical endorsements from your local BYU bishop vs. one at the time of entry from your home bishop.
All of these changes are seismic shifts toward higher participation and contribution, doubtless of benefit to the organization. Once the norm is heightened, it becomes much more difficult to maintain a reputation as a contributor and to avoid a bad reputation or to be seen as a freeloader.
Formal leader interview processes give the organization more direct access to “gossip” (reputational information) about Church members by requiring them to self-disclose and providing channels for disclosure about others (gossip or tattling as it’s also known). Every child learns at an early age that tattling is one way to improve your own reputation at the expense of another’s. It is often called “virtue signaling” now, meaning that one group member points to another’s behavior and says “We (as a group) don’t agree with that behavior, and I must speak up!” This can be pro-social or anti-social behavior, and the person’s motives in calling attention to the unacceptable behavior can be obscured.
But when do these high expectation norms become a liability? Eventually, if a group becomes too hyper-participatory (the expectations are unreasonably high or hamper enjoyment of other activities or create misery), people leave the organization. For example, when we lived in Asia, there was a very high expectation for “face time” in the office. We noticed that this was often really just a show, though. People weren’t necessarily productive, but the norm was to arrive before the boss and to stay until after 8PM (when the company would have to buy you dinner and pay for your taxi). However, the face time requirement meant you would rack up a lot of hours every week, missing out on downtime at home or with family. Employees would also go home, then login again and deliberately send emails at late hours to prove they were still working. People were often visibly “working” 80 hour weeks.
By contrast, our European teams maintained a norm of around 35-40 hours a week, and they did not suffer negative consequences for not meeting the norms in Asia. Everyone ultimately reported into the US which was in the middle of these norms. Culture is strong, and even when our US-based Human Resources teams would attempt to curb the Asia work hours, it just didn’t work. It was too ingrained. Plus, if you lived in Asia, all the companies worked this way, even those that were multi-national.
Churches also have their own levels of participation. There are norms about how much time per week you’ll be engaging in activities. There are norms about your willingness to accept assignments and how you will perform the duties of those assignments. There are norms around donations and tithing. There are norms around frequency of attendance and how much outreach or missionary work you do.
In my lifetime, the Church feels like it’s gone from a European work week to an Asian work week. It’s one reason that the talks by E. Uchtdorf resonate so much for so many Church members. His messages are all about these social measures we use to enforce others’ behavior or our own. He’s very keyed into these social dynamics, and the harm they can cause when people feel they don’t belong or when they can’t participate on these levels. He also identifies the “Potemkin village” false affect people put on by doing the outward requirements to manage their reputation while hypocritically failing to grasp and implement the gospel messages in a meaningful way.
Many of the talks in General Conference are actually signals to the membership, to the regular Joes and Janes as well as the self-appointed busybodies and virtue signalers, of what the “new” boundaries are to be considered a group member. The name change away from “Mormon,” wearing white shirts, taking the sacrament with the right hand, how often to attend the temple, whether or not to wear a mask, how to feel about different ballot measures, how many earrings to wear: all of these are the shifting requirements for belonging to the congregation, for being considered a trustworthy insider. Within the Church we call someone who is focused on these outward cultural hallmarks as a Peter Priesthood or a Molly Mormon. Those who avoid these stereotypes are often considered to be more authentic and “approachable” in a culture that often rewards outward manifestations of belonging. The more onerous the rules are, the more a counter-culture will emerge and flourish in contrast to those rules.
- Have you seen benefits of gossip at Church? Have you seen negative effects from it? What is the difference between the two?
- Do you see the Church being hyper-participatory or do you think Church expectations don’t rise to that level? Is it more or less so than other religions? Defend your answer.
There are two gossip-behaviors that Utah Mormons brought with them to our ward in Hawaii.
One behavior is called “ghosting,” whereby the social group acts as if another person doesn’t exist—avoid eye contact, avoid greeting, etc. This never existed in our ward until the contemporary “transplants” from Utah arrived. In my view, behavior that resembles “Ghosting” runs counter to our most basic baptismal covenants. LDS Hawaiians see this behavior as “unclean.”
The other behavior imported with Utah Mormons is called “virtue signaling.” It is described as a criticism towards an outward expression of virtue. For some reason the culture of Utah has makes virtue signaling both desirable and detestable—so much so that a behavior represents the response.
Ghosting and virtue signaling are new social constructs for us in Hawaii—dynamic gossip. It is offensive to us, and likely to many other cultures in the world. These behaviors are unfit for Zion. I hope that Bishops would confiscate temple recommends for this stuff.
I’ve definitely seen many negative effects from gossip in my current ward. I personally have been gossiped about in an anti-social way, and it made me not want to go to church any more, let alone fulfill my callings. And every time I overheard someone spread anti-social gossip about someone in the hallways at church, it made me not trust the gossiper. If I don’t feel safe at church, or like I can trust the people I am attending with, I am less likely to want to participate in other important religious activities with them.
I do think that pro-social gossiping can be helpful and can contribute to the building up of Zion. When information about someone is shared with the intent to help or promote understanding and love, then gossip can be beneficial. I think we always need to look at our motivations for spreading the gossip, and of course we need to be sure that what we are saying about other people is true.
I also heard the “gossip” episode of the “you are not so smart” podcast (I really interesting one, especially at the start of the series). I found it interesting and probably true that we gossip (talk about someone when they are not in the conversation) all the time. It does seem to me that we need to look at the motivations and effects of what we say.
I think that if you are comparing members of the church, it depends on the topic. I have not seen too much of the vicious gossiping. But I have seen/heard much talk about others not following the social norms (he saw a rated R movie, I don’t think he was wearing his garments, she stayed in her tennis outfit all day long instead of changing back into modest clothes, etc.).
This did make me think about how church leaders cast derision on others by saying, “so called experts” . I don’t know if that could be considered gossip given these individuals could probably find the talks, but it certainly reminds me of the intent of some gossip against people.
In the 1970s (can’t speak to before that) gossip was frequently called out and discouraged in Conference talks. Plainly, that was aimed at women, with the unspoken position being that negative information about other ward members should be channeled to the bishop or other priesthood holder. Gossip was, it seems, a priesthood function (although, ironically, none of them recognized this was their position then, and still don’t). Gossip is informal. When it gets institutionalized, you end up with the tattle culture that has taken root at BYU by way of the Dishonor Code.
It’s just human nature to be on the look out for free riders, people who get the benefits of membership or participation without paying their dues or waiting in line or whatever. Within the Church, this natural tendency works against the goal of keeping “less active” members involved with the ward or with getting marginal members to the temple. Super-righteous Mormons might resent a marginal member getting access to the temple and super-righteous Mormons might resent a marginal member from getting, for example, financial help from the bishop. Through the Mormon lens, that natural human tendency becomes, “They don’t deserve the blessings of X,” whether X is going to the temple or getting a calling or graduating from seminary. Yes, this is definitely a problem in our high-investment church.
One of the biggest enablers of gossip in the Church is ward council meetings. Talking about members behind their back and speculating about their personal business in those meetings is not only condoned, it’s encouraged, and done under the guise of “loving our neighbors”. Due to a culture of virtue signaling and comparing each other’s perceived righteousness, gossip is as natural to Latter-day Saints as a bodily function.
Your post has me wondering . . . is there a difference between gossip and talking about people? I’m not sure they’re the same, but I’d like to see some discussion of this question.
Jack Hughes: You are 100% correct. I attended Ward Council and PEC meetings for about 10 years in two wards and my experience is an example of what you stated. I think that 75% of the commentary was part of a sincere effort to help people. But it’s amazing how easy it is to justify gossip when you’re in the “rescue” business.
Here’s the funniest example I can think of. A new family moved in. Very attractive couple, beautiful kids. Above average income (based on their house and cars at least). Dynamic personalities. We felt like some real winners joined our ward. And then it was pointed out by a very observant RS president that the wife / mother had a tatoo on her ankle. Apparently that was a yellow flag to our group. Need I say more?
Jack Hughes – I would agree on ward council. I have been on many over several years and now the council is even bigger (larger representation). I heard exactly who was not only had doubts about the church, but even that they were saying they were atheist (not sure they wanted that floated around). I heard what women in the ward were working outside of the home. >:-( And even exactly how a sister’s first time in the temple she was freaked out and said she would never ever go again. None of that should have been discussed with almost a dozen people in the ward.
Dave B – “Gossip was, it seems, a priesthood function” 🙂 🙂 Is that one of the “keys”?
Interesting. My initial reaction was “no we don’t have any worse a problem than anyone else” because I personally haven’t seen a ton of vicious gossip and because I don’t like that it’s leveraged against women so I bristle a little at the suggestion. But reading the comments and thinking more about it I think we probably do have some unique gossip issues both in the way we use gossip to police behavior AND in the way we penalize gossip to keep abuse quiet.
On facilitating gossip, because we’re high-investment / high-demand, there are a lot of ways people can fall short and fall outside the norm, so that gets noticed and discussed (not wearing garments, working outside the home, drinking caffeine – so many things that for most groups would be normal and not subject to commentary). And, we tend to be really up in each other’s business for the sake of caring for one another but that can also lead to a lot of gossip. I think it could be worse in Utah simply because of proximity – unlike many areas that are not predominantly Mormon, we live next door to and work with and go to school with our ward members so we see a lot more.
I also agree with the comment above that anti-gossip rhetoric might function to discourage women from discussing ward members and problems outside of “official” channels, which can also have the effect of suppressing information about ward members, especially men, who are behaving badly and even abusing others. Even short of abuse, it might discourage women from talking about how they might be unhappy with the way priesthood leaders are handling things. It reminds me a little of the conference we had where (1) women got a total beat-down on being mothers and marrying and having lots of kids (a really regressive message) *and* (2) were told not to use social media for the next few weeks (the men were not). While I didn’t necessarily view those as connected — and I think social media can be super harmful — many felt that this was an attempt to suppress women from connecting with one another and criticizing the talks that had been given to put them in their place. Anti-gossip might have a similar function — let’s don’t let the women realize that they aren’t the only ones unhappy with the way church is working so that they think they’re the only ones with an issue and don’t militate for more influence.
FWIW I think there’s a difference from talking about someone outside their presence and “gossip” in the way I understand gossip. I understand gossip to mean talking about someone behind their back for the purpose of belittling / judging / laughing at them / making ourselves feel superior to them / creating bonds with the person we are gossiping with at the subject’s expense. And I think in church we are SUPER conflict averse and don’t know how to have healthy disagreements because we view all of that as back-stabbing / gossip / contention when it might not be.
Wally & Elisa: I think colloquially in the Church at least (and probably to an extent in society), we only use the term “gossip” in a pejorative sense, meaning telling tales about others (that can harm them or at least lay bare their private concerns). In the Church it is even more peculiarly pejorative in its use. I’ve never heard anyone refer to gossip neutrally in a Church setting, but there it is definitely tinged with misogyny.
However, the podcast defined gossip as talking about people who aren’t present, sharing information about others. It viewed the term neutrally, which I think is important (and explains why psychologists peg it at over 50% of all human communication), because the person gossiping seldom is intentionally malicious (my mission companion being an exception). Usually people are sharing information about others because knowing about other people is incredibly important to functioning in society. We need to know who is trustworthy (whatever that means to us), what their experience is (if assigning tasks or requesting help), and so forth because as primates, we work together with others to achieve our aims and to build and protect our communities.
The thing is, a lot of the information we get from others tells us more about the one sharing the information than the person they are talking about. It tells us if they are accurate in their assessments or not. The podcast mentioned that Jane Austen’s books are basically 100% this kind of interaction. You find out which of the people are trustworthy, and how misunderstandings change our actions toward each other. I was reminded of an exchange in Emma in which the very private and closed-off Jane Fairfax is being quizzed about Frank Churchill. Nobody knows her very well, and he’s a new acquaintance, so they are trying to ascertain what kind of person Frank is, and Jane isn’t playing along, giving the minimum information possible, unwilling to say anything of substance about him while still appearing polite.
Emma, in exasperation to get her to gossip more: Is he a man of information?
Jane: All his statements seemed correct.
Finally Emma concludes that Jane Fairfax can never be her friend because she doesn’t share confidences. Being willing to share information with others is part of friendship, and then discovering that your worldview matches close enough that you trust that person’s judgment.
I actually wonder if being in a Church run by men is a liability when it comes to how they assess the value of gossip. Traditionally, women (particularly in a patriarchal society) are the ones tasked with creating friendship and “gossip.” Are men called to be leaders sufficiently skilled to be skeptical of the source and accuracy of the gossip they hear? Stories I read in online discussions make me wonder. A lot of the rumors and gossip that make it to Church leaders are things that would make me raise an eyebrow at the tale-bearer, not at the subject of their tittle-tattle.
@Angela that makes sense. I try hard to avoid the bad kind of gossip as I think it’s pretty destructive to relationships, but you’re right that there is a lot of value in learning about other people from those you trust. And even with the bad kind … sometimes when I am having a hard time with someone it is enough to know that other people feel the same way and I’m not crazy and then I can let it go.
I would say “being in a Church run by men is a liability” in a lot of ways ;-).
I suspect that men talk, women gossip.
Although I find it rare for this idea to be mentioned these days. So glad to assign it to the trashcan of history.
Regarding your point #3, the process of issuing a calling is often a great example of sustaining the organization but not necessarily the individual’s needs. To mitigate that here’s how I’ve been using my womanly soft power of gossip with my bishopric councilor husband:
Him: We’re considering XXX for calling XXX but we’re worried it might be too much for her with everything that’s going on. What do you think?
Me: Remember how previous bishop would say “Hey! We’re considering people for calling XXX and your name came up. Is that something you are interested in doing?” That was awesome. I think you should call that sister, chat with her to get a feel for how she is doing (yanno like ministering), and then see if the possibility of the calling is interesting to *her*.