G is for Gossip

6 05 2012

The other week I posted the following ‘status update’ on Facebook:

“The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.” (Dunbar, R. 1996. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, p. 77).

With 141 FB friends, I am dangerously near the 150 point. Time for some discreet culling? 😉

The comment was tongue in cheek, obviously, but there was a semi-serious point to it. I’m not the first – by a long chalk – to want to broadcast the fact that it’s simply not possible to have thousands of ‘friends’, unless friendship is redefined in such a way as to leach it of all meaning entirely. When I finally took the FB plunge I vowed to friend only those people whom I’d actually met and whose names I could remember – already stretching the meaning of friend to breaking point – and, by and large, I’ve kept to that pledge.

It’s terrible!

But more about that later. Professor Dunbar, whose calculation of 150 manageable ‘friends’ is a key element in his compelling argument as to how language originated (Dunbar, 1996), was in the news again recently. Using a massive dataset of nearly two million mobile phone calls and 500 million text messages, collected over a 7-month period, Dunbar and his colleagues tracked the way that relationship patterns vary over time and according to gender. Among their findings were “a marked sex difference in investment in relationships during the period of pairbond formation, suggesting that women invest much more heavily in pairbonds than do men”. Not only that, the results of the study “tend to support the claim that mother-daughter relationships play a particularly seminal role in structuring human social relationships”. All this based on who people talk to (or text), how often, and over how long a period of time.

The way that language both shapes and is shaped by social networks has been a recurrent theme in Dunbar’s work. The book on gossip (1996) outlines the thesis that, when our primate forebears descended from the trees onto the African savannah, the ecological need to form larger and larger social groupings required other means, apart from mutual grooming, for bonding and group cohesion. It was simply not possible to groom your whole clan at one sitting. Language, specifically the phatic use of language that we have come to call gossip, provided an alternative to grooming. “Language has two interesting properties compared to grooming: you can talk to several people at once and you can talk while travelling, eating or working in the fields” (Dunbar 1992:30). By sharing information about other clan members, speakers not only cemented group ties but laid down norms of acceptable behaviour. “Language evolved to allow us to gossip” (Dunbar 1996:79).

And, like grooming, the socializing use of language was probably – initially, at least – gender-specific . While males hunted; women gathered – and gossiped.

So, men don’t gossip? It depends what you define as ‘gossip’. Certainly, as Coates (2004: 104) observes,  talking about football seems to fulfil a similar function. She quotes a study that suggests that “if female gossip is a way of talking which solidifies relationships between women, then talking about football would appear to serve a very similar purpose for men”.

In another, much older study of mobile phone use (reported in The Guardian in 2001) researchers found that “some 27% of men, compared with 21% of women, admitted making calls primarily for gossip, which 26% of men referred to as ‘keeping in touch’.  But when some were questioned in focus groups, this often proved to be ‘essentially a euphemism for gossip’” (Ezard 2001).  So, yes, men gossip – but they call it by a less pejorative name.

Which brings me back to Facebook. For all his insight, Dunbar got one thing horribly wrong. He saw no future in digital media in terms of consolidating or extending social networks. “The information super-highway’s only real benefit in the end will be the speed with which ideas are disseminated. … Nor is it likely that electronic mail will significantly enlarge people’s social networks” (1996: 204-205).

Why not? Because, according to Dunbar, 150 friends is the maximum number we can manage.  But, as one of my FB friends asked (in response to my cheeky post): “That was before Facebook. Wonder if he’s adjusted the number since”, while another commented “I don’t think the number above needs to be adjusted; it’s just the word “friend” has had a meaning shift”. Or, as still another said, ‘There are FB friends and then there are people who will lend you money, help you move a piano or go your bail’.

It’s certainly true that it’s not easy – or wise – to gossip on either Facebook or Twitter. Gossip assumes a measure of privacy, and social media are conspicuously public. And gossip assumes shared knowledge, but do all my Facebook friends know one another? I’m absolutely sure that they do not.

So, what’s it all for? Is it the case, that, as one of my ‘friends’ put it: ‘You are confusing genuine friendship & Facebook friendship, which is more about self-promotion & ego-boosting’?  But then, Dunbar (1996: 123) may well have foreseen this. He writes  “One of the most important things gossip allows you to do is to keep track of (and of course influence) other people’s reputations as well as your own.  Gossip… is all about the management of reputation”.

And isn’t that what Facebook is about, too?


Coates, J. (2004)  Women, Men and Language (3rd edition), Harlow, Pearson.

Dunbar, R.  (1992)  ‘Why gossip is good for you’, New Scientist, 21/11/1992.

Dunbar, R. (1996) Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, London: Faber & Faber.

Ezard, J. (2001)  ‘Mobile users “ape monkeys”’, Guardian 6/12/2001.

Palchykov, V., Kaski, K., Kertész, J., Barabási, A-L., and Dunbar, R.I.M. (2012) ‘Sex differences in intimate relationships’, Scientific Reports, 2, at http://www.nature.com/srep/2012/120419/srep00370/full/srep00370.html

Illustrations from Swan, M. & Walter, C. (1984) The Cambridge English Course 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.