What single advance allowed humans to reach the top of the evolutionary ladder? Our ability to harness fire? Build tools? Language? For sure, but some experts say the real answer might be a specific and much maligned use of language: gossip.

I just started to read a fascinating book by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Some 100,000 years ago at least six human species inhabited the Earth. Now there’s just us Homo sapiens.

Dr. Harari explores a range of reasons why we alone thrived. He notes that every animal has some kind of language. Monkeys have a call that essentially means “Careful, lion!” Humans can communicate with far greater complexity, i.e. exactly when and where the lions congregate, how to avoid them and where to find safety.

Our unique language developed as a way to share information about the world. “The most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions,” Dr. Harari writes. “Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.”

Thriving on rumours

Homo sapiens is a social animal. Our survival, and certainly the creation of larger communities, depends on social cooperation. Ancient bands needed to know who liked who, who hated who, who was honest, who was selfish, etc.

“The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about 70 millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end,” says Dr. Harari. “Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.”

He says that “rumour mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders.”

Anyone who works in communications is, at times, in the gossip business. In a good way. Gossip can build relationships. It spreads positive not just negative information. It is the spine of our social networks.

The word gossip comes from the Old English godsibb, referring to godparents. These were one’s very close friends or relatives. Godsibb was not a pejorative term. These where the people we would have confided in and trusted the most.

Modern-day research only confirms gossip’s practicality, even its health benefits. A few years ago The Atlantic ran a piece that referenced studies by Matthew Feinberg, an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Rotman School of Management, the University of Toronto. He and his colleagues had subjects participate in trust-based investment games.

As the article describes, “When someone did something selfish in a game, people were motivated to rat them out to other participants, even at personal cost to themselves. The unfairness of it got them riled up – they felt annoyed and frustrated, and had elevated heart rates. But when they were allowed to gossip, by passing a note saying the cheater wasn’t to be trusted, they calmed down, suggesting that gossiping can be physiologically relieving.”

Of course much gossip can be destructive, shared for malicious reasons with no redeeming social value. The constructive reasons for gossip, on the other hand, are in our DNA.

Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, says gossip is the stories we tell that support community cohesion. Homo sapiens simply wouldn’t have endured without it. “Gossip,” says Professor Dunbar, “is what makes us human.”

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

May 24, 2017

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