Gossip is arguably one of humanity's oldest pastimes. Frequently entertaining, occasionally helpful, sometimes salacious and often vicious — gossip can be all of those things — but it's never trivial, says Joseph Epstein, author of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit.
Epstein has already traced the history and practice of two other human weaknesses: snobbery and envy. In Gossip, he turns his eye on our deep desire to hear — and share — the secrets of others, even if we feel guilty about it.
Epstein talks with NPR's Neal Conan about why we engage in gossip, what makes for a particularly juicy tidbit, and why he says the art of well-told gossip is being lost in our tell-all, celebrity-obsessed digital age.
On the various motivations for gossip
"Gossip has its bad name because of its often vicious aspect. Somebody wants to sink somebody else's reputation [and] the motive is simply viciousness, and one has to sort of guard against that kind of gossip.
"My own favorite is gossip about the foibles of other people, their pretensions, their little hypocrisies ... That, to me, is the most amusing of all."
"... I think gossip is an act of kind of social intimacy. When one comes to another person with a delightful bit of gossipy news, one is kind of conferring a gift on that person, and I think it ought to be accepted as a gift, you know, if the motives are purely that of entertainment and/or analysis of character. It's a very intimate act.
"You know, one wouldn't gossip with just anybody. It means there's a kind of friendship before you can convey delightful gossip, I think."
On the levels of gossip
"I used to have someone who worked in the same academic department [that] I did. Sometimes at 9 he would call me, at the start of the day, to give me some gossip that was, you know, beyond what I was interested in. I'd say: 'Alfred, this is lower than I wish to go at this hour, you know?'
"... There's also highbrow gossip, you know, gossip about figures in the great world. ... I'm more interested, for example, in Conor Cruise O'Brien, the Irish writer and diplomatist, than I am in Conan O'Brien.
"I don't want to hear any gossip about Jennifer Aniston or Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. But I am interested, even now, in hearing rumors that Guy De Maupassant's father was Balzac. You know, that's historical, antediluvian gossip, as somebody once called it, but it's still full of interest for me, if the stakes are higher and the subjects themselves are up there where it qualifies as sort of highbrow gossip."
On the distinction between gossip and rumor
"The dictionary is not very helpful here. When you consult the dictionary, rumor kind of elides into gossip and gossip into rumor. So holding myself above all dictionaries — 'those cowardly little books' as some Englishman, Beverley Nichols, once called them — I make a distinction that rumor tends to be about events forthcoming, whereas gossip is always about people, and it's particular and specific, where rumor is about instance and event. I don't know if that's a useful distinction enough, but it's one I found myself drawing."
On how gossip has taken over much of culture
"Politics without culture is nowadays unthinkable. I see leaks as a form of culture. And leaks, as you know, are having a larger and larger role in political life. If you look at recent stories in the news — Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Herman Cain, the whole Joe Paterno Penn State story — these are stories that may once have been gossip stories; they're stories without satisfactory, factual grasp on them. And yet they're stories now that appear, as you used to say, above the fold; they're stories, many of them, that lead off the prime-time national news broadcasts.
"I think once upon a time they would not have done. I think, too, that there's been a great change, and it's affected gossip radically, in the idea of decorum. That is to say, we can spell out details now of gossip in the press that we could not have done years ago. Just to think of American politics, I think Washington insiders knew — if not everybody in the country, certainly Washington insiders knew — that FDR had been having a liaison, as they used to call it, with a woman named Lucy Rutherford. Just to be bipartisan about this, I think something similar was known about Dwight David Eisenhower and a woman named Kate Summersby.
"But it never got into the press. There was a kind of — it's the presidency. You don't want to foul it up. And I think the last person in American political life who was given this pass was John F. Kennedy, who, of course, had a very gaudy personal life, as we've now come to understand.
"... When you go from that to the little blue dress from Gap, and you've come a long way, where you now have to struggle with what Cokie Roberts ... called 'the yuck factor.' ... We get all the details now. And I think it lowers the tone of the country, in a way. I think to have all the details shared between friends is one thing. To have them sort of out in the public may not be such a good thing."