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.