Sunday, February 18, 2007

keeping in touch

This weekend, the leading article in Arts and Letters Daily is about gossip:
Men just don’t get the idea of gossip. You’re supposed to go “No! Really?!” Or, “Oh my God!” Women get it. Men don’t have a clue...
It links to a web page from the Social Issues Research Centre: Evolution, Alienation and Gossip; The role of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century,
By Kate Fox.

Intrigued, I skimmed the article and did some following up.

The gist of the piece is in the top two paragraphs:
Mobile gossip is good for us

Gossip is the human equivalent of 'social grooming' among primates, which has been shown to stimulate production of endorphins, relieving stress and boosting the immune system. Two-thirds of all human conversation is gossip, because this 'vocal grooming' is essential to our social, psychological and physical well-being. Mobiles facilitate gossip. Mobiles have increased and enhanced this vital therapeutic activity, by allowing us to gossip 'anytime, anyplace, anywhere' and to text as well as talk. Mobile gossip is an effective and important new stress-buster.

Mobile phones are the new garden fence

The space-age technology of mobile phones has allowed us to return to the more natural and humane communication patterns of pre-industrial society, when we lived in small, stable communities, and enjoyed frequent 'grooming talk' with a tightly integrated social network. In the fast-paced modern world, we had become severely restricted in both the quantity and quality of communication with our social network. Mobile gossip restores our sense of connection and community, and provides an antidote to the pressures and alienation of modern life. Mobiles are a 'social lifeline' in a fragmented and isolating world.
This is timely and absorbing. The article ties anthropology, social research, history, etymology, and philosophic speculation into a hot-topic discussion of cellphone conversation and texting. It's broken down into categories that are sub-heads such as Sociable mobility, An antidote to alienation, A symbolic bodyguard, The joys of text, and Gossip as entertainment.

The section on Feedback is typical and is, obviously, what caught the eye of the ALD editors:
It is very difficult to be a 'good gossip', however lively your tone and however detailed your stories, if you do not have a good audience. For women, we found that this means listeners who give plenty of appropriate feedback. This feedback must be at least as animated and enthusiastic as the delivery of the gossip, if not more so. The speaker has gone to the trouble of making the information sound surprising and scandalous, so the least one can do is to reciprocate by sounding suitably shocked.

"Men don't get this, they don't understand that you're supposed to go 'NO! Really?!'"

"Yeah, with women it's always 'Oh My GOD!'"

"That's right. For women, gossip is a two-way thing."
What we seem to have here is a discussion of research findings like the ones put out by the Pew Internet & American Life Project which is itself a gossipy production. It's an instance of a literary device that's dear to Christopher Ricks: making words do what they say. The author, Kate Fox, writes enthusiastically, doling out fascinating tidbits and even indulging in outright humor, as in: 'The notion of needing to have "enough information for a conversation" also seemed to be peculiarly male: the women in our groups could conduct long conversations on the basis of very little factual information, or indeed none at all.'

All of this making for interesting reading, particularly, for me, not the cutesy stuff but the background information provided via the literature review.

But there's something else to be said about the piece:
    1. It's about cellphone users in Britain and contains findings specific to Brits. So, for example, the author writes how gossip is particularly exciting and risky for "the naturally reserved and inhibited English" since for them "privacy is an especially serious matter." She goes on, "Our homes are our castles, we are taught to mind our own business, keep ourselves to ourselves, not make a scene or draw attention to ourselves and never wash our dirty linen in public."

    2. The research was conducted for a cellphone company, BT Cellnet, which makes its positive spin on the subject somewhat suspect, the take-home being, as the lead paragraphs say, gossip is good for us and cellphones are great for gossipers.

    3. The article was written more than five years ago, eons of time in this electronic age.

    4. The organization on whose site it appears is, as it says, "a non-profit organisation founded to conduct research on social and lifestyle issues," but that's not the whole truth. For though it says it's "independent," it is tied to a public relations firm which boasts of its ability to plant PR articles that deceive the public into believing they are genuine. (SourceWatch has an article explaining this.)
Which makes me think about spin, and framing, and using one-sided rhetorical techniques to persuade. We're so accustomed to press-release journalism that we don't think twice about it. Like gossip itself, there's narrative power in facts (or maybe that should be "facts") presented from a single point of view. And it's tedious to see things always in their rounded fullness (or more-rounded, more-closely full).

But it makes for prejudice, reinforcement of unfounded opinion, acutal or metaphorical xenophobia.

For this reason, though I enjoyed reading about gossip, my first thought was how often its tendency is destructive. I see this particularly in the work environment. I love gossip but try hard to discipline myself against it because of its power to use facts, quasi-facts, and illusions to build up social cohesion in one clique by running down another.

This is harmful in the workplace, not a good thing among families and friends, but can be truly horrible among societies, ethnic groups, and nation states: think of religious prejudice and the gossip that supports it (as in the alienation of Jews leading up the the Holocaust), or of racial prejudice, likewise. Class prejudice isn't so obviously a problem, but is subtly destructive all the same. I had a history teacher once who told of class prejudice in the Oxford colleges of his time: members of upper-classes being snidely dismissive to lower-class students: "pass the vegetable, oh I mean the greens, please."

I'm speaking about face-to-face gossip. I don't know whether cellphone gossip has a similar tendency to run-down others. The article makes it seem unlikely, but I don't fully trust what it says.

Not surprsing, is it, then, that I'm ambivalent, uncertain, of two minds about what I read. The article is informative, entertaining, a good read; but I doubt that it gives me unbiased information (or, more precisely, I doubt whether it's free of conscious bias and whether the author has made a good-faith effort to free herself of unconscious bias). And I'm worried about the phenomenon that's its subject. All of which makes for what I suppose to be an unexciting blog post. ("Why did he bother?")

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